Shirley Mordine choreographs with a physical poetry that harks back to an earlier age of modern dance. Her work is modern in the sense of the great modern movement of the 20th century in art, and contemporary in that it still speaks and still educates and is performed by strong, young dancers. Capturing the primitivism within the modern movement in bold strokes, she produces movement with an intentional rough edge, performed by dancers who are not quite characters yet make up a miniature society. There are not a whole lot of choreographers left who make dances this way. Mordine is also a mature artist who’s created over time a style that’s technically difficult by today’s demanding standards but retains a certain early-20th-century quality of fearful awakening to the modern era. The choreography of a person who’s content, it’s thoughtful but not challenging, pleasant and full of craft.

Essentially Mordine is of the school of 20th-century academic expressionist choreography, which originated in “primitive” approaches to the modern era. In the early decades of this century a ballet was created in Italy–Excelsior–about the advent of electricity. Wide-eyed and heavy-thighed, the dancers performed what was no less than a 20th-century fire dance, exhibiting their awe before this mighty unknown power. Other dancers in America, notably Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, sought to exalt dance by making exotic or grand gestures, appealing to an epic sense of history–and hence respectability. Martha Graham rose out of this school, and along with Kurt Jooss and Mary Wigman in Germany led the crusade for dance as a serious intellectual art no longer about decoration or court ritual. It was these codifiers too, in America, Germany, and in London (where the German-born Rudolf von Laban worked), who developed curricula for higher education, programs of study respectable enough to stand alongside philosophy and mathematics departments. Mordine bears the mantle of this approach. And she does it well, albeit without any surprises.

However, we’re long past the era of primal dignity heroically quaking in the face of modernity. Were it not for the accessibility of Mordine’s characters–cabaret denizens in the 1981 Songspiel and Cocteau-esque pastoral creatures in her premiere, Animare–her pieces might appear decidedly old-fashioned. Her use of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel evokes everything from the film Cabaret to Walter Benjamin’s cultural criticism and the metaphysical seediness of Brecht, Nietzsche, and the fearsome Leni Riefenstahl. The characters in Animare look as if they’re running, crouching and bounding from a Cezanne painting into a Matisse: they’re pastoral figments we all recognize. Yet Mordine has introduced a very contemporary fluidity into what in earlier times was starched and two-dimensional, passionate but inorganic.

And with the booming popularity of glib choreographers like Mark Morris, repertory companies that rely on sexually sensational ballets, and a national student base looking for celebrity, it’s refreshing to see someone make clean, deft, poetic statements in dance. Even when wacky, Mordine’s work is unhurried. She tends to fall into self-made puddles in the middle of both pieces, temporarily losing focus; what might at first appear to be abstract choreographic development never gets all that directed, and we’re left with fleeting phrases weighty in stance but billowy in impact. Yet she also provides some genuine reverie. The end result is more sensibility than picture: we’re left with the air of poesy.

Of late, the nearest thing in tone to what Mordine has done in Animare is Jerome Robbins’s new full-evening work for the New York City Ballet. Both pieces are set to Bach–the Brandenburg concerti for Robbins, the Three-Part Inventions for Mordine. Neither choreographer is trying to prove anything but rather draws on a personal palette to create a composed and thoughtful evening to favorite music, providing a window on general themes explored in greater depth by others. But where Robbins’s palette includes heavy doses of Balanchinean formalism and more than a splash of Broadway, Mordine remains true to her vision: nothing here is showy, tricky, or too abstract for its own sake.

But Mordine sets herself up for all kinds of reaction by performing herself in Songspiel. While not a total distraction, she comes off as almost a clown, unintegrated with the young, athletic dancers surrounding her. Look around for lessons: Merce Cunningham, now in his 70s, still dances, but his role is determined by chance and he never focuses on himself. Baryshnikov is 49 and selects his choreographers with great care; Morris is 40 and still peerless as a performer; Valentina Kozlova is 42 and has never been better. Twyla Tharp’s personal physical regimen served her well when she came out of retirement to perform in her late 40s. Graham danced till late in life but knew when to quit. If Mordine wants to dance onstage, she needs to find a better way. Her song, it seems, is more in her choreography than in her dancing. And nowhere does her song find fuller expression than in the breathy, spiraling performance of Scott Putman.

One prominent British writer wrote of Billboards: “It’s a two-hour deodorant commercial.” And it’s easy to understand why the dance establishment in England couldn’t stand the piece. But after all, we won the war 200 years ago on spirit and innovation, and no doubt there were a lot of Brits harrumphing then too. The speed and daring of American culture has daunted others from the start, and the Joffrey–an American ballet company if there ever was one–exemplifies the great experiment of the United States in this full-length work, which assimilates subcultures and high art.

Artistic director Gerald Arpino’s decision to stage a ballet to music by Prince, whose superstardom has not diminished his sexual ambiguities and personal enigma, was a stroke of genius. Whether this marriage of ballet and Prince exalts the psychedelic movement to high art or drags high art down to the groin is another question–perhaps the fundamental question of the American way of creating culture. Also inspired was Arpino’s contrasting of four very different choreographers in Billboards’s four sections, though only Laura Dean and Margo Sappington bring real substance to the work.

Dean is a minimalist choreographer, and traces of her early masterpiece–the dances from Einstein on the Beach–are evident in “Sometimes It Snows in April.” Circles, lines, mirrored images, parallel moving patterns and shapes, and interpenetrating and alternating lines find bizarre new life in Dean’s opening piece here. And the physical flurry to be expected from the Joffrey is tempered by her isolated motifs, slow unfolding repetitions, and overall momentum. It’s like Arpino’s Light Rain in slow motion, only better, because Dean’s work is more extreme and more lucid than Arpino’s.

Sappington’s section is the sexiest, capturing on a large scale the sexual ambiguity of Prince himself. “Slide” opens with the lesbian banter of Prince’s cronies Wendy and Lisa, as two women dance evocatively. A team of men enter, their erotic group dancing perched somewhere between the locker room and the pyrrhic dances of ancient Greece. The women defeat them, metaphysically and physically trampling them since they don’t need men. It’s a sapphic ode for the 90s.

In an extraordinarily physical, torqued solo, Davis Robertson gave the best performance in an evening of male standouts, exhausting himself as a glamorous victim not of the woman he encircles but of his own expectations and self-image. When I asked Robertson about the solo, he said, “I can always find something new in it. I think it’s about Prince trying to understand himself as a ‘beautiful one.’ It’s torture–there’s no end.”

Among the other male stars were Calvin Kitten, who delivers the ballet’s hip pyrotechnics with laughing and generous ease, and Pierre Lockett, who continues to refine his edgy elegance. A couple of notables were Alphonso Zybin, who appears to be discovering a new lush power in his towering size, and Todd Stickney, whose beefcake physique Sappington puts to good use, though he needs to get outside himself. Newcomer Terace Jones is a force to look out for, with a stage-devouring presence that recalls the Ailey company’s glory days burnished by razor-fine ballet training. The Joffrey is continuing its American tradition with a posse of highly individual dancers, united in dances that speak to the people.

Mordine & Company Dance


at the Athenaeum Theatre, May 1-3


Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

at the Rosemont Theatre, May 2-4

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited Photos of Mordine & Company Dance Theatre and Joffrey Ballet.