at the Dance Center of Columbia College

May 4-6 and 11-13

Mordine & Company is celebrating 20 years of struggle and achievement with characteristic savvy. No simple self-laudatory retrospective for choreographer Shirley Mordine: she has chosen instead to juxtapose her newest works–Flores y Animales, a premiere, and the 1988 Delicate Prey–with dances by other choreographers: Murray Louis’s Proximities and Loretta Livingston’s Paper/Scissors/Rock. It’s a program calculated to throw her own work into sharp relief.

Proximities is a lissome dance set to Brahms’s Serenade in A, all gaiety and good cheer. The dance opens with a solo danced by guest artist Michael McStraw, a solo full of quick little circles of the head, foot, and hand. If Ken Bowen’s sunny lighting and Frank Garcia’s lame-trimmed orange and yellow unitards hadn’t signaled the tone of Proximities, McStraw’s obvious pleasure would have: he thinks the dance is fun and funny, so we do, too.

The other dancers–Jeffrey Carpenter, Rebecca Forde, Paula Frasz, Carl Jeffries, and Catherine Wettlaufer–huddle and plie in the background, walk, balance, and embrace. The choreography is deliberately low-profile; the dancers are just people dancing, not highly trained specialists. The movement is simple and straightforward, utterly accessible. Only the occasional angular lift or carefully timed gesture reminds us that this is theatrical–not everyday–dance movement.

Each of McStraw’s solos introduces another motif: palms tapping the chest and reaching into space, a flat hand suspended wiggling in the air, a birdlike arabesque. The dance feels casual, even chatty, as the dancers shift from clumps to lines, link arms, hang around. One dancer gazes out over the audience, abstracted and apparently unaware that she’s sitting on someone’s back, not a park bench. Easy lopes give way to seesaw supported balances, rhythmic steps with a folk-dance quality; increasingly complex spatial patterns finally resolve into a tableau of angled arms and pretty bodies, awash in a pool of fading light.

At one level, the 1969 Proximities is a museum piece, a faded Polaroid of a strain of postmodernist dance popular then. But while the dance is frankly dated, the company’s performance is not. Their dancing makes sure we notice that Proximities is an easy, breezy dance as well as a relic.

Livingston’s Paper/Scissors/Rock, premiered by Mordine & Company last spring, is also written in a major key. The dance’s opening moments establish its controlling formal principle: the dancers, Jennifer Sohn-Grant and Daniel Weltner, begin the game seated and nearly facing one another; they then rise to their knees and resettle–purposely turning to include the audience–and pick up the game again. Livingston, by recombining her basic movement material, allows it to open out in a similar way–spatially and emotionally–with every repetition.

After the dancers turn to us, the game is altered: the gestures are slower, stagier. The only sounds come from the dancers’ game: beat, beat, beat, the silence of the gestures, the slap that follows. The movement empties itself of meaning; it gradually becomes a simple, abstract five-count phrase. The gestures may appear in front of the performers or out to the sides; they may suggest scissors, peace signs, oath taking. The pace picks up again, and suddenly the dance leaps the abstract to the human–the quiet touch of one dancer’s hand on the other’s, an exchange of glances, a moment’s rest.

The music, an electronic score by Larry Attaway, propels the dancers to their feet and enmeshes them in large-scale movements, a somersault, a skin-the-cat. While the images of Paper/Scissors/Rock have an obvious connection to childhood, the dance’s emotional climate is that of adulthood: these are embraces, not hugs; attempts to establish a balance of power, not just ascendancy. Adults can be playful, too, remember, and seldom more so than during deep struggles between two psyches. When Weltner finally convinces Sohn-Grant to support him as he had supported her earlier, he experiences a moment of triumph many of us recognize from our own relationships. Or perhaps it’s Sohn-Grant’s later attempts to rearrange Weltner that bring a shock of recognition.

In Paper/Scissors/Rock, the early movement phrases keep reappearing in different guises–in slow motion or at full tilt, enlarged to the point of distortion or unexpectedly reduced to their original, gestural scale. The movement belongs to each dancer in turn: first she leans, threatening to topple, then he does; first he props, then she does. Paper/Scissors/Rock ends with the two dancers suddenly and unexpectedly far apart and with a return to that special psychological movement–the humanizing power of a touch, a glance.

If there is a humanizing power in Mordine’s Delicate Prey, it eludes me. Against background projections of points of light, the sky, profiles, nudes, and vaguely classical line drawings, and buttressed by Paul Dresher’s strident electronic score, six dancers in post-nuclear-holocaust tatters reminiscent of tie-dyes and animal skins prey upon two others dressed anachronistically for a tea party. The choreography for the six dancers is fast, relentless, intricate, brooding, and bruising; the movement for the two, restrained to the point of insipidity.

