MORDINE & COMPANY
at the Dance Center of Columbia College
March 11 and 12, 18 and 19, 25 and 26
Last Saturday night, Mordine & Company served its audience an elegant sandwich. Bracketing a cool, spare piece by California-based choreographer Loretta Livingston were two ripe, rich works by Shirley Mordine, the founder of this exceptionally long-lived troupe.
First the filling. Livingston's Paper/Scissors/Rock is a duet based on the children's game, and it has the same compelling simplicity--no prop, no ball or bat, is necessary. All you need are your hands and your wits--each shoots out a hand simultaneously and forms either a clenched-fisted rock, a palm-down sheet of paper, or a V-fingered scissors. Scissors cut paper, paper covers rock, rock smashes scissors, and the winner slaps down the loser's hand. Like the game, the dance built its own rhythm and momentum--shoot out, slap down, snap in--and the dance also repeated a cycle of domination and submission.
This Mordine & Company premiere opens with dancers Jennifer Grant and Daniel Weltner seated cross-legged on the floor playing the game. They face the audience, however, not each other, and this bit of evidence is telling: we're not unacknowledged spies observing an essentially private competition. So pointedly done for an audience, the dance develops its own reason for being, its own formal beauty--and although that beauty grows out of the personal and emotional, it has an independent existence. The precise synchrony, the rhythmic slaps can live on their own--a formal meditation on the way two intimates interact. The end of this introductory section lets us see these are not children playing but adults. One of them wins but doesn't slap; instead a hand's placed lovingly over the opponent's, in what may be sexual invitation but certainly suggests an effort at reconciliation.
The next part of the dance uses a freeze-frame technique to pick up on the game's rhythm. The dancers move swiftly and stop, move swiftly and stop--to music, by Larry Attaway, that alternates between a rippling melody and a glitchy dissonance. The momentum of the game is still there, along with its underlying rationale: challenge, hold your position, resolve, go on. At the same time, the dance expands its emotional horizons. Grant, perched piggyback on Weltner--literally a monkey on his back--talks forcefully, though soundlessly, in his ear.
This recurring motif--attaching oneself to the other, usually from behind, and jabbering in an ear--is perhaps the most vivid visual metaphor I've seen for nagging. At one point late in the dance, Grant uses the same loving gesture of restraint seen earlier; she cups her hand, but over Weltner's mouth. It works.
But the dance doesn't explore only the dark side of attempted domination. Competition has its humor, too. Weltner, lying on his back, makes a chair of his outstretched legs, and Grant seats herself triumphantly on his feet. But no way is she going to allow him to balance like that on her legs. The audience laughed out loud as Weltner's "props" (Grant's legs) kept slipping akimbo or collapsing like wet noodles.
In the second half of Paper/Scissors/Rock, the tempo picks up, the music is more connected, and the formally lovely poses of the first half merge to become formally lovely dance. Grant and Weltner have the perfect physical presence for this piece: an aloof commitment, a forceful delicacy. These two dancers are part of that hollow-boned, elegant tribe that, like cats and Jane Austen, always manages to land soundlessly and neatly on its feet. At the end of the dance hostilities cease (we hope) between these delicate creatures at odds. Grant and Weltner, though separated by the width of the stage, turn to each other, and Grant, crouching, reprises that earlier, poignant gesture of reconciliation--but with a new generosity, she covers her own hand, restraining herself not him.
The marvelous dancing of Paper/Scissors/Rock was characteristic of the elegantly energetic dancing throughout this performance. The concert's opening suite of dances, Mordine's Songspiel (danced to Kurt Weill's The Mahogonny Songspiel, which was first performed in 1927), is a mood piece in a way, but like Weill's music, the dance undercuts the lyricism of the "song" by giving it a bitter, even a despairing edge. This dance, like the music, is a little singed, perhaps by the flames of hell--Kevin Rigdon's lighting is distinctly fiery.
