someone who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the field and made a momentous impact on the Chicago dance community
Concert Dance is not an art form that sustains itself easily; it needs a lot of care and it needs a lot of community. See Chicago Dance is the source for a lot of both, and although we know them best for their excellent website, SeeChicagoDance.com, the Chicago based not-for-profit supports dance in many other ways as well.
On Tuesday, September 25 (from 6 to 10pm at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph Street, Chicago) they’re hosting their Fourth Annual Gala, a celebration of accomplishment past and future. The event will honor two important contributors to Concert Dance in Chicago; Angelique Power receives the Distinguished Service to the Dance Field Award, which recognizes “outstanding philanthropic leadership and honors someone who has made tremendous contributions to the health and vibrancy of the Chicago dance sector”. Shirley Mordine, founder and artistic director of Mordine & Co. Dance Theater and founder and past director of the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, receives the Legacy Award, which honors “someone who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the field and made a momentous impact on the Chicago dance community”.
We asked Shirley Mordine to tell us a little more about at least some of her extraordinary accomplishments, and here’s what she told us:
So I carried things further by bringing people to Chicago who could go beyond what I could do, like Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and other companies from Europe. We became more national and international in sensibility.
Johnny Nevin: It’s difficult for people in the Chicago dance community now to imagine the world you found when you arrived in Chicago in 1969 — not only has a lot changed, but a lot of that change is the result of things that you have done. Perhaps the most influential of these was founding the Dance Center of Columbia College, which you then directed for the next thirty years. When we spoke, I was especially struck that you mentioned the idea of “starting from absolute ground zero”, and remarkably, you mentioned it twice — once with respect to starting the Dance Center and again when you were talking about beginning a new choreography work. Can you tell us a little more about what you were beginning with when you began the Dance Center, and how you came up with the idea to do so?
Shirley Mordine: Starting from scratch is something that I’m used to because of the economically and educationally poor background that I came out of. I had to discover and struggle through this to build what I am and anything I accomplished. My cousin taught me tap dance around her kitchen table. Then there were neighborhood dance schools, and eventually I made it to San Francisco Ballet School, searching and finding my way as I could. Along the way I ran into people who were so supportive and wanted to help me. After San Francisco, I went to Mills College in the Bay Area, the source of my primary background. My most influential teacher during those years of growing up was Welland Lathrop. I was in his company for 10 years, many of those years while I was a student at Mills.
I came to Chicago because of my husband’s job, and I explored a bit. But it started when Mike Alexandroff, president of Columbia College, was initiating a theatre program and asked me to be part of it. I held open classes that became full because no one was teaching contemporary work. People came when they discovered that it wasn’t just a dance class but a different approach, incorporating a nucleus of skilled dancers and a larger group of the community as a whole.
Creating the Dance Center wasn’t an intentional goal; it just evolved, and it evolved because I wanted to be sure not to be isolated.
At the same time I discovered Donna Sugarman, Susan Kimmelman, Tom Jaremba, dancers who wanted to work with me. The first big piece I made was “Journey,” which connected two directions I was going in: the smaller group of dancers and the larger community group. We were doing things I thought people hadn’t seen, and it got a lot of press. I took a small group of dancers to other colleges and universities and we worked somewhat improvisationally, then we came back to Chicago and I started working with lighting designer Ken Bowen and dancer and sound designer Richard Woodbury. That’s when I established a reputation here. So I carried things further by bringing people to Chicago who could go beyond what I could do, like Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and other companies from Europe. We became more national and international in sensibility.
Creating the Dance Center wasn’t an intentional goal; it just evolved, and it evolved because I wanted to be sure not to be isolated. We wanted to relate to what was going on with people around us. Dance is a part of theatre and it needs to be a product of our culture. Mike Alexandroff and Bert Gall, Columbia’s chief operating officer, sensed what I was doing and supported me. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I kept doing what I was doing but expanded from the idea of being homegrown and small to becoming large in the sense of knowing what was happening in the world.
You can’t assume anything; you have to dig deeply to create something
Johnny: You also mentioned the same idea, “beginning from zero”, as the way that you always begin a new work that you’re choreographing. Can you tell us a little more about the art of beginning, especially as you have applied it to choreography?
Shirley: I never wanted to be presumptuous about what I already knew. I had worked with many choreographers and designers who I learned so much from in the Bay Area. Starting from ground zero became an image for my work. You can’t assume anything; you have to dig deeply to create something, to find the initial impulse and the kinetic sense of that impulse and build on that. That guided my choreographic ability. You have to start from scratch—let go of what has influenced you, dig deeper, and find the kinetic sensibility of what you want to do.
See Chicago Dance’s Fourth Annual Gala takes place Tuesday, September 25 from 6 to 10 p.m. at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. Single tickets are $250 and tables for 10 guests are $2,500.Tickets are available online at seechicagodance.com or by calling the SCD office, 312-846-6357. Dress code is cocktail/festive attire, and valet parking is available.