Mordine & Company Dance Theatre

at the Harold Washington Library, May 25-27

Coming home after seeing Edgemode, Shirley Mordine’s three-part evening-length piece, I asked my daughter what she thought it was about. She said she didn’t know, and I said I didn’t either. The first part of Edgemode premiered about a year ago, and it puzzled me then too. It seemed broken into shards: its vastly different sections, mysterious projections and costumes, two hostile camps of people–what did they all mean? Press materials describing the first part as about migration and social change were no help.

Neither was the dancing. We comprehend dance, I think, in a different way than we do a story or an essay. In a difficult dance one part of the brain struggles to find the narrative and the meaning while another tries to process the emotion in the dancing; ideally all these perceptions merge as one watches the performance to create a satisfying whole. In choreography as difficult as Mordine’s these tasks are hard enough in themselves, and to do them all at once is often out of the question. When I woke up during the night after seeing Edgemode, however, the work made emotional sense to me. But by then I was putting together the pieces long after the fact: to fully recover the dancing I had to read my notes. And believe me, that’s nothing like watching a dance unfold.

The deep sadness and loneliness underlying “Edgemode Part I: Travelers Warnings” is what unifies its disparate parts: Mordine dressed in a night shift and long coat, carrying a small suitcase and a fold-up seat; the dancers with gauzy bags tied over their heads, twitching and embracing stiffly, increasing the distance between them; the projected backdrops, of a vast, cloudy sky or a typewriter clacking out a message from the front lines. The first time I saw the piece I imagined Mordine to be isolated from, even threatened by, a group of young roughnecks, perhaps recent immigrants. On a second viewing, I saw her as one of them.

No two ways about it, the emotional, kinetic, visual, and musical textures in “Travelers Warnings” are daunting. Anger and fear drive the three roughnecks in heavy boots, stamping and hostile, jittery and intimate; whimsical loneliness and self-pity mark Mordine’s floating progress against the backdrop of sky (on a wheeled box hauled by an “invisible” stagehand), complaining that she’s ignored but admitting she’s made mistakes; terrifying helplessness and vulnerability are expressed in the vibrating hands of a dancer with a bag over her head, as if she were merely a conduit for electricity. The score (by Richard Woodbury, Brave Combo, and Amnon Wolman) is full of found sounds manipulated to evoke terror: a polka with its refrain of faked laughter cut into pieces, children’s rhythmic steps and ghostly cheering heard from a distance, an old song on a skipping record or radio that cuts in and out so that we hear eerie litanies: “kiss, kiss, kiss” or “love, love, love.” This is a place we don’t want to be, and we don’t know why we’re there.

“Travelers Warnings” ends with the three “boot dancers” and Mordine, coat over her head, crumpled downstage, dispossessed and alone; but a kneeling line of dancers at the rear lie back, then seem to float up toward the light. Their soft, breathlike motion recalls the spirit, and indeed “Edgemode Part II: Place of Refuge” seems set in some spirit world. Here Woodbury’s and Wolman’s score–snatches of devotional music–is still cut up but much more soothing than the one for “Travelers Warnings.” As one dancer walks onstage, then another, they look wonderingly around and at each other as if they’d truly found some unexpected refuge, a religious sanctuary or dream world. And though their motions are sometimes as jittery and percussive as in the first part, the dancers don’t seem isolated from one another, and sometimes they’re as still and composed as statues. At the end of the second part the six dancers recall the final image of the first: on their knees they drop back, fall forward in a gesture of humility and obeisance, crawl forward with heads down, then lean back again and, looking up, seem to follow some trajectory across the sky.

“Edgemode Part III: Road Narrows” (still in progress) brings parts one and two into the everyday world. Someone announces, “Dancers onstage, please,” and the performers wander out one by one, warming up; eventually all put on headphones and groove to their own beats, oblivious to the fact that the “official” rehearsal music has been cut off. Mordine walks on, yells at them to get going, yells at a technician to remove their headsets. We hear the score again–traffic noise, the sound of machinery–as they begin to mark their parts, brains and muscles grinding into gear. But even as they practice their lifts they seem isolated from each other: this is the cold, mechanical, lonely, and despairing world of “Travelers Warnings” transposed to the dance studio.

Gradually they work their way into real dancing, however, and the sound of waves crashing blends with the sound of machinery; later we hear a child singing in an unknown language. The score (by Wolman) and the dancing become more urgent, but I wouldn’t call them joyous. Instead some of the first part’s confrontation and fear reappear in a more vigorous danced form. Then, just as the dance seems to be moving into a joyful place, a phone rings, interrupting the spell. It’s a cellular phone, and as the dancer (Krenly Guzman) goes to his dance bag to answer it, the others stop dancing and return to everyday behavior.

Mordine’s company is made up of six distinct individuals, and part of the interest in her choreography is the different ways they move. Scott Putman is buoyant and a bit icy; Jenna Hunt is small, piquant, ironic; Pam McNeil has a pliant, quiet compassion but can burst into thrusting energy; Tatiana Sanchez is all fluid circles, swirling and passionate; Dardi McGinley is beautifully strong, as well shaped as a classical statue; and Guzman, an intern, is quick and devilish, a sprite. Mordine (who performs only in the first section) can be alternately as sodden as wet clothes and as light as a drifting cloud. But as different as the dancers are, and as much as the illusion created by their dancing is broken by the ringing phone, they remain a unit after this disruption, full of goodwill.

It’s Guzman’s mother calling, wanting him to speak English to a repairman in her home; but it turns out English isn’t the desired language, it’s German. So McGinley speaks German into the phone. But it isn’t German that’s wanted either–it’s Urdu. No one can manage that, and as the other dancers wander away from Guzman he says an affectionate good-bye to his mother.

My nine-year-old daughter was not a good companion that night. She wanted to tuck herself into her seat with my coat, she wanted a caramel, she tried to fill out the audience survey in the dark and dropped the cap to her pen under her seat, then scrabbled around on the floor looking for it. She wanted to lean on my arm, which made it hard to take notes. It was no accident, I think, that the part of Edgemode that returned to me in my sleep was a section from “Travelers Warnings” in which the dancers recite what seem to be bits of letters from parents to their children as a typewriter projected against the rear wall bangs out the words, the inadequate words, to describe a dance.

At first the recited texts seem old-fashioned missives from parents to children who’ve emigrated to a new world: we must say farewell forever; I hope you’ll remember the advice I gave you; when you hold your first child in your arms, think of me when I first held you. But gradually these texts come closer to what a modern-day divorced parent might say to a grown-up child: we did what we thought was right, we had to follow our own paths, I have so much to tell you if only you’d ask.

When I woke out of my restless sleep the theme of migration in Edgemode seemed a metaphor for traveling away from loved ones on one’s own journey, a metaphor particularly for the distance that can develop between parent and child; and Guzman’s lively, friendly conversation with his mom, a sign of hope. The dance described in disembodied form by the typewriter seemed the spirit world, the world of art, where the artist mother hopes to meet her children and speak to them: it’s both what takes her away and what brings her back to them. And when my daughter climbed into bed with me Sunday morning, after I’d fallen back asleep, the vividness of her freckles and burnished hair and blue-gray-green eyes shocked me.

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