Valda Setterfield

September 17, 1934 – April 9, 2023

Valda Setterfield in David Gordon ‘ s The Seasons
at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1986.
Photo by Tom Brazil

David Gordon writing in Archiveography at

#1 1980 – David constructs live duet – DOROTHY AND EILEEN – he reconstructs in 1982 – for 10 Minute TV. In Dorothy and Eileen – choreographed for Margaret Hoeffel and Valda Setterfield – David asks the 2 women – to improvise conversation about their mothers – Dorothy and Eileen – while they dance set movement – and they do – and – when they do – dancers sit up’n put newspapers and sandwiches down. Something is happening – in rehearsal – and in performance. Audience members – men’n women wait – at the enda the show – to talk with Valda and Margaret – ABOUT THEIR OWN MOTHERS.

#2 cut out

#1 For 10 Minute TV – Margaret’n Valda – talk about Dorothy and Eileen over coffee – at the Gordon kitchen table. Movement sequences – shot inna studio. 10 Minute TV’s gonna be on BBC 4 in England. #2 Valda is unhappy. Live performance – she says – changes each time you do it. Words said may be softened – taken back. 10 Minute TV – she says – is edited by David. I have no say in this edit – Valda says – in what I say on British TV – about Eileen Walker Setterfield – about my mother.

2016 – David says he’s sorry.

In 2016 I was working as an editor with choreographer/director David Gordon on this 1980s section for his comprehensive, memoir-like website. Sitting across from each other at the table in their loft on Broadway Soho—a well-regarded hub for dance and theater people—David and I focused on the above text when tall, refined Valda Setterfield, his spouse, his muse, and fellow artist, entered from their back living area, a place I’d never seen. Though David stripped bare his, his family’s, and his dancers’ interior lives for the public, he’d never shown me their private area behind the door Valda had just come through. I wanted to sneak in there sometime to root around in the personal world he still kept secret, but, of course, I never did. Poking about through his words was perilous enough.

Dressed in stylish vintage outfit, loose tan linen pants, bright orange flowing tunic blouse, and wide-brimmed straw hat, Valda strode through the loft. “Oh, you’re still here. I was about to go out, but I’m a little early.” Taking off her hat, she pulled up a chair to join us. When she saw what we were working on, she smiled graciously and said that at the time it freaked her out to have her intimate conversation about her mother broadcast to the world. However, she loved the piece, especially the end, when she and Margaret stood, up, held hands and spoke their mothers’ names.

David Gordon and Valda Setterfield in David Gordon’s Not Necessarily Recognizable Objectives (or Wordsworth Rides Again), August 1977. Photo by Christiane Robin
David Gordon and Valda Setterfield in David Gordon’s Private Lives of Dancers, 2003. Photo by Josef Astor

Valda’s presence at these sessions allowed me to witness some of their famous arguments that David ransacked for his dance/theater work. Valda, a dancer, a reserved Brit, had the ability to listen and figure out what was expected of her, while David, the wordsmith, a New York Jew, could debate at length with passion on any subject. As a fellow artist, Valda held her own, not allowing his forceful nature to change her mind or opinions. I, too, faced his vehement reactions whenever I had an editing idea, which he steamrollered over, then quietly, once alone, made changes. One never got the sense Valda was holding back for the sake of peace, yet she said she didn’t share David’s love of argument. In the February 1993 issue of Dance Magazine, Courtney Escoyne quoted Valda: I can please David, and thrill him, and disappoint him more than anyone else, because he expects more from me. . .. He can unnerve me, make me crazy and furious. We expect more from each other, so we almost always go through hell and high water, or fire and brimstone, for a piece to arrive at performance.”

Whenever Valda joined in, she changed the air around us. Maybe it was her female presence or her muted theatrical style. Even so, as charming and amusing as she was, I never felt I could break through her reserve, though there was an affinity between us. It’s not that she was withholding, maybe it was simply her British upbringing that seemed to me that she was keeping something inside unexposed, as though she had a moat around her.

Valda Setterfield and David Gordon
in T.V. Reel, 1982. Photo by Nathaniel Tileston

Alyce Dissette, who worked with David and Valda and Pick Up Performance Co since the mid-1980s, often shepherded them to rehearsals, performances, and events. An intimate with Valda and devoted to both of them, Alyce wrote about Valda: ““Founded, in part, on the British side of Valda and my American Midwest roots, we had for nearly 40 years a “special relationship” sharing art and life. Our mutual friend, Cynthia O’Neal, often said that when Valda was on the stage, she could not take her eyes off her no matter who shared the stage with her. I couldn’t agree more.”

Alyce cut through any disagreements with her own brand of managing human behavior. It was from Alyce that I heard that David died in Valda’s arms on January 29, 2022. This was the day after they celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. A little over a year later Valda died from complications of pneumonia.

Valda was 88 years old when she left this earth. Left this earth. I put it this way because I imagine her being assumed into heaven—as was the Virgin Mary—for her theatrical manner of entering or leaving a room. Only the year before, in 2022, still maintaining her erect posture, she’d been filmed for her role as Iago in John Scott’s “Othello (maybe a dance).” A bold move having female, dignified, postmodern performer play the villain Iago, though she only appeared on video to begin and end the performance. A similar switcheroo happened in John Scott’s “Lear,” in 2016 when Lear was played by Valda and the daughters were played by men.

Valda Setterfield in David Gordon’s The Mysteries & What’s So Funny?1990. Photo by Andrew Eccles

Valda moved from England to New York City sometime in the 1950s, at the suggestion of young David Vaughan, who later turned into NYC’s treasured dance historian and writer. Here she began dancing with James Waring and Merce Cunningham, met and married David Gordon in 1961. Thus began the fabled relationship. Together they founded the Pick-Up Performance Company in 1971. Besides her work in the company, she danced with José Limón, Gus Solomons jr, and many of the artists of famed and infamous dance companies: The Grand Union, The Living Theater, Judson Dance Theater. The range of her abilities, energy, and style allowed her to multitask, working with David and other companies, touring with White Oak Dance Project founded by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris, all while raising their son Ain. Up until the mid-1990s, the three of them, David, Valda, and Ain. often appeared in David’s works, inspired by family stories. Ain also became an actor, director, and Obie Award winning playwright and Valda acted in his early works as well as films by Brian De Palma and Woody Allen.

Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield, David Gordon, in David Gordon’s The Family Business, 1995. Photo by Joe Fornabaio
Valda Setterfield in David Gordon’s United States, studio shot, 1986. Photo by Andew Eccles

But none of this information brings us closer to the core of Valda. In that Dance Magazine article, Valda is quoted as saying, “I have always thought of myself as a kind of vessel through which the work might flow.” Perhaps this is the essence of any dancer or actor, to be the vessel for a choreographer or director. Choreographers leave their dances; playwrights leave their words. For dancers and actors, it’s in their performances that live on, though it’s someone else’s words and some else’s series of movements, gestures and steps. And yet, it is in the performance of those words and steps that the dancer reveals herself. No longer following directives, but following their own wordless passion, translating through their expression and movement what can’t be spoken, what is beyond words. As a vessel, Valda translated her essence and made an intense connection to all of us. She is missed, yet somehow, with her intense dance presence and her flowing fabric, Valda is still here.

—Jan Schmidt


CHAIR, Work by David Gordon Performed by David Gordon and Valda Setterfield Recorded in performance on September 30, 1978
A Letter to Dance by Valda Setterfield. Recoded in New York City 2018 as part of the Just in Time Project by deufert&plischke.
360° video of “David Gordon: Archiveography – Under Construction” installation at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Video: Francois Bernadi For credits and more information on the installation:

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