The French Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp probably didn't hang out with a bunch of first- and second-generation immigrants in New York City.
But now he does at least in the imagination of David Gordon, the choreographer and creator of "The Mysteries and What's So Funny?'' The theater piece, featuring music by Philip Glass and a set by artist Red Grooms, will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday at Libert Hall, 642 Mass., as part of the Kansas University New Directions Series.
"The Mysteries,'' which won a 1992 Obie Award for off-Broadway theatrical productions, takes a look at the life of Duchamp as well as Gordon's personal family history. Duchamp, played in "The Mysteries'' by Valda Setterfield, Gordon's wife and partner, would take ordinary objects such as brooms and sign them, in effect turning ordinary life into art. Gordon said he strives to do the same with his theatrical presentations: He likes the idea of living one's life as art.
"HIS ART always interested me,'' Gordon said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he is working on a new piece. "Many, many years ago I bought a book that had dialogues about Duchamp. Then years later I began working on a project, and I happened to find that book again. I found I had underlined in the book all the issues that I was dealing with in a new piece.''
Gordon, who grew up in New York City and studied at Brooklyn College in the 1950s, said he feels once his immigrant grandparents came to the United States their identities somehow changed and became a kind of artwork one they created on the easel of memory. The lives of the immigrants are presented in parallel fashion to Duchamp's biography.
"I came from a family that arrived at some other place than Ellis Island,'' he said. "I think it was called Castle Gardens, and I don't know a lot about it. My grandparents arrived as children, and so they had a child's vision of the experience and a child's vision of something called the `old country.' . . . In a sense their identity was created when they got here.''
THE PIECE was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival USA and the "Serious Fun!'' series at Lincoln Center. Despite Gordon's extensive background in dance, including command of his Pick-Up Performance Company, he freely admits "The Mysteries'' is a work of theater. The cast of 14 is made up both of his dancers and actors and actresses cast through agents. They speak the text and move through Grooms' cartoon-like set.
"I think words have been a part of everything I've done except for a four-year period not terribly long ago,'' he said. "I found that in the entire dance world, every time I went to a performance I learned more about the choreographer than I ever wanted to know, and I just wanted to shut up. But after that period I returned to using text. I think I can safely say that `The Mysteries' is a theater piece. It's been published as a play, and it won an Obie as a play. . . .
"THERE'S NO dance in the show, but there's movement all the time,'' he said. "I invented movement that related to the actors' bodies and who they were playing. It shouldn't be easy to tell who are the dancers and who are the actors.''
"The Mysteries'' grew out of a workshop Gordan ran at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He said he started rehearsal with a few things and then developed them during the workshop. After the workshop was over, he wrote new passages for the script and turned it into a play with a defined sequence of events.
The performance piece also marks Gordon's second collaboration with minimalist composer Glass, whose music also graced "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof,'' seen at KU, and "The Voyage,'' the new opera that recently made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
"PHILIP AND I worked together on `The Photographer,' and at that time he said he'd like to work with me again,'' Gordon said. "A couple of years later the Minneapolis development project took place. I told him what I was thinking about doing, and he composed a short passage and off we went.''
Gordon came to dance at Brooklyn College. He said he felt no particular calling for the art, but he did find work with some of the best choreographers in modern dance, such as Merce Cunningham.
"After three years of college, I met somebody in dance, and I follwed her to a dance class,'' he said. "Anyway, I was 6 feet tall and male, and I ended up on stage.''
His wife, Valda Setterfield, is Gordon's partner; she plays Duchamp.