The choreography immediately establishes the relationship between the two groups of dancers–the anarchic and the archaic, or the striving masses and those who value lost elegance, if we believe the program note. It’s an inimical relationship at the beginning, inimical in the middle, and inimical at the end. From the first few moments, the dance’s choreographic contrasts are so very keen, its unspecified conflict so furious, that Delicate Prey has nowhere to go: the dance is sheer kinetic energy. Delicate Prey is a lot to take in: the score is urgent and intriguing; most of the images projected are lovely and thought provoking; even the shiny tatters of the striped and patterned costumes are beautiful.

Like Delicate Prey, Flores y Animales is a beautifully staged dance full of darkness and foreboding, but the new dance moves at a more human, more humane, pace. The two dances show that Mordine has been reshaping her dance vocabulary: phrases in both are shorter, choppier; body shapes are less a matter of fluid lines than sharp angles; the dancers start and stop, tracing abrupt linear patterns instead of huge continuous arcs. In Flores, this new kind of movement combines with Mordine’s powerful sense of dance as theater, creating a dance that is simultaneously accessible and challenging, both abstract and affecting.

Flores immediately cues us that it is a different sort of dance. The dancers–Mary Wohl Haan, Jeffries, Mordine, Sohn-Grant, Weltner, and Wettlaufer–enter while the houselights are still up, looking around at the performance space as if it were new to them. (The Dance Center has no backstage; dancers ordinarily enter the performance space through the audience under cover of darkness.) As the houselights come down, they turn slowly to face the audience; they appear cold and confrontational. As the dancers walk downstage, patches of brilliant color burn from the sidelights onto their plain, pale robes. Mordine removes the other dancers’ robes, revealing their brilliant, patterned costumes, and the dancing begins.

When a choreographer appreciably different from her dancers–both in body type and in an obvious savoir faire–not only shares the stage with them but choreographs to emphasize that difference, we can’t help but read the dance, at least in part, as a comment on their artistic relationship. Moreover, a choreographer exposes her dancers just as Mordine removes her dancers’ robes to display their theatrical personae. In some sense, Flores is a dance about making dances.

Mordine ceaselessly groups and regroups the dancers of Flores: duets fade to nothingness, trios become quartets, a duet is transformed into a solo and then reconstituted. The stage shimmers with shifting relationships: a man’s finger stabs the air; the woman runs to him as if at his disposal; he places his hand gently and possessively in the small of her back; then moments later, their roles reverse.

Some of the most interesting moments in the dance are found in the thorny duet for Mordine and Wettlaufer. First, she propels Mordine across the stage with a hand pressing heavily on the choreographer’s head, a pressure Mordine resists with varying degrees of success. Briefly Mordine cradles a resistant Wettlaufer in her lapa pieta, a Madonna and child. Mordine crosses the stage using the movements of other dancers in earlier sections–a slow, turning walk, a backward turn in attitude. When a choreographer is appreciably older than her dancers, and performs movement very like theirs but within a more limited range, we cannot help but read the dance as a comment on mortality.

Flores reminds me of Merce Cunningham’s Doubles (performed at the Goodman several years ago) for two reasons. Both dances use the simple juxtaposition of choreographer with dancers–not character or narrative–to make abstract movement profoundly affecting. Both dances allow the collateral arts of lighting, costuming, and music extraordinary range and power. Flores seems to coexist with its score rather than deliberately toy with contrasts and convergences of movement and music. (The choreography may well have a more intimate, intricate relationship with its score than I perceived in one performance–I found my attention shifting back and forth, alternately fascinated by one and then the other.) But unlike most of Cunningham’s commissioned scores, Henry Threadgill’s commissioned music (for clarinet, saxophone, trombone, cello, contrabass and drums, performed live last weekend) is something I’d listen to with or without the dancing. Miriam Hoffman’s dip-dyed and spattered costumes–each ranging from neon to neutral–evoke floral, animal, and human images simultaneously. Ken Bowen’s lighting surpasses even his usual high standard.

Flores is such an abstract, evocative dance that its occasional forays into the literal are troubling. We don’t really need projections of floral photographs when lighting and costumes underscore the title this pointedly. We don’t need program notes to tell us that a dance that emphasizes relationships as clearly as this one does is about our attempts to love; we don’t need to be told that it’s about mortality. Flores is so focused, so clear, that we don’t need to be told anything; all that matters is there on the stage. But these are small complaints about a very large dance.

The peculiar beauty of Flores y Animales is that it is at once so very dark and so affirmative. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

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