at the Dance Center of Columbia College

May 9-11 and 16-18

I think Shirley Mordine worries a lot–about what keeps people apart, what prevents them from becoming themselves, what keeps them going, what makes them change. Though Mordine is one of Chicago’s most enduring choreographers–she founded her company 23 years ago–she seems perpetually, and perhaps increasingly, bewildered. That’s her great strength. That, and her choreographic expertise: she combines a strong feeling for music with careful observation of life’s small but telling gestures.

With three premieres on a program of four works, Mordine is obviously going through a particularly productive phase. Program credits for the new works reflect an interest in collaboration: Thin Ice and Woman Question have been choreographed “with the dancers,” and In One Year and Out the Other is a performance art piece made and performed with James Grigsby. Letting others in on the creative process can be invigorating, but it can also backfire.

William Russo’s commissioned score for Woman Question is a perfect fit with this six-woman dance about the hobbles and burdens placed on women–often by themselves. His composition for strings and harmonica soloist (Corky Siegel) is both bluesy and classical, timeless and folksy, humorous and mournful–in it we can hear the plainness and high drama of women’s behind-the-scenes lives. Elise Ferguson’s costumes are another matter. What look like dingy white union suits are “embellished” with gimcrackery about the waist and hips: short, stylized hoopskirts, ruffly aprons, corsets, bustles. Though I believe the intent was to suggest turn-of-the-century sartorial chains and their modern counterparts, the effect is hideous–unflattering and comically undignified. I spent the first several minutes of the dance trying to overlook the costumes.

What a shame, for Russo’s music is tremendously evocative and complex. So is the often dramatic, often tender dancing, which lays bare the tedium, the burdens, and the consolations of women’s lives. Certain gestural motifs ring true as bells. The women rub their own arms or, hunched over, place a single folded hand to their own chests–touching themselves, looking for reassurance: am I still here? A woman bent over from the waist swings an arm and one leg loosely and languidly, the moving foot brushing the floor as delicately and lazily as the bristles of a broom. Women pair up to confide in each other, one leaping or flinging her arms about, pouring out her story, and the listener nodding rhythmically, her head bobbing in profile. Women lie on their backs, arms and legs bent and raised, and arch their torsos, perhaps in the spasms of childbirth or nighttime terrors.

Other movement is less clearly gestural but equally expressive. Some pure dance sequences employ a literal burden: pillows for the women to haul around, toss back and forth, shove along the floor (another design error–these props are far too pretty and lightweight, like decorative throw pillows instead of sacks full of something heavy like sand or seeds). A slow-motion scoot backward on the butt is so small, so slow, it seems to embody defeat. A fast run diagonally across the floor is marred by limping; women in tense flat-back positions threaten to topple over; a stationary pose with the women holding their own heads, one hand in front, the other in back, turns into a forward stagger. The women seem tethered to one spot by a foot; though they fall away from it, they can’t escape.

The dancers in Woman Question–Ann Boyd, Catherine Wettlaufer Buehler, Rebecca Keene Forde, Paula Frasz, Laurie Goux, and Mary Johnston-Coursey–are as passionate as any choreographer could wish, perhaps because they had a hand in the choreography. Certainly their dancing gives a new tension and impetus to Mordine’s work, which can on occasion seem too polished, too controlled.

If Woman Question looks at the ways women sometimes sabotage themselves, Thin Ice explores the competition between men that both binds them together and keeps them forever at a distance. Joel Klaff’s costumes recall silky martial-arts pajamas most obviously, and flags more subtly; Richard Woodbury’s score manipulates a small number of sung notes in a subtly varied sequence of hypnotic repetitions; and Ken Bowen’s dark lighting seems to place the dancers in some dusky underwater place.

The two male dancers (Jeffrey Carpenter and Carl Jeffries) in Thin Ice remain in almost constant contact: they touch each other, fling each other about, and even if they’re immobilized and at a distance, stare at each other. A dancer raises his hand for a blow or a caress–we don’t find out which because the other always shoves his hand away. One slings a leg over the other, slicing the air above the head of his crouching victim. One props the other up by a shoulder; the supported one–a POW?–leans hard and walks slowly, taking tiny, shuffling, hesitant steps.

There’s something ceremonial about all this, an effect that may come from the performance style: a sensuous, fluid, controlled purposefulness we don’t associate with men’s rough games. And the dancers’ connection is so constant, so palpable, that we’re almost shocked when one of them goes offstage briefly. Moments later we hear a stamp and the dancer shoots from the wings: he’s the prey, teasing and challenging the predator. Near the end such brief instances of separation set us up for the ending itself: an actual embrace, one man lifting the other off the floor. But by this time an embrace is equivocal–the line between love and war has been erased, and what could look like loving surrender instead suggests defeat, even death.

In One Year and Out the Other takes a look at the illusions that keep people going but also keep them isolated. This piece is a departure for Mordine, more animated painting than dance or even performance art. The visual design is striking and crucial: Hollis Sigler’s patently artificial set is placed so far downstage that we almost seem enclosed ourselves in this skewed room. Elise Ferguson’s costumes are appropriately comical and touching: Mordine is an aging hothouse flower in elbow-length gloves, a bouffant wig reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, and an off-the-shoulder dress with a mass of flowers tumbling down the back; James Grigsby wears a mirrored suit that recalls both cheesy lounge acts and, given the twinkly way he manipulates Mordine’s character, Tinkerbell.

The text is made up almost entirely of those two staples of the stay-at-home dreamer, soap operas (synopsized here) and personal ads. The movement evokes daydreaming: Mordine tends to take serpentine odalisque poses, and when she reads from a personal ad the phrase “Looking for an attractive lady,” she gives a self-conscious wriggle of the shoulders. At other times she’s touchingly vulnerable–sitting with her legs spread wide, her head thrown back, her feet paddling here and there, she’s the picture of awkward abandon. Grigsby’s movements, especially at first, are puzzlingly robotic. Perhaps he’s the embodiment of our culture, which preys so effectively on lonely people–certainly he has the shyster’s insinuating voice.

Everything about In One Year and Out the Other is confining: the small gestures, mostly for the head, arms, and hands; the costumes, which dominate and place the characters; the claustrophobic set; even the snippets of Maria Callas recordings–yes, her voice does soar, but the context forces us to see this romantic flight ironically. This piece is an astoundingly effective portrait of an airless room–but unfortunately the stale room seems to have infected the artists’ treatment of it. There’s a vision here, but it’s a static one; the piece doesn’t evolve, doesn’t ever threaten to break out. And original as it may be to bring a painting to life, when it comes to performance we look for more than animated figures.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rober C.V. Lieberman.