Two choreographers benefit from Shirley Mordine's wisdom.
Shirley Mordine doesn’t stay still for long. At the end of February, a gala event marked her eponymous troupe’s 40th anniversary. Rather than taking a few months to rest on her laurels, she moved on to the next thing: On Friday 1, Mordine & Company Dance Theater presents a program of new works, appropriately titled NEXT. The concert will highlight two new works made via the company’s Emerging Artist Mentoring Project Award.
Fulfilling Mordine’s personal mandate to pass along the tricks of her trade to up-and-comers, her annual mentoring project is unique in the city. Outside of college dance departments, it’s rare for young choreographers’ creative development to receive focused attention from their more experienced colleagues.
This year’s award recipients are Julia Rae Antonick, 27, and Zac Whittenburg, 29, two artists whose choreographic work has been gaining notice and momentum. NEXT will see the premieres of Antonick’s duet, Loose Legged Wing Dividers, and Whittenburg’s trio, Dancing about stillness is like writing about.
Whittenburg, who’s danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, [bjm_danse] in Montreal, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Lucky Plush Productions, has been developing a freelance career in the last few years. One of his works appears in rep at Thodos Dance Chicago. Mordine approached Whittenburg, who’s taught ballet to her company for the past two years, about participating in the mentoring project.
Antonick was selected through a more formal application process. She was drawn to the project because “I like the environment of critique,” she says. A graduate of the Chicago Academy for the Arts (the city’s Fame-like high school), Antonick received a B.F.A. in dance from CalArts and then returned to her hometown to develop her own work at Links Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center. She’s also been active in a duet collaboration with Jonathan Meyer of Khecari Dance Theatre.
Whittenburg says Mordine has given him “exactly what I need from her as a mentor.” In crafting Dancing with dancers Charlie Cutler, Emma Draves and Liz Jenkins, Whittenburg had concerns about how the costumes would make or break his composition—“I’m never happy [with that part of my work]”—but Mordine offered spot-on advice. “She’s made hundreds of dances, and she’s been faced with these decisions so many times,” he says.
Dancing is set to baroque music (Andrei Gavrilov’s interpretations of Handel piano suites). Mordine eyed the subtle, but loaded, body language reminiscent of baroque-era court dances coded into Whittenburg’s elegant choreography. “Listening to her talk about it, I was then so easily able to draw a connection to what these people might be wearing,” he says. He’s since considered the “wardrobe signifiers” of aristocracy in our own era, such as the tasteful simplicity of Queen Noor.
For her part, Antonick has found that Mordine’s sharp eye and clear advice have put her process on a fast track. “Something that needs to be changed, it might [normally] take me two weeks to notice it. But Shirley just comes in and says, ‘By the way, that part is really too long,’ and it gets taken care of right then.” Lia Bonfilio and Chris Tucker are the duo in Loose Legged, which draws on the idea of a still point that anchors the movement swirling around it. “The dancers are awesome,” Antonick says of the Mo & Co. ensemble members.
Like Whittenburg, Antonick finds benefit in the length of Mordine’s career. “It’s interesting communicating with someone who’s been doing this for such a long time,” she says. “She’s not from my generation, she has different roots, and that’s great.” Antonick says the mentoring process liberates her creativity: “When I’m really liking what I’m making, it feels like it’s coming out of the back of my brain,” she says, contrasting that with a more forebrain sense needed for editing and critiquing one’s work. “It’s hard to go back and forth between those two modes [on my own]. I like a fresh perspective.” Apparently, so does Mordine, and she generously makes a place for it in her company.
NEXT runs at Epiphany Episcopal Church Friday 1 through Sunday 3.