at the Dance Center of Columbia College

April 12-14

Shirley Mordine’s work is profoundly, richly–but not obviously–theatrical. She tells no story, creates no characters. Nevertheless, in each of her dances she definitely has something to put across: an idea, a feeling, a mood, and often all three. Her dances may look abstract, and what’s behind them may be inchoate, but that thing behind is alive and struggling for expression.

The need for expression–or a less personal need, the need for dance education–may have been what made Mordine step up to a microphone before each dance at each performance last weekend at the Dance Center to talk to the audience about her work. Whatever her reasons, it was an act of courage and generosity. Dancers don’t like words. Mordine also sidestepped her own tradition by creating a program made up entirely of her own dances–three recent works, each of which revolved, in a different manner, around mortality. So the evening was singularly unified.

Flores y Animales, which premiered about a year ago and has now had three showings, has become more and more resonant for me. The music–selections from Inti-Illimani and Astor Piazzolla–is lushly tropical, ranging from carnival sounds to breathy Indian flute playing. The costumes, by Miriam S. Hoffman, subtly blend Easter egg colors; the lighting, by Ken Bowen, makes the six dancers glowing coals against a cool blue backdrop.

Several duets and solos form the heart of this work. They surface mysteriously to move the dance along, then sink back again into the matrix of ensemble dancing. It’s an organic structure, and the movement looks organic. Daniel Weltner, in a brief solo, quivers and slides to the floor, like an animal that’s been shot, and is carried off by the others. A duet for two women, Paula Frasz and Catherine Wettlaufer, is vaguely hostile: the younger woman pushes the older along, for example, one hand flat against the back of her head, both tiptoeing in a precarious moving balance. Later two male-female duets pare the tango to its essentials: a mating dance purifed.

Finally Frasz, who has played a stoic but passionate observer, a bit of an outsider, is wrapped in a gauzy sheet (a winding-sheet?) then emerges to perform a solo that repeats the cycles of collapse and rebirth we’ve seen throughout. Seated, she looks up, then drops her head and rolls it to her shoulder; looks up, and drops her head and torso, undulating. Then, standing, she looks up and drops her whole body in an undulating but incomplete fall–quickly, magically, she’s standing again, looking out, feet planted like a soldier. A slowly falling arm repeats the motif, the curled hand drifting like an eddying leaf.

Stylization is key to Mordine’s method–and movement transmuted from its “natural” form can look artificial, another factor in what I think of as Mordine’s theatricality. The tangos of Flores y Animales are so clean that, though they might be recognizable, they’re not like any tangos you’ve seen before. The man extends his arm, for instance, pointing down with his index finger, and the woman races over to position her head beneath it and twirl. She has to crouch to do so. Mordine’s sense of humor combines with an intelligence that makes you see the erotic basis of the tango–a charged, hyperaware distance between partners. When Rebecca Keene Forde and Weltner step face to face in unison at an unvarying distance, or arch and contract their torsos at each other, they create the dance by modulating the space between them.

Stylization also strongly colors Mordine’s premiere, Subject to Change–and may be part of the reason it’s not an easy dance to watch. The music is from the Kodo Drummers of Japan, but Richard Woodbury has manipulated it to produce peculiarly modern effects–turned the volume up and back down, for example, so that the drumming sounds like a train rushing at you and then receding. In the opening section the drums’ metronomic rhythm makes time palpable–a crucial sense for us to have in a dance about change.

Subject to Change is purposely unsettling. The movement, especially at first, is unpleasantly mechanical–it comes in arrested bursts, as if the dancers were machines abruptly turned on and off. The poses are not natural: a dancer might bend forward stiffly from the waist, her torso horizontal, and then walk off like that. Dancers tend to move in isolation–we might see all seven dancers onstage at once, each doing something different. They also run on- and offstage with little warning or apparent reason. This kind of dance may look awkward, but it’s technically demanding in obscure ways. To move very, very slowly, or to stop suddenly and completely after you’ve been moving fast and then hold that pose perfectly still and for just the right amount of time, is not something every dancer can do. Jennifer Sohn-Quinn, with her intense concentration, can.

Subject to Change lightens up a bit in the middle, using kids’ comic betrayals of each other to expand on the idea of abrupt change. We see one guy standing next to another flick his leg behind himself to kick the other guy in the butt–that old trick. Or dancers slap each other on the back of the head, or try to step on each other’s feet, or grab their hands away when they’re “helping” someone up. But once again the movement’s stylized–it’s gracefully slow, and there may be no actual slap or stomp on another’s toes, just the gesture that goes with it.

The pell-mell rush of Subject to Change has a complication–the person who can’t adjust to change. (Subject to Change resembles Mordine’s 1988 Delicate Prey, which confronted the same issue in a far less abstract and more argumentative form.) That complication puts a brake on the action and provides for some thoughtfully conceived solos. The lanky Carl Jeffries, on all fours, spasmodically shakes his shoulders, his arms collapsing, then crawls backward offstage, head down–spidery, beaten. Jeffrey Carpenter repeatedly lies on his back, with his arms, legs, and head curved up–and stays there, an overturned turtle, a humorous but pathetic image of the inability to keep up. But though that inability is made an issue, Mordine doesn’t resolve it–or even come close–and the work’s final, brief section simply reprises the first.

Five Ecstatic Dances, which premiered last December, has been dedicated to Corky Warsawsky because her husband donated money for it for her birthday. It’s an oddly, subtly celebratory work. Clearly its subject is death, its approach religious; it moves from a bright, light, and sparkling opening through two dark and difficult passages to culminate in two sections full of grieving affirmation. The music is entirely choral, by composers Clement Jannequin, Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc, and Samuel Barber. The musicality and tenderness of Five Ecstatic Dances make it unforgettable, a great birthday present.

Birthdays are evanescent; so are the people who have them. Last December, live accompaniment by the Oriana Singers for Five Ecstatic Dances enhanced our sense of the moment of celebration and its quick passage. Unfortunately, live accompaniment passed quickly, too. Real live musicians are almost prohibitively expensive for Chicago dance groups, but the hisses and clicks of the recorded music in this performance went beyond the merely annoying. This dance, as humane and mature as any I’ve seen, calls out for living voices, the breath that comes and goes as unexpectedly and inevitably as the living human shapes of the dance.

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