Farewell to a Grande Dame?

Last month John Duff, president of Columbia College, summoned Shirley Mordine to his office and delivered a bombshell: with the blessing of the college trustees, he asked her to step down after three decades as chair of Columbia’s dance department. Duff reportedly offered Mordine a full-time faculty position with no pay cut, a year’s paid sabbatical, and continued support for Mordine & Company Dance Theatre, the modern dance troupe that Mordine operates with subsidies from the college. But according to a source at Columbia, a furious Mordine left the meeting without accepting Duff’s offer and immediately launched an E-mail campaign to rally support among the faculty and staff. “This is about power and control,” says the source, “and after 30 years Shirley was suddenly being asked to relinquish it.”

Mordine did not return repeated phone calls to her office, and Duff would not comment on her status except to say, “We have not asked her to leave the college.” Yet the trustees seem determined to name a new chair for the dance department. Duff has the power to remove Mordine from the position, and clearly he’d prefer to have a new person in place for the coming academic year. But college regulations require him to formally notify the outgoing chair by February prior to the fall term, so Mordine can probably hang on until next fall.

Since the late 60s Mordine has been one of the principal figures in Chicago’s modern dance scene. She created Columbia’s Dance Center, which is the city’s biggest producer of modern dance programs by internationally known performers, and her choreography with Mordine & Company has always been ambitious and challenging. “She’s been one of the forces in Chicago dance for a long time,” says Margaret Nelson, a freelance lighting designer who was once production manager for the Dance Center. Yet Mordine has also become known as a prickly personality, and her antagonism of coworkers might now be bearing bitter fruit. “The place has become very political in recent years,” Nelson reports, “because it’s grown so fast.” In May, Julie Simpson resigned as executive director of the Dance Center to become director of community arts partnerships at Columbia; her position has yet to be filled. Her predecessor as executive director, Woodie White, resigned to become Columbia’s vice president of college relations and development.

Mordine has also clashed with Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of DanceAfrica. The seven-year-old weekend festival, with a budget of nearly $700,000, has evolved into Columbia’s largest public program, attracting nearly 20,000 people annually. Sources say that Mordine insisted on having final artistic say over the content of DanceAfrica Chicago. Last week Davis stopped short of saying that he wouldn’t work with Mordine, but he did say he was unhappy with her level of commitment to the festival. “Shirley was there, but she was not always there,” he says. To help smooth Davis’s ruffled feathers, Simpson agreed to continue her work in producing DanceAfrica after leaving her job at the Dance Center.

Whatever pressures have contributed to Mordine’s predicament, the catalyst seems to have been the need for a new Dance Center building. Since 1974 the center has been housed in a converted movie theater at 4730 N. Sheridan in Uptown, miles from Columbia’s South Loop campus. There’s been talk of moving for years, but Mordine has been campaigning for a new space ever since a number of drive-by shootings occurred near the current building. Duff and the Columbia trustees hope to purchase and renovate a building at 1306 S. Michigan as early as the spring of 1999. But the project would cost around $4 million, and according to a staffer familiar with the situation, “Mordine’s control of the center impedes the college’s fund-raising efforts.”

Fall of the House of Drabinsky

Readers of the Tribune and Sun-Times must have been shocked on Tuesday when the dailies reported that Toronto-based Livent Inc. had suspended its founder, theater impresario Garth Drabinsky, after uncovering financial irregularities dating back to 1996. For the last two years, the dailies have gushed over Livent’s renovation of the Oriental Theater, which is scheduled to reopen in October as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. In all the excitement, no one asked if the company could pay its bills.

For an accurate picture of Livent, Drabinsky, and the company’s new management team (headed by financier Roy Furman and former Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz), you would have had to consult Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. In a scathing article this week the paper reported that Livent might disclose a second-quarter loss of $70 million Canadian, on top of the $63 million already announced for the past six months.

As Drabinsky was escorted from Livent’s executive suite on Monday, however, writers at both of our dailies were casting the story in the best possible light, suggesting that the Ford Center’s first production, Ragtime, would open on schedule and dutifully quoting Mayor Daley’s underlings, who denied that the Livent debacle would have any impact on the Ford Center or on the Loop’s resurgence as a theater district. With the city providing $17 million to help renovate the Oriental, one can only hope that Livent, once our white knight, won’t leave us with a white elephant.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Shirley Mordine/ dance center photo by Eugene Zakusilo.