Shirley Mordine takes time to wander through unfamiliar territory
Quest is a new dance that expresses the disoriented movement of people after a cataclysmic event, such as an earthquake. It also represents a seismic shift in working methods for veteran dance maker Shirley Mordine, who has cranked out close to 50 dances during her epic career.
“I just want to be wide open, to take the pressure off myself to quickly produce an all-knowing work,” Mordine says. Quest is being developed and performed in stages, over time. Part I premiered at HotHouse in December; it’s now being repeated—along with a new Part II—at Links Hall.
“I made my first dance when I was 15,” Mordine says. “I had no idea what choreography was. I picked some music and wore a red skirt and just improvised.” Suffice it to say that her approach has gotten a bit more sophisticated since then. Even more impressive, she’s never fallen into a formula. “How do you challenge yourself and provoke your own work to change?” Mordine asks. “I want to make sure my work goes to a fresh place.”
She founded her troupe, Mordine & Company Dance Theater, in 1968. Since then, she has remained open to an array of influences through collaboration. Contributors to Mo & Co’s oeuvre include local jazz notables Tatsu Aoki and Dave Pavkovic, set designers such as painter Amy Lee Segami, puppeteer Michael Montenegro and many others. On Quest, she’s working with cellist-composer Alison Chesley, familiar to pop-music fans from her days with the band Poi Dog Pondering.
Those who have followed Mordine’s career know that her work is inherently theatrical. In the early years of her company, she created pieces that relied more on dramatic impact of human actions than specific articulation of the trained dancer’s body. “I worked with theater as an open subject,” she says, explaining how she was not exactly “putting on plays” in the traditional sense of theater. “There were not such trained dancers available as there are now,” she says.
Mordine says her 1977 work Sky Tales “was a groundbreaking piece. It was my first discovery of how I could maintain characters through dance. I took action characteristics like ‘dive’ and ‘thrust’ and connected [them] to a body part. I evolved a character for each person.” However, don’t expect to follow a story in Mordine’s work. “I build what I call kinetic roles, not dramatic roles. I try to provide recognition for the audience without having to be literal,” she explains.
In Quest, seven dancers play the roles of individuals who find themselves on unfamiliar terrain. “Each person has their own authority in the dance. They are not an anonymous cluster.” In the work, “something has happened, the earth has shaken,” Mordine says. In the dance, the characters meet and go on journeys with each other. Images of boats and traveling appear in the choreography.
These images are drawn from a literary source. While she’s only been working on Quest since October, Mordine first read José Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft about 12 years ago. In the book, the Iberian Peninsula separates from the continent and goes floating off to sea.
She says Saramago’s novel also reminded her of Haruki Murakami’s collection of stories After the Quake, which explores the psychological impact of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Mordine feels these earth-shifting metaphors are relevant to recent events like last year’s Asian tsunami, the Pakistani earthquake in October and Hurricane Katrina.
Perhaps echoing the sentiments of the drifters in Saramago’s book, Mordine says, “It takes time to figure out where you’re going. It can take months, even years.”
Mordine & Company will perform Quest along with James Morrow’s solo Passing Me By at Links Hall.