By William Scott
She was a cornerstone in establishing the importance of contemporary and modern genres in Chicago’s dance consciousness and encouraging decades of young dancers when she helped found The Dance Center of Columbia College. Her thirsty intellect gives her an excitement for fresh young perspectives and as an artist and mentor she shows no sign of slowing down. She is Shirley Mordine and this month she will premiere her newest dance, “Quest, ” in celebration of forty years with Mordine & Company Dance Theater, the Midwest’s longest-running contemporary dance company.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Mordine and discuss her dance history, her current work and the future of contemporary dance in Chicago.
So forty years seems like quite something. How did you get started in Chicago?
It wasn’t out of my choosing. I was teaching at the University of Minnesota and my husband at the time, the company he was working for, insisted he transfer and come here. I landed in Chicago and didn’t know anyone or anything. I ended up just going around trying to find as many places as I could teach. One day I was teaching in five different places on the same day.
And was there a contemporary dance scene?
There was nothing. I mean really nothing, so I started watching theater directors. I had a lot of theater background in college. I had as much education as a theater major as I did a dance major so that was very comfortable for me, but it also helped me evolve skills of approaching dance.
How did you come to Columbia College?
Mike Alexandroff, the president of Columbia College at the time, had a real fresh effort to reorganize and rethink the college. A friend of mine recommended me. He brought me in to teach in the theater component.
How did that become the Dance Center we know today?
What happens in those situations is the demands of teaching dance are very different than teaching theater. I began having students say, “Listen, this is too laid back and relaxed for me. I want a really serious dance experience.” So we just gradually pulled away until I was able to establish our own program. I came up with this concept of putting an education program together with the professional. Just really marrying them. It involved education and performance. Not only that, but also presenting. It was like a three-ring circus. All the art form was there.
What was the atmosphere at the college in those days?
When I think about those early days…how valuable it was for those kids to come and take a class with professional dancers. To see national companies be brought in as well as local companies. An example of what I think was the ideal of Columbia was when you’d get this combination of kids that would come there because the teaching was at such a high level. Then you would get these kids that would come in just so naïve about the art form. Maybe they didn’t have the benefit of having been raised with ballet classes. Their idea of dance was so different. You would put theses kids together and they learned from each other. You watched kids with less opportunity see what could be. Then you watched the kids with more affluent backgrounds and experiences learn from the others about life. It was amazing.
What was the focus of the program?
The focus of the department was contemporary, modern work augmented by other disciplines. In terms of being a presenter, my focus was to protect that area of the art form that was least likely to be presented on a grand scale but was really at the heart of the form in terms of experimentation. That was the importance behind what I was trying to do and I thought it really wedded beautifully with what the college was about.
Why did you leave?
It was extraordinarily challenging and difficult to be a teacher, chair of a department and director of a dance company. Things just got bigger and needed more professionals in those areas. I wanted to be an artist and it felt overwhelming to me.
During your time at The Dance Center you were running Mordine & Company. How did you approach that work?
By setting out and doing some interesting performance. We started in a storefront on Lincoln Avenue. If the fire department ever came in they would have closed us. It was raw but it was the only thing I could afford to do. And we did what I think was a really interesting dance theater piece that hadn’t been done in Chicago. We began to attract a lot of attention. As time went on we evolved from one thing to another and that is pretty much how we got started, by insisting on approaching dance with the kind of discipline it needed.
What were these early pieces like?
Right away I think I was incorporating a lot of theater material. Slide projections on the wall of us climbing up a ladder from outside to inside, just crazy wonderful theater things. Another piece in that period was called “RSVP” where I worked with Henry Threadgill, the wonderful jazz composer.
Then when we finally got into a space on Sheridan Road, that was the first real location of The Dance Center, we did a piece called “Tongues” which was a play on performance itself. Joe Cavalier at The Art Institute designed a beautiful proscenium that would just stretch in space, metaphorically just stretching the concept of what theater and performance could be. We were sitting there in old performer bloomers and got up and played spoons, just wild wonderful things.
Shortly after that the group I was working with broke away. They wanted to form a collective and go a different direction.
Did this departure change your work?
I really wanted to focus just on the craft of choreography because I knew I had an instinct. I enjoyed dance as theater but I really wanted to focus on evolving as a sound choreographer. I made several dances in that direction.
Does the company of dancers change often?
