Edge Mode

Mordine & Company Dance Theatre

at the Harold Washington Library, May 16-18

By Terry Brennan

Years ago I was at a performance with Cerinda Survant, a dance writer now living in Oregon. As we made our way up the aisle afterward, Shirley Mordine was leaving and started to cross in front of seated people. Mordine called out imperiously, “Make way–artist coming through!” When she looked up and saw Survant she froze, terrified that Cerinda would take her joke seriously. Survant called back, “Give me a break,” and both of them broke into relieved laughter. This tiny incident stuck in my memory because it reveals many of Mordine’s all-too-human contradictions: her consciousness of herself as an artist, which occasionally boils over into self-parody; her fragile ego, which often camouflages itself in grand robes; a bedrock sanity that allows her to laugh at herself.

Edge Mode is Mordine’s intended masterwork, a summary that’s evolved over two or three years of her understanding of herself and the world. And it reveals her more clearly than a self-portrait would. Its brilliant dancing and brooding meditations are almost destroyed by that fragile ego. It’s a portrait of the artist as a sensitive woman.

First of all, Mordine really is a sensitive artist. About three years ago she began to radically shift her movement style, from a traditional modern dance approach focused on contracting and making shapes with the torso to a more breathy, open style influenced by release techniques. Her current choreography is really a stunning fusion of the two, retaining the fall-and-recover rhythm of traditional modern dance but making it spectacular: the moments of suspension, with limbs stretched to their limits in every direction, give the inevitable fall moments later a strong element of danger–we wonder how these dancers will ever come down in one piece. But they always do, tucking and rolling or doing a quick handstand that puts them back on their feet. It’s an astonishing technique that celebrates brain over muscle, a triumph of exquisitely trained reflexes directed by a fearless and precise brain. The dancers that Mordine has trained at Columbia College excel at this technique. Mordine doesn’t forget the emotional side of moving either; her performers always have focus and intent, never the blank faces of many technically accomplished dancers. Her company is visually beautiful and kinesthetically exciting as well as emotionally moving.

The content of Edge Mode is more problematic. Part I, subtitled “Travelers Warnings,” features dancers from Mordine & Company and a set of younger dancers dressed in leather jackets, sweatshirts, Doc Martens, and skirts over black leggings. When the younger dancers do a series of stomping dances to a punk polka by Brave Combo, historical maps of Europe are projected on a screen at the rear of the stage; a red arrow follows the path of invaders like Genghis Khan. Mordine depicts a world of artists pitted against barbarians. Her metaphor succinctly expresses a profound sense of isolation and alienation, the natural homeland of people who feel too much. It also creates drama: Will Mordine be able to reconcile the two worlds she portrays?

In a later section of “Travelers Warnings,” dancers with white cloth wrapped around their heads dance with other blinded dancers as music by Richard Woodbury and Amnon Wolman repeats the words “kiss,” “desire,” and “love.” In Mordine’s bitter vision, love is blindness. It can’t bring the two worlds together. In the middle of the first section, Mordine is wheeled across the stage on a packing crate. She says, “I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe they’ll send someone for me. Maybe they forgot….You gotta make sure you’re OK before you can help anyone else.” Assuming that this is not self-parody, I can’t think of a blunter statement of Mordine’s isolation and her decision to rely only on herself.

The only relief in this oppressive world is making art. Films projected on the back wall show a computer printing out directions for two dances. After the second one, the performers come onto a darkened stage and read parts of a despairing letter from a mother to her first-born daughter. The dancers read the letter from laptops, the light from the computer screens the only light onstage, illuminating only the dancers’ faces.

The last section of Part I is a confrontation between the company dancers and the barbarians, a confrontation between the creative power of art and the destructive power of the world. Dancers and barbarians repeatedly face each other in battle lines; when the lines meet, the dancers pass through the barbarians as if they were ghosts. In the last charge, the barbarians walk through the line of dancers as if they didn’t exist, and the dancers fall into reclining positions that seem both restful and mournful.

Part II, subtitled “Place of Refuge,” describes the inner place that Mordine visits when the stress of the world becomes too much. Woodbury and Wolman’s landscape for this place is a sound design based on Arvo Part’s sacred music for voice and woodwinds. This is an ethereal, restful place that, curiously, opens with a large chunk of dancing from Part I, Mordine mixing its sudden turns and twists with moments when the dancers fall into their reclining positions before the barbarians.

In last year’s version of Part III, subtitled “The Road Narrows,” Mordine found a way of reconciling the two worlds: portraits of the dancers sensitively revealed their inner lives. From these I learned new things about people I thought I knew well. This earlier version suggested that the way out of isolation for a sensitive person is through other people, through intimate knowledge and caring. Its resolution of the dramatic conflict was thoroughly satisfying.

Though the current version of Part III uses the same movement, new elements obscure the dancing and change its meaning completely. Behind the dancers is a video by Miroslaw Rogala that shows hallucinatory images: of a city, of words projected onto the dancers’ bodies, of the dancers’ nude bodies. The images are startling and mesmerizing, stealing attention from the danced portraits onstage. Mordine introduces Part III with a theatrical bit that suggests that bodies will be our salvation, but the video actually accomplishes something else: it treats the dancers’ bodies as stylized nudes, going so far as to give a 30-second close-up of a woman’s breast and nipple. What it reveals are more sex objects than bodies. The video dazzle upstages the onstage dancers, whose leotards show their bodies perfectly while hiding sexual organs.

The film’s images, including its transformation of bodies into objects, expresses a vertiginous fear that technology will destroy us. But this idea is filled with contradictions. Mordine’s movement celebrates the brain as much as the body. And Rogala’s video doesn’t celebrate bodies but slick nudes–it’s the problem, not the answer. Even setting aside the final section’s contradictions, as an artistic statement it’s remarkably safe; its Unabomber sentiment wouldn’t raise an eyebrow many places. Last, it doesn’t resolve the work’s dramatic conflict in a satisfactory way: the barbarians have already taken over, and there is no hope.

The film and the changes Mordine has made to Part III strike me as bad artistic decisions stemming from her lack of confidence in her original material. The portraits of her dancers were so beautiful and so right. It’s a damn shame to lose them.

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