Shirley Mordine | Interview
You’d be hard-pressed to find a local dancer who hasn’t heard of Shirley Mordine. The artistic director of the Midwest’s longest-running contemporary-dance company (Mordine & Company Dance Theater), and founder of the Dance Center of Columbia College, shows no signs of slowing in the midst of her troupe’s 43rd season. The ensemble’s new collaboration, a shared bill with Clinard Dance Theatre and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, explores diversity in contemporary dance.
It’s been 43 years now.
Yeah, I came in ’68, ’69. Quite a while ago.
Have you thought about year 50? What’s in store for the company’s golden anniversary?
There are things, but I hesitate to state them until I’ve got the signed contract. I will say that we’re being considered to open the Dance Center’s 40th anniversary. I’m going to review the list of companies that were presented at the Dance Center, which I curated until I left. There are lots of little holes that I’m going to fill.
What’s changed since you first came to Chicago?
When I first came, there was no contemporary dance. I knew of Ruth Page and Phyllis Sabold up on the North Shore, Sybil Shearer in Northbrook. I knew those people were around, but there was no active contemporary-dance scene. So I gathered some people and did a couple of performances. When Mike Alexandroff, president of Columbia College, asked me to come in and take part in their new theater program, I jumped on that but soon broke away because it was such a wild time. We’re talking [Laughs] the Chicago Democratic Convention. I broke away and started the dance program and kept working over the years.
How have the politics of today influenced you, as opposed to the politics of 1968?
It has never gotten easier. Can I put it that way? Partly because I’m an experimental artist. I don’t mind being controversial and being provocative. I came out of that tradition. So it’s never gotten easier, and Chicago can be a difficult town to work in. It’s not as open to the avant-garde and experimental as it is to the more popular forms. I think my inclination is still to address valuable issues and be as provocative as I can, which I was doing back then.
“All at Once,” the title of Mordine & Co.’s shared program with Clinard Dance Theatre and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, looks at diversity in the dance community. The press release for the show says the conversation of diversity came up after the Dance/USA Conference in San Francisco this past summer.
The idea started in 2011 when Dance/USA was here in Chicago. I was in charge of recruitment. I worked hard to get a good participation in the conference. We had the largest attendance that Dance/USA ever had, but it wasn’t as diverse as it needed to be. Last summer, we went to San Francisco and there was one day where they had two separate concerts. In each concert there were, like, eight different companies right next to each other. People do not cross over like that. When I saw those companies together vibrating off each other, I was thrilled. When I came back here, a group of us sat down and said, “Well, let’s start some conversations.”
You mention that the cultural crossover just doesn’t happen. Why do you think that is?
I’m sure some of it has to do with someone saying, “Well, if I go there, will I be the only one that looks like me? Am I going to be so different from everyone else?” I don’t know how obvious or overt that kind of concern is, but I think that’s part of it.
When you approached Wendy Clinard and Kevin Iega Jeff to collaborate, what were their reactions?
They were very open to the idea. Everyone was very anxious to do this, very appreciative because, first of all, they’re being paid! [Laughs]
Can you talk about the title of your new piece in the show, All at Once/Acts of Renewal?
I’ve been curious about simultaneity. Many years ago, we could be in our little town and word would get to us a week later. Now, it is immediate. I read Hari Kunzru’s book Gods Without Men, which is a book about simultaneity. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m part of the 21st century. That’s a whole time lapse. We experience time and tradition and juxtapositions in a way that, maybe, it can be explained in science fiction, rather than thinking literally about what our world is.
That sense of immediacy seems, in no small way, related to the way we use social media today.
Well, it’s going through its infancy. It’s going through an evolution and we’ll see what comes of it.
Do you Facebook or Tweet often?
I use Facebook. I can’t go to Twitter. I suppose I should. From most of what I read on Facebook, it’s uninteresting. [Laughs] But I’m always interested in how I can incorporate technology in what I do. I don’t have the time to toot around with Facebook, but I do read it and use it as part of our marketing. The point is not to avoid it but try to understand it. I don’t want to necessarily do it, but I have to know it’s there and why.
You’ve been described as one of Chicago’s dance pioneers, and Mayor Daley proclaimed February 28, 2009, “Shirley Mordine Day.” What did that mean to you?
I felt very honored. When you receive that recognition and you’re in an art form that doesn’t get a lot of ready press because you’re more in the experimental area…I was very pleased to see that.
I think you’re being modest; you have an entire day named after you.
[Laughs] I asked them, “Just don’t name a street, okay?”