Mordine & Company Dance Theatre

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, December 8 and 10

“My ideas don’t tend to be topical; they’re about really big issues,” Shirley Mordine has said. Usually I’d approach such a statement skeptically–the gap between what a choreographer intends and what she achieves is often wide. But Mordine’s recent concert made me see what she’s trying to say: a retrospective, it showed how her dance making has evolved. The context of the concert–it was part of a one-weekend series, “Dance, Art & Myth,” that also included a film of choreographer Jean Erdman’s work–shows the big issues Mordine is talking about.

In the oldest dance shown, Skytale from 1977, Mordine says she started to develop “kinetic characters,” describing them in a postperformance discussion as defined by movement rather than by words or images. Erdman’s Solstice provided excellent examples of nonkinetic characters. Erdman, a former Graham dancer and wife of the late Joseph Campbell, has characters who represent the dying moon, the new sun, the bride of the earth, and a variety of animals. Performed in the film in 1950 with Merce Cunningham, the dance is endless and dull as salt; Erdman’s movement style is the same for all the characters, revealing nothing about them. Their identities are established by their costumes, or the viewer must know the story.

Mordine’s characters in Skytale are more slippery. A man in a red leotard with a tail sewn on its spine who moves in long leaps sometimes resembles a dragon and sometimes a wild horse. The dragon-horse wrestles with a man dressed in brown burlap, whose characteristic gesture is a sudden twisting of his neck in a painful grimace. In the climactic moment, the dragon-horse transfers white paint on his own forehead to the peasant’s forehead. But the power of the climax was muffled because the relationship between the two wasn’t clear. Mordine had a clear situation in mind–a cowboy tames a wild horse in the big sky country of Montana, she explained in the postperformance discussion. I sensed her intent, but because I wasn’t given any clues to the characters or situation, I was so frustrated by the climax that I didn’t really give a damn, even though I liked most of the rest of the dance.

In subsequent works Mordine has made her characters more abstract. The 1987 Flores y Animales seems to be about life’s small dramas in a small village, though another viewer saw only the flowers and animals of the title. While this dance slowly yields up its quiet vision of acceptance of failures and limitations, the later Thin Ice shows effectively and immediately how men’s competitions mask affection. Mordine’s characters are increasingly universal: from a cowboy in Skytale to a young man in Flores y Animales to just a man in Thin Ice. And her themes are larger: the Montana skyscape in Skytale, death and acceptance in Flores, and masculinity in Thin Ice. This evolution has led her inescapably to the landscape of myth and spirituality where her newest dance, EdgeMode Part II, is set.

EdgeMode Part II has no characters, just seven dancers on a bare stage. To create the piece, Mordine had all the dancers make solos for themselves, then pieced them together into an ensemble work. The kinetic characters here are just the dancers themselves. Mordine also posed a different question to each dancer and asked them to answer the question in their dancing; none of them were supposed to share the question with the other dancers. The result is a piece that’s mysterious and laden, pulsating with a spiritual ache more existential than mythic. Its intriguing movement is based on pushing common movements to the edge; it curiously resists any written description. Richard Woodbury’s sound collage of Arvo Part’s music, with its distant strains of Gregorian chant, drums, and flute, captures the dance’s spiritual undertone beautifully.

Mordine and Erdman may promise myth, but what they deliver is spirituality. Myths come from polytheistic cultures: classical Greece, Rome, India. The Christian foundation of our culture is both monotheistic and based on a single, presumably real person. In place of myth we have ethical questions, rigorous self-examination, theology and philosophy. Our spirituality combines intellectual understanding and emotional acceptance with a fierce commitment of will. For us, spiritual peace is hard won; the normal state, which Mordine documents, is simmering anguish. Spirituality is so much more than the pretty, instructive stories of myth.

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