“American culture,” says Shirley Mordine, “is an ongoing adolescent period.” As a choreographer and faculty member at Columbia College–and the former chair of the dance department–she’s constantly surrounded by young people. Even at midday the Joel Hall Dance Center, where she’s rehearsing her company for their concert this weekend, is bustling with people in their teens and 20s. Her current concern, however, is age, which she calls “a difficult thing in our culture. People are not comfortable with it–it’s something to avoid.” So with typical contrariness she and puppeteer Michael Montenegro are confronting preconceptions of age in his new piece, Flower.

Mordine began making dances 42 years ago, and was teaching even earlier, at the age of 14. Her own first dance experience was with tap: “My cousin was taking it, and I begged her to teach me, I remember so well, on this old linoleum kitchen floor.” Her first teacher was “a wonderful Hungarian woman, not married, with an avid interest in politics and reading. So I had a woman role model right from the start.” Mordine went on to take ballet at the San Francisco Ballet School, then began exploring modern dance, studying with the pioneering Anna Halprin while attending Mills College in Oakland, California. Later she worked with New York’s Alwin Nikolais, arriving in Chicago in the spring of 1968.

“There were no trained contemporary dancers here then,” she says. So she did what she could with the performers she had, developing “kinetic characters” who “started talking with each other”–in movement, of course. Adopting a playwright’s point of view more than a choreographer’s was a matter of necessity, but it also suited Mordine: she’d been a drama major in college and still talks about a “fundamental instinct to work theatrically.”

Mike Alexandroff, president of Columbia College from 1963 to 1992, hired Mordine to start its dance department in 1969. She quickly began developing the trained dancers whose absence she’d felt, and by 1974 she had her own company, which included Jackie Radis and Jim Self–who left to start MoMing Dance & Arts Center that year. Meanwhile, Mordine had separated from her husband (they later divorced) and was raising three teenagers on her own. She notes that she gave her kids a lot of freedom–“the world was safer then”–but wishes she’d given them more of her time.

Her work continued to show a theatrical bent; one of the most striking pieces her company has done was Xavier Kroetz’s one-woman play without words, Request Concert, which Mordine performed herself in 1993; she says “every moment was choreographed.” With typical intellectual curiosity, she notes that this German play has also been done in India and wonders aloud what simultaneous performances by representatives of German, Indian, and American cultures would be like.

But today Mordine mentions more than once that she’d like to choreograph in a different way, describing what she hopes for in terms of intuition, open-endedness, rawness, and discovery. Creating four new duets for this concert, each a “short story,” she aimed to “totally trust the material.” She had no idea of a narrative for any of them; instead she started with a movement phrase or two and the story grew out of the process. (Watching two of them, I found them completely distinct in mood, character, and plot.) She mentions how much she loves the Nature Channel these days and that she’s been reading naturalists’ writing; asked to describe her ideal dancer she talks not only about intelligence and freshness but what she calls an “animal clarity,” an “animal presence.” She says puppeteer Montenegro is “primitive in the best sense, so simple, so direct.”

Performing in Montenegro’s Flower, Mordine asks, “How do I move at my time, my age?” It’s a puzzle she seems happy to explore. Inspired by an Ionesco play, the piece involves a sort of time warp in which a mother is younger than her daughter; Mordine wears a mask Montenegro has designed for her. “It’s almost shocking to be in a mask onstage, not being able to use my face. I like to do comedic work. But not a lot has seemed funny to me in recent years.”

Mordine expresses complete confidence in the dance department’s new chair, Bonnie Brooks, and says, “The Dance Center will go in a different direction–it should!” Asked how she feels about her retirement from the position, she answers, “I love it! Someone said to me, ‘If we gave you two million dollars, would you come back?’ Not for a minute. There’s an enormous weight off my chest.” And her hands fly off her breastbone as the weight disappears.

Mordine & Company Dance Theatre will perform Mordine’s four “short story” duets, Montenegro’s Flower, and a new piece by Colleen Halloran using imagery from the dust bowl era Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling 773-989-3310.

–Laura Molzahn

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.