an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:


Valda Setterfield
Photo:  Andrew Eccles

“At what point in the day does Valda become ‘Valda?’” asked my dance writing colleague as we shared a cab to the theater for a program we were both slated to review.  “Is it,” she continued, “when she puts on her aquamarine earrings?”  We were coming from a party enhanced by many guests from the dance world.  The fabulous blue-green earrings were sternly rectangular and amazingly large.  You looked at them and they lured your imagination to deep-sea depths promising all sorts of watery magic.

The British-born Setterfield, the dancer and actor wearing them, was—indeed, still is—famous for her clothes and the unique yet understated grace with which she combined the elements of her costume.  It was said that her husband, David Gordon—who has, as he puts it, “made work” that lies between movement theater and spoken theater—dressed her.  If so, it was still apparent that she had a mind—and sensitive taste and imagination—of her own.  It was obvious in her very posture and gait.  I remember a time when one would walk the length of the promenade of the New York State Theater during an intermission of, say, the New York City Ballet and back again, keeping a keen eye alert to the whispered pronouncement “Valda’s here!”

It was also said that the couple found many of the garments in Setterfield’s wardrobe—the unique, the exotic, the invariably beautiful– at flea markets.  Legend has it that once the couple went their separate paths of investigation at such a market in Paris and Gordon called over to Setterfield, “Valda, I’ve found a Fortuny!”  And Setterfield, answered, “Oh, David, I already have half a dozen.”  I have no doubt that she did.

I and many another “Valda” fan will attend a performance simply because she’s in it.  She is invariably the epitome of understatement and composure—virtues rarely on display today and thus all the more instructive and encouraging.

Setterfield is about to appear in Gordon’s The Matter/2012, at Danspace October 25-27, with two shows (7:00 and 9:00) each day.

© 2012 Tobi Tobias


  1. Thanks! I’ve only just realised what a star and a huge name she is! Heard her speaking at the Tate in London last month about dancing with Merce–beautifully eloquent and elegant (don’t recall the eponymous earrings though)!

  2. One autumn evening, many years ago, I was heading north on lower Broadway after rehearsal. As I approached the Prince and Spring streets area, I noticed Valda across the street as she exited the building where she and David have lived in a loft for decades and head half a block south to the neighborhood Korean deli (long since gone; it’s a shoe store now I think, or a bank). I watched Valda moments later exit the deli with a thin plastic shopping bag that very clearly contained only a single pint of ice cream or sorbet—Häagen-Dazs, I guessed intuitively—and return home.

    Now, why, you may wonder, would I stand still in the chill damp, hungry and tired and longing for dinner and bath and bed in Brooklyn, to witness the utterly ordinary activity of a silver-haired lady running an errand to satisfy a craving for late-evening ice cream? Because of the costume.

    Who else but Valda Setterfield does her impromtu dessert shopping dressed—with immaculate elegance—in a slim-cut silver lamé jumpsuit with flamingo-pink lining, accented with drawstrings at wrists and ankles, and matching high-heeled silver sandals? Who else—not just in New York City, but on planet Earth?

    Ca vaut la peine, mes chers, de faire un petit effort. To say that the lady has class does not begin to come close to the truth.

  3. Martha Ullman West says

    So like Irene in The Forsythe Saga, Valda pays for the dressing? I think that’s in “The Man of Property,” and it is Soames who says it. I am referring to Galsworthy’s book, not, as visually elegant and well acted as it was, the Mahstuhpiece Theatah rendition of same. I would add that while I’ve not often seen Setterfield perform, or the David Gordon company either, I agree with every verbal brushstroke of TT’s expertly painted portrait.

  4. Ann Ilan Alter says

    I saw Setterfield perform with David Gordon this summer at Joyce Soho. It was a simply wonderful evening, witty, provocative and both dancerly and theatrical. She is a very elegant woman – but since I have never seen her in a silver jump suit – to me the elegance is in her carriage, the beautiful silver hair and the steady and direct gaze, on and off the stage.

    She is truly memorable.

  5. Thank you for this. I worship the ground she walks on. During their years of working together–Valda was an early member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Merce said to her (as she says in an on-camera interview you can see in the “Valda” episode of the webseries “Mondays with Merce” called “Keeping It Real”), “You are not vain.” This is true, and it is one of the hallmarks of her elegance. Another hallmark is kindness. With all of the elements of stagecraft at her disposal, so often Valda strips everything away and is just there. That “thereness” has been one of the grand experiences of my life–whether she is onstage, or off. She only grows more beautiful. And more dear.

  6. Amen!

  7. “She is invariably the epitome of understatement and composure–virtues rarely on display today and thus all the more instructive and encouraging.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I love watching Valda perform.

  8. Thank you.

  9. Agree with Germaine, she IS a star. Her work is very impressive.

an ArtsJournal blog