Valda Setterfield Dies at 88; a Star in the Postmodern Dance Firmament

Mr. Cunningham engaged Ms. Setterfield briefly in 1961, the year she married Mr. Gordon. On Aug. 5 of that year, she was one of nine highly individual dancers cast in the world premiere of Mr. Cunningham’s “Aeon,” with a score by John Cage and designs by Robert Rauschenberg, neither yet the artistic celebrity he would become.

“Aeon,” which Mr. Cage described as “epic in character,” was 45 minutes long. It began with a series of small explosions, and its sequences could be performed so as to overlap. Mr. Rauschenberg, in those days the Cunningham company’s stage manager as well as its chief designer, devised a machine that crossed the stage on a rope.

At the Judson Church, Ms. Setterfield danced in works by Ms. Rainer, Mr. Gordon and others. Here, pedestrian movement was OK; improvisation was OK; minimalism was OK. And, although Ms. Rainer famously announced “No to theatricality,” it would have been truer to say that the Judson dance makers were continually re-exploring theatricality and redefining the nature of theater.

Ms. Setterfield combined these activities with motherhood. She left the Cunningham troupe when she and Mr. Gordon had a son, Ain, in 1962, but she was brought back in 1965 and stayed until 1975, creating roles in 13 Cunningham works. The sets were designed by, among others, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and Frank Stella; the composers included John Cage, Toshi Ichyanagi, Pauline Oliveros and David Tudor.

Mr. Gordon established the Pick Up Performance Company to make new dances in 1971. Three years later he created “Chair” for Ms. Setterfield and himself, which introduced a long series of works in which she was his partner, his muse or his protagonist. Those works were often about the connections and paradoxes between art and life.

In 1982, the couple were the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker written by the critic Arlene Croce. It was one of many signs that postmodern dance had graduated into the big leagues.

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