Mordine herself appears as a sly but dark controlling presence, reminiscent of the emcee character Joel Grey played in Cabaret. As the piece begins, she slinks into the spotlight, an overblown rose in a loosely held red silk dressing gown, her lips painted a brilliant red. She's a sensibility so ripe it verges on corruption, but there's nothing languorous about her performance; her pointing finger stabbing the air, a gesture later repeated by other dancers, seems to announce, "Let the show begin!" and prefigures the deliberate theatricality of later movements. Indeed, what we see throughout this long and complex piece (featuring six dancers--three couples--in addition to Mordine) is an exploration of the theatrical life in its largest sense: life lived to its extremes, pushed so hard that the fine line between self-destruction and freedom disappears. Significantly, Weill's music contains the lines (later immortalized by the Doors): "Oh show me / The way / To the next / Whiskey bar."
In this suite of dances, two stand out. In the first, Mordine dances with her three men (Michael McStraw, Tim Veach, and Weltner); in the second, with her three women (Paula Frasz, Grant, and Mary Wohl Haan). Each dance parodies, at the same time that it exploits, sexual stereotypes. In the first section, Mordine acts as a kind of mother-whore, the all-accepting woman embraced and caressed by three men at once. The choreographer's distance from this vision is shown in the way the section ends: the dancers, linked, limp offstage in a configuration resembling Pieter Brueghel's painting of The Blind Leading the Blind. The section for the women is less satiric, but the movements are still stereotypically female: coy, sly, and invidious. The women's most characteristic move is a sinuous wriggle of the torso, like a writhing snake. It's no wonder that sexual coupling in this world should be violent, aggressive, and spasmodic. This is sex based on the nerves, not on the heart or the blood.
Songspiel and Delicate Prey are both about sexual energy and its vitiation. But Delicate Prey--the closing piece and Mordine's premiere--embodies sexual energies as demonic spirits; the poor humans on whom they prey are so anemic that the most we can feel for them is pity. Beyond this, I found the premise of Delicate Prey confusing. Apparently Mordine wants to use the loss of sexual innocence as a metaphor for the "loss of elegance and artifice," at least she says in the program notes that's what this piece is about. But why should innocence and artifice be analogues? Artifice is constructed, not natural; innocence seems its opposite.
Delicate Prey opens strikingly with a couple (Grant and Veach) in pale, elegant, Edwardian dress seated at the top of a ramp. To a modern, driving, aggressive score by Paul Dresher, the six remaining dancers (Rebecca Forde, Frasz, Haan, John Hoffmann, Carl Jeffries, and Catherine Wettlaufer) sport at the ramp's foot. They're dressed in vibrantly, almost discordantly colored unitards, and their movements have an autonomic drive and force. (Mordine's work often had the energy--but not the form--of jazz dance.) The Edwardian couple descend the ramp, are tumbled out of their clothes by the spirits, lie passively together while the spirits frolic around them, then reascend the ramp clutching their clothes with reassumed modesty. They sink out of sight, and the spirits perform their final dance of triumph.
Everything about this couple is pale--their clothes, their "nakedness," their mildly seductive gestures and "refined" dancing, and especially that passive, dull lying together. It's a strange vision of sex--the people doing it don't seem to be having any fun. Something sports, but it seems an abstract energy, separate from humankind and distinctly demonic. Watching this rather literal piece, I felt I was meant to identify with the human creatures--but couldn't. As a consequence, the dance seemed to end abruptly. I was waiting for the couple to be fleshed out, but instead the dance ended and they were gone.
Still, Delicate Prey did show off the characteristically subtle texture of Mordine's choreography and her dancers' energy, precision, and commitment. Choreographer and dancers alike appeared to advantage in the counterpoint between the couple's and the spirits' dancing. The couple moved legato, wrists cocked elegantly, arms floating; the spirits, eyes rimmed with red, lunged and jabbed. But all danced, and to the same driving, obsessed music, and with each other; for a brief moment the human and the demonic were one.