I’ve gone through about six companies. I’ve had people stay in the company for ten or eleven years. Companies change over time. People have babies, they get married, they move away. They come and go but suddenly you feel like there is that group, a nucleus of people.
What about the current company?
This company is fairly new right now; I think the longest someone’s been with us is five years.
So tell me about your newest piece, “Quest”.
There is a book I read twelve or fourteen years ago called “The Stone Raft” by a Portuguese writer named Jose Saramago. It starts out with this horrific earthquake and the peninsula of Spain and Portugal break away and float out in the ocean, just this cataclysmic event. You follow what happens to these five people who come together to survive. So I read that some time ago and witnessing Katrina, that catastrophic event, just major events happening. I took the image of rupture and breaking away and built on images that came out of reading that.
How long have you been working on the piece?
We were actually preparing to show it a year ago. When you self-produce, oh gosh, and you are trying to buy a floor, rent a floor, anything, make a theater event happen, just one day I called Phil Reynolds at The Dance Center and I said, “You know, if we didn’t perform this anywhere for the next year would you be willing to present it?” And he said, “Yes.”
So we had the chance to work on it for another year and evolve and build the work. And the other thing is I was getting back into dance as theater. The act of theater comes out of the choreography itself. Extending the range of the performers to do that has been a real challenge for both of us. It is curious to me how within making choreography one can extend the scale of performance so it isn’t just a straight dance.
Can you give me an example?
The third section opens up with a card game and moves into different moods and sensations and it stills feels like a dance. I guess to an extent I’ve always tried to do that. When choreographing, I always try to think of the balance between the purely physical, the sensual and the intellectual. One isn’t isolated from another. Good writing is that way too… good art is that way I hope.
Lets talk a bit about how you see the dance scene in Chicago.
It’s really multileveled now. You’ve got some real success with larger companies. Over the years I have witnessed the significant contributions of Lou Conte and, more recently, Eduardo Vilaro. Lou transformed Hubbard Street Dance into a highly visible contemporary company by engaging contemporary choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Ohad Naharin. In founding Luna Negra, Eduardo focused on the work of Latin choreographers and he developed an organization with remarkable speed. These are good-sized companies. Then you have several small- and medium-level companies, which mine is certainly, and now you have all these young people working together in small groups. And a lot of really terrific improvisers.
Are there any individuals working right now that hold particular interest for you?
Molly Shanahan. She’s discovering what the modernists were really about to begin with. She’s finding a premise of working that goes after the genuine, authentic movement right out of her soul, right out of her experience.
Do you see any traps young choreographers fall victim to?
Sometimes young people go back into the studio and say, “I’m going to find my own way of choreographing,” which is right. You’re going to discover things for yourself. The disappointing part is they really don’t know much about what happened before. I mention earlier artists in the modern field, even if I mention important playwrights in theater, they don’t know who they are. They don’t read. That is fundamental. Reading is a kind of discipline of the mind that you don’t get any other way. So I find that and it concerns me.
What’s the result?
Pieces that work beautifully in a studio, but how are they going to transfer them to a theater? Even when you are making those dances in a studio I think it is important to know what the act of theater is. I find a lot of young people don’t know that. So I see just really beautiful movement invention and beautiful structure of movement, and I see they are trying to get at something but it doesn’t get there. I find that curious. That is why I do a lot of mentoring.
How do you approach mentoring?
I really love that. I just try to extend the tools they can work with. I try to clarify what they’re dealing with and at the same time I don’t want to get in the way. That’s a hard thing to do. Don’t interrupt their voices but help give them ways of getting there.
One way I think young dancers get really confused is they get isolated. It can become over-intellectualized. I listen to dancers talk about a sensual, luscious moment and then I see what they’ve done and there isn’t anything that leads there because it’s been in their heads. A lot of teaching choreography is just clarifying ideas, getting them from a more physical place and not just coming to an intellectual conclusion. I wish we could do more. I also open all my company classes to people in the city and some people come, but there should be ten times more people there.
So what is next for Mordine & Company?
Next year I’ve opened it up and invited several companies to take part in ten-minute excerpts of historical repertoire. I think that will be interesting in a kind of site-specific environment. And then I want to make a brand new work. I’m going to push forward and make something totally different and fresh for me.
Mordine & Company performs “Quest” at the Dance Center, 1306 South Michigan, (312)344-8300, March 13-15.