Valda Setterfield dances as King Lear – 'I didn't particularly worry about the maleness of it'

Valda Setterfield dances as King Lear – ' I didn't particularly worry about the maleness of it'

Having played Duchamp and Brecht, the veteran dancer Valda Setterfield was excited to take on King Lear.

She knitted a four-armed jumper for Merce Cunningham, modelled clothes for Robert Rauschenberg and travelled around in John Cage's camper van. But when Valda Setterfield was asked by Irish choreographer John Scott to dance in his adaptation of King Lear it gave the 82-year-old pause for thought.

'I had never worked with John before,' she says. 'But I had seen a little bit of his work, which was all very athletic, and I thought "what could I do at this stage in my life?" I was never that kind of dancer anyway. But then we met and talked, and it sounded fascinating. So I said "yes, I'd like to do it".'

The result is Lear, a stripped-back, dance-theatre production that cuts to the heart of Shakespeare's tragedy. Performed by Scott's Dublin-based company, Irish Modern Dance Theatre, the show met with strong approval in both Ireland and New York and is now headed for the Edinburgh Fringe.

It's easy to see why Scott was drawn to Setterfield for the lead role. A dancer in New York for almost 60 years (having moved there from her native England in 1958), she has performed with some of the postmodern greats, including Cunningham and her own husband, David Gordon. Latterly, Setterfield took on more acting roles (such as portraying Marcel Duchamp and Bertolt Brecht), so the character of King Lear was well within her grasp.

Having moved from one town to another to stay safe during World War II, and harbouring hopes for her son (playwright Ain Gordon), she felt she could focus on the troubled king's inner world, rather than his physicality. 'I didn't particularly worry about the maleness of it,' she says. 'It was more, "what is my role?" I know about war and being separated from your family because of political events, and I have a son, so there was a lot to mine there. But it's been interesting, because I've never played somebody my age before: I'm actually a really good age for Lear.'

Scott's version of the story focusses on Lear's relationship with his daughters, played here by three male dancers, and fuses edited sections of Shakespeare's text alongside the choreography. 'John said "what do you think about the dancing?" she recalls. 'And I said "well, I do a form of tai chi each day, and I wondered how that might be". Then I got up and began to show it to him, and he said "that's wonderful: you're Lear!"'

Hearing Setterfield talk about her working relationship with Scott and her long-running connection with Cunningham, it's clear she enjoyed the support and creativity of both men. 'I think Merce would be interested in what I'm doing now, because he was a true man of the theatre. He was very important to me and gave me enormous confidence; before I moved to New York I was encouraged by some teachers to fake things, like to smile more. But when I met Merce, he said "don't make everything so pretty". That was thrilling and led me onto a whole other path, which was about total honesty in performance. I think that's partly why I'm still up there on the stage,because people recognise that.'

Lear, Dance Base, Grassmarket, 24–27 Aug, 4.15pm, £12 (£10). Preview 23 Aug, £10 (£8).

Lear

John Scott Dance John Scott’s Lear is a deeply personal and riveting interpretation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. King Lear is portrayed by New York legendary dancer/actor Valda Setterfield, 82, who has worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Woody Allen, David Gordon, Pick Up Company and as a soloist for Merce Cunningham.

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