Mordine & Company Dance Theatre

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, December 2-4

By Terry Brennan

Dancers of all kinds dream of improvising as naturally and well as jazz musicians. Many social dances, like the jitterbug and the waltz, are improvisations using a small number of set moves. And much of the pleasure of social dancing comes from learning to read tiny signals from your partner until the two of you reach nearly perfect synchronization. Modern dancers typically improvise in the early stages of a choreographed dance. So taking the next step–improvising in performance–seems quite natural. It also seems natural to use free jazz, which has no preestablished structure, as a model.

However, dance improvisation is not as easy as dancers would like it to be. There are material restrictions: the dancers usually have to see each other, for example, but are naturally always changing direction. Such fundamental choreographic devices as moving in unison are impossible. There’s also an element of physical danger: if musicians make mistakes, the usual consequence is only an ugly sound, but if dancers make mistakes they can get hurt. I split my head open once in the middle of an improvised performance, which was canceled when I started screaming because blood was pouring down my face–the wound required a dozen stitches. True, musicians can injure themselves–I saw Dizzy Gillespie crack his horn against a ceiling beam and almost split his lip–but the danger level is far higher in dance.

Still, many local companies and individuals have improvised onstage: Fluid Measure, Limbic Fix, Sheldon B. Smith, Bob Eisen. The best recent performance was a fully improvised piece last year by two out-of-towners, Chris Aiken and Kirstie Simson. And Shirley Mordine has recently tried to embody the dream with free-jazz bassist Tatsu Aoki, first in fully improvised form in Tripping With Tatsu, and now in a hybrid form based on that improvisation, Tracking the Heart.

Mordine is eloquent on the subject of improvisation. The press release says that this piece “provide[s] a metaphor for the transient beauty of human existence” by exploring “the tension between permanence and impermanence” through “inherently fluid structures.” The appeal of improvisation lies in those times when a coherent order appears out of chaos. At some level, improvising is a test of faith–you have to believe that the divine will once again intervene and show you the way out of whatever muddle you’re in.

Mordine found inspiration working with Amy Lee Segami, a visual artist who’s updated the ancient Japanese painting method of suminagashi. In the traditional approach, an artist would paint black sumi ink on water in a basin, then make a painting by placing rice paper on the water’s surface. Segami is an engineer trained at MIT who uses her knowledge of viscosity and surface tension to make colored suminagashi works using acrylic paints. During intermission she told me that she has to practice many times before she can capture the images she wants. The final painting is like a performance, she said: all the rehearsals end, and something is made for better or worse. Mordine shows slide projections of Segami’s work–and clearly the idea of painting on water thrills her.

But despite these fascinating influences, Tracking the Heart shows a curious failure of nerve. While some of the score–part of it played live by Aoki and drummer Hide Yoshihashi–is improvised, most of the dance apparently is not. I saw two performances and could detect only one section that might be improvised. Tracking the Heart is actually the third version of the dance, and it seems that Mordine has set it in stone, just as Segami sets her paintings by laying paper on water. But this comparison–which I think Mordine encourages–emphasizes the fact that Tracking the Heart is nothing new, since Mordine’s normal method is to start with improvisation and finally set the dance.

Mostly choreographed but partly improvised, Tracking the Heart is an uncomfortable hybrid. Its pallid vocabulary includes many of the tried-and-true movements on which improvisers rely. It has an episodic structure with a rather corny love theme rather than an overarching reason for being. Nothing particularly stands out. Yet it has its pleasures. Aoki’s score is always interesting and sometimes stunning. Segami’s paintings look like undulating polychrome landscapes. Kevin Rechner’s lighting picks up her saturated colors, with one sequence lit on one side with vivid pink and on the other with light green, making the performers look like otherworldly creatures. All the dancers are good, but Tracee Westmoreland is particularly fiery.

Choreographer Miguel Mancillas uses more traditional techniques in Desert Eye–and achieves better results. Mancillas is a founding member of Antares Danza Contemporanea, based in Hermosillo, Mexico; Desert Eye was created last season using dancers from both Antares and Mordine & Company. Mancillas starts with a few evocative images, such as a woman pulling down the waistband of her pants and pulling up her shirt as if to expose an abdominal scar. Mancillas builds this and other images into a dark, nihilistic piece, with the dancers finally carrying heavy stones as an image of the immutable weights we bear. It ends with one dancer building a cairn of stones over another. Desert Eye is bleak, but it’s also assured dance making and extremely well performed.

The program was rounded out by a very funny work in progress by Michael Montenegro, playing a demented puppeteer who chastises the audience as wannabe puppeteers who’ve sold out.

Obviously fully improvised dance means a lot to me, and when I heard that a company with dancers as skilled as Mordine’s was going to attempt it, I was excited. I may be overstepping my bounds to criticize Mordine for deciding not to improvise, but I was deeply disappointed by her choice.

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