at the Harold Washington Library, April 7-9

Indomitable. That’s the word for Shirley Mordine.

She has maintained a company for 25 years and heads the Dance Center of Columbia College. A tireless fund-raiser, she has made her department among the best endowed at the college, which has allowed the Dance Center to produce a startling variety of programs in the last five years.

But as a choreographer Mordine is a terrible contradiction. Skilled at making sense-filling movement, she hasn’t been able to form a satisfying artistic vision. Her dances don’t reach out to the world or to other people, too often remaining locked in the orbit of her strong personality. Mordine will work on a piece for years, gradually stripping away strident elements until the dance is boiled down to pure form and movement. Her finished dances are aesthetically satisfying, though some people prefer the messier, more human dances in progress.

This program, including a revival, a repertory dance, and a work in progress, shows both the development of Mordine’s movement style and her stripping-away process. In the revival, the 1989 Flores y Animales, the movement is fairly sedate–classroom steps with a balletic carriage are combined in well-defined sections with mimed gestures and a little tango styling. More interesting is the story the dance tells of life in a small South American town: a young man chases a young girl and falls into a swoon when he cannot catch her; a mother protects her daughter from the young man; the mother and daughter argue; the daughter pushes her mother hard across the stage with a hand to the back of her mother’s neck; the mother is jostled in a crowd, pushed from person to person; a band of carnivalgoers in masks break up the pain and tedium of domestic life. The central character is the mother, and the dance’s heart is her astonishment at how difficult and rich normal living can be.

The loose-limbed postmodernism of Trisha Brown is the movement style of the repertory dance, Truth Spin. Dancers leap onto other dancers and are lifted in strange but not awkward ways. They follow free-form curves across the floor rather than strict parallel or diagonal lines. Dancers seem to float onstage and off at random times, rather than in a careful sequence of sections. At the end, a dancer spins for minutes in apparent homage to Laura Dean. The dance feels very light, almost transparent. Most of the dancing was excellent, particularly by Jenna Hunt and Tatiana Sanchez.

Truth Spin has an unusual electronic score by Shawn Decker: when the dancers move, they break beams of light projected across the floor, causing parts of the score to be played. In the dance’s initial performances the score seemed a gimmick, but this performance revealed the delicacy of the music and the way it subtly colors each dance section.

At this point Mordine’s work in progress, Edge Mode, is many pieces not yet assembled into a dance. The basic structure contrasts five “Boot Girls” dressed as punks–heavy black boots, black clothing, heads that are shaven or covered with a bandanna–with the company’s dancers. Mordine seems to draw a contrast between punks and more classical dancers, between barbarians and civilized people. One strange section for the Boot Girls, set to a punk polka song by Brave Combo, combines Israeli-style folk dancing with a slam dance; at the same time old maps of Eastern Europe are projected onto the back wall and a red pointer goes slowly through them. It’s hard to tell what it all means, but Mordine seems to be conflating punks with both fascist skinheads and Eastern European peasants. If so, it’s an ugly, dangerous comparison.

In another ugly section, Mordine is wheeled around the stage on a cart as she talks about being lonely, saying things like, “I wonder if they’ll send anyone to look for me. Maybe they forgot.” Several of the pieces Mordine has recently performed, like Request Concert and In One Year and Out the Other, have been about lonely and forgotten older women; the impulse seems autobiographical. These works would be heartbreaking if they weren’t so heavy-handed and self-pitying. I only hope that this version of Mordine’s perennial complaint is intended as self-parody.

Leaving aside these lapses in judgment, Edge Mode is a promising piece. Mordine maintains a postmodern movement style, and seems to be exploring the punk movement of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. For example, a love duet for dancers whose faces and heads are covered with cloth is a good start for a dance about the bitterness of failed love. The best section is the ending, in which a line of Boot Girls confront a line of company dancers. Mordine doesn’t tip her hand about who will win–the new nihilists or the icons of perfection–but the resolution of the conflict is a special moment.

Mordine’s strength of will is her most interesting characteristic. It’s what keeps pushing her forward and what makes her successful, but her ambition seems to have isolated her too. Her dances are often about the gap between the ideal she pursues so fiercely and the cruel world she finds. To span that gap is an art–an art Mordine is trying to master.