Chicago celebrates the woman who's been at the core of the dance community for 40 years.
At Saturday’s gala performance of Mordine & Company Dance Theater at the Dance Center, Mayor Richard M. Daley will officially proclaim February 28 “Shirley Mordine Day” in Chicago. How does a modern dancer end up with her own city holiday? In Mordine’s case, it’s a recognition of her achievements as a trailblazer for the city’s dance community. In her four decades here, she has not only made numerous dances, she has helped develop the very framework that supports Chicago dance.
Mordine’s long career brims with honors. As a young dancer, she trained with dance great Anna Halprin in California (where she grew up). In 1985, she received the very first Ruth Page Award (still given annually for achievement in the field of Chicago dance). But when she remembers the highlights of her own career, Mordine speaks about all the dancers who have been part of her company over the years—not the accolades she has received.
“I think in terms of periods defined by groups of people,” she says. The names spill out of her mouth: Donna Sugarman, Tom Jaremba, Susan Kimmelman, Jim Self, Carl Jeffries, Tim Beach, Brian Jeffery, Paula Frasz, Dardi McGinley Gallivan, Doug Woods, Jan Erkert, Carol Bobrow, Gary Riegenborn and many, many more. Most of these folks are still active in the field either locally or nationally; Mordine has always associated herself with strong talents.
“Time spans in the company have the character of the group of people I am working with at the time,” says Mordine, who creates work by coaching and drawing movement and ideas out of the dancers, rather than giving specific directions. With ideas and images in mind, she pulls and shapes the work out of the raw material provided by her company. “The dancers work with me,” she says. “Together we figure it out.”
hen she arrived in Chicago with her family in the late 1960s, she didn’t find many colleagues. “There was really nothing going here,” she says, although she had heard about Sybil Shearer and Ruth Page. “I just did something myself.” Since there was not much demand or context for modern dance, Mordine found work teaching movement to actors at Hull House and Columbia College Chicago. Mordine’s company dancers also participated in these classes.
“It was 1969, the Democratic National Convention and all that. It was a crazy time. The actor people were coming to class high, and you just can’t seriously work on dance in that environment. The dancers said they wanted something very structured, very rigorous,” she remembers. With the strong support of Mirron “Mike” Alexandroff, the longtime president of Columbia College, the fledgling dance department took off.
In 1998, Mordine stepped down from her position as chair of the Dance Department of Columbia College. By that time, the department had become a nexus of the city’s dance community, training new talent in technique and choreography and bringing exciting national and international artists to teach and perform. Her troupe, which for years had been in residence at the Center, was now free to function independently within the (now active and expansive) dance community at large.
Nowadays, Mordine says, “it is such a relief” to be out of the academic context and all of its attendant headaches. She’s also had time to ponder her path: “What could I have done if I hadn’t had a dance department to run? Maybe I lost time when I could have been evolving more as a choreographer. On the other hand, the experience was far more interesting and valuable than if I’d just been pursuing my own vision.” As a result, Mordine paved the way for modern dance to thrive in this city, and we are all richer because of it.