"I was 14, 15 when I made my first dance, to a piece called 'Jezebel'--a tango. I wore a red Roman-striped taffeta skirt. I didn't know there was such a thing as choreography! I just made up a dance."
There's something girlish and gleeful about Shirley Mordine yet, though as the founder of Mordine & Company Dance Theatre, head of the dance department at Columbia College, and artistic director of Columbia's Dance Center, she's something of a materfamilias to Chicago dance. And indeed her enthusiasm is tempered by a very, very serious approach to her art. Shortly after that first dance, at the age of 16, she went to San Francisco to study with Anna Halprin and Walland Lathrop. She did her first tour at 17. "So at a young age," she says, "I was put in the midst of very sophisticated art, and from the moment I entered that environment, it was like, 'Oh boy, this is what making art is.' It's not just performance, people don't just do what they feel like doing, there's a real intelligence operating here and a vision of the world."
Mordine has lived and worked in Chicago for more than 20 years, arriving here in 1968 with her three children. "One of the first things I did was I got a group of people and I did a concert at a storefront across from the Oxford Pub on Lincoln. I'm sure if the Fire Department had walked in they would have closed us! But they didn't." She stayed because she thought Chicago was "fertile ground." When Mirron Alexandroff, the president of Columbia College, offered her the job of starting a dance department, she thought, "Why not? There's this sort of void out there, go see what you can do about it."
So how has it been, filling the void? "It's not been easy!" she laughs. "I always go back to Nelson Algren's line, when he talks about Chicago and its place in the grand American experiment. He says, 'We're the best of what we could have been, and we're what we really are.' No slack! No slack, there he is. And it's true! I think there are some other cities where people can pull off some pretty wacky things or be precious, but you can't get away with that here. I mean, it is tough.
"But Chicago can also be tough in that it is not very supportive of adventurous arts, of experimentation. And that's been very, very difficult, to the point of being coercive. I think you have to fight harder here than in almost any other city to do what you really want to do as an artist."
You can see what Mordine and her collaborators want to do this weekend and next, May 14-16 and 21-23, at the Dance Center, 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $8-$12, except for the May 16 performance, a benefit for Mordine & Company, when they'll be $37.50 or three for $100. All shows start at 8 PM. Call 271-7928 for more information.