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Too Close for Comfort

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MORDINE & COMPANY DANCE THEATRE

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through May 15

Artists tend to become more and more themselves as they get older. By the time of The Golden Bowl Henry James's prose was more convoluted and precious than ever, the sentences long, intricately beaded necklaces of words. If you're a James fan, you enjoy them. And if you're not, you probably won't read The Golden Bowl anytime soon anyway.

In the two premieres on her latest program at the Dance Center, Shirley Mordine travels farther along some of the paths she's been taking in recent years. She's always been interested in the theatrical side of dance, and Request Concert is theater, a wordless play in which the single character's movement alone tells us everything we need to know. Well, most of what we need to know, and we're invited to guess the rest.

As we enter the Dance Center space the set, designed by Joel Klaff and Katharine Boyd, pulls us in. A couch with kitschy pillows, mismatched end tables with mismatched lamps, a radio, a small round table covered with a cloth and supplied with one chair, a television, a white basin, a teapot, a coatrack are arranged to recede into the distance on an eerily dark stage (lighting by Ken Bowen). These furnishings are so complete, so right, that they seem to have been lifted straight out of someone's home, and the lack of any walls or doors encloses us as well as the occupant in this apartment/universe.

The story (based on a play by Franz Xavier Kroetz) is simple, almost sentimental. An older woman returns to her home, spends an ordinary evening, and then commits an extraordinary act. The teasing heart of the story is why. And the challenge in staging this simple tale is to draw us into the psychology of an act that may at first glance seem foreign, even unaccountable.

Mordine and her collaborators have come up with several ways to do this. For one thing, many of the sound effects are provided by people onstage. When Mordine, playing the woman, eats a cookie, her sound- effects person (Tatiana Sanchez) is spotlit off to the side, clearly munching a cookie into a microphone. This heightens the artificiality of the theatrical experience but also makes it more immediate and intimate. When Mordine switches on the radio we see the burly radio announcer (Steven Russell-Thomas) walk onstage and talk, piano works are played (by Gerald Rizzer) on a real piano in the wings, and vocal music is performed by a woman in an evening gown (soprano Carol Loverde) who strolls about the stage, even sings her final number hovering over Mordine's bed.

These devices create a focus on each moment as it unfolds that's also the goal of Mordine's performance: by drawing us into the woman's sensory experiences moment by moment, she also draws us into her consciousness. When she scratches intently at a spot on her coat we can almost feel the rough fabric on our own fingertips, see the damn spot ourselves. When she peers at herself in the mirror, standing up straight, fingering her sweater, then narrowing her eyes and stroking a cheek, we feel her fury at the lines on her face. When she combs her hair before bed, head thrown back and arm stroking flamboyantly, we know that once her hair was full and beautiful, her best feature. It takes an experienced, confident performer (and presumably a director of Catherine Slade's cleverness to