at the Dance Center of Columbia College

May 14-16 and 21-23

Choreographer Shirley Mordine long ago established her reputation as one of the most accomplished craftsmen in Chicago. Her canny manipulation of the raw material of dance–sheer movement, space, and time–knows no peer. And in the course of its 24-year history her troupe, Mordine & Company Dance Theatre, has included most of the city’s finest dancers. But in the past few seasons Mordine’s work has struck me as flat and empty despite its obvious craftsmanship and the polished performances. Not so this year. Craft and technique are everywhere apparent, but they are subject to a larger expressive purpose. In the season’s two premieres, Here and There and Stream of Recollection, Mordine takes off in a new direction: literary but not literal, forceful, resonant and ambiguous.

A culture that values women primarily for their youth and beauty pressures a female choreographer and performer, especially one who reaches creative maturity sometime after 35, to reassess her role in creating and performing dances. She may continue to perform as before, inviting criticism of her changing body and physical prowess (or, if she’s Martha Graham, eliciting wonder at the sheer force of her unique performance persona). She may continue to make dances as before but stop performing in them–as in Mordine’s 1990 Subject to Change (revised and restaged for this season). She may make dances that exploit the contrasts in body and performance style between herself and a company of younger dancers–as in Stream of Recollection. Or she may seek a form more congenial to experienced performers than mainstream modern dance–like Here and There, the performance work Mordine created in collaboration with James Grigsby, with set and costumes by Frank Morreale and score by Richard Woodbury.

“He was a lover of books,” the taped text informs us in Here and There. “She was an avid reader.” Grigsby and Mordine wear elaborate costumes: the curled pages of their headdresses reminiscent of both 18th-century wigs and Flash Gordon helmets, the open books upon their backs–stiffened pages covered with maps, handwriting, print, and drawings–suggesting stunted wings. Powdered and rouged, their faces hint at theatrical traditions of both the East and West. Their demeanor is courtly, formal, archaic. Their books so enrapture them they barely hear each other speak.

Here and There suggests both that the characters seek a mirror of themselves in what they read and that they shape themselves to mirror what they read, as when Mordine balances on her side, swaying slightly, to read something called “On Balance in Nature.” The two characters are divorced from ordinary time and any specific place. They live in “an old house on the edge of town,” entirely oblivious to their surroundings until they notice a change in the overgrown backyard: at this point black shrouds drop away from the set pieces to reveal an anthropomorphic garden in a shocking Day-Glo palette, a landscape that’s simultaneously garish and serene. The garden so entices them that a customer comes and goes unnoticed, taking with him one of their treasured books.

One of the dazzling trees wears a face remarkably like Grigsby’s, but it’s also reminiscent of the Buddha. A brilliant scarlet bird, its white wings forming the pages of an immense book, hovers overhead: the connection between books and garden hovers there, too. The performers’ reaction to the garden is more complicated, passionate, and driven than it is to the books: they move through the space, scooting, rolling, and reaching. They cannot possess the garden as they can their books (and even that possession is fleeting), but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.

In Stream of Recollection, Mordine sets up an extraordinary tension between the dance’s central figure, its characters–presented in the dance’s first and last images as a family posing stiffly for a portrait–and its narrator/photographer. The narrator establishes the scene of the action, a deliberate but unplanned inner journey guided by the photograph. She gives voice to the central character’s inner state and comments on it, but she also speaks to the audience in the manner of the narrator of a 19th-century novel. Whether it’s “Dear Audience” or “Dear Reader,” that direct address has the same effect: we are distanced from the action, our attention divided between the narrator and the central character, and we become conscious of the difference between their points of view. It is, after all, the narrator who takes the photograph: the narrator filters the central character’s experience as well as the viewer’s.

No sooner does this central character (Mordine, but last Saturday Paula Frasz) approach the family group than it disappears. She finds herself alone in a small, warmly lit area of the stage: she balances and turns, limbs extended and bent, hands moving quickly against the air; but this large, purposeful movement covers very little ground. She disappears behind a heavy, black velvet curtain hanging center stage, and shortly reappears in a small dimly lit area beyond it (Ken Bowen designed the set and lighting).

That curtain and the two others hanging at the sides shape the dance; unseen hands pull them and push them, revealing and concealing, reshaping the performance space just as recollection reshapes life. The curtains hide the beginnings and endings of phrases and sections of movement: the dancers don’t just enter, they emerge already dancing. The staging suggests that all the movement, all the action, is simultaneous and never-ending–recollection creates an eternal present. But even within that eternal present some moments are hidden, repressed.

The family portrait introduces the accessible memories. Ann Boyd in a sailor dress and Scott Putman in short pants sprawl together in the foreground. The athletic partnering of their duet evokes both play and abandonment. Abby Kantor stands close to Mark Schulze, her hand curled on his shoulder. Their duet features grand unison movement and a slow, hesitating walk along the diagonal reminiscent of a wedding procession. Sabine Parzer and Tabatha Russell-Koylass stand on either side of Kantor and Schulze, detached, self-contained, arms held close to the torso; their movement suggests tension, conflict, independence bordering on alienation.

The narrator describes the woman’s awareness plunging through every blood vessel: the memory of the physical body opens the inaccessible, the repressed. Such memories–her last walk with her mother, her vision of a ring of keys hanging by the door of the house where she once lived–run too deep for words, or for any one character to carry: the stage erupts with movement, key phrases repeated by different individual dancers, by different pairs. Other memories rush in: littered alleys, fetid hallways, a shadowed pathway. The narrator asks the audience to help the woman find the right key, but she also asks, “Does it really matter?” The work suggests that recollection is a futile but fully human endeavor.

Subject to Change/Take Three is a greater enigma than ever before. Much of the dance deals with frustration: a performer is just as likely to arrest his partner in midair as to lift her, just as likely to withdraw his hand as to offer its support. It begins with the dancers gradually emerging from the audience, gazing at the performance space and at each other, gradually moving into position and beginning to dance. When the dance was performed on the temporary stage and in and around the Dubuffet sculpture at the State of Illinois Building last September, the dancers seemed absentminded passersby who had wandered into the performance by mistake. In this staging, their silence and their conservative business clothes set them apart from the audience at the Dance Center. Their wandering gaze suggests hostility rather than the free-floating anxiety or apathy of the homeward-bound commuter. A three-level scaffold on wheels replaces the whimsical Dubuffet: it is cold and unyielding, and provides the dancers an altogether different vantage point from which to observe their fellows.

In the course of the dance they strip away their costumes, revealing flesh-colored leotards and tights. The change in clothing emphasizes a change in the choreography: the complex spatial patterns, the small groups dissolving and resolving, eventually coalesce in unison movement; the proffered hand lingers, and is accepted. Stripped of their uniforms, their public personas, the dancers are able to relate, to move together. But the dance’s final and lasting image evokes alienation, not connection: one dancer slowly collapses onto his back in a pool of light downstage, the others, ranged about the scaffold, aloof and gazing down at him. Perhaps our private selves aren’t really subject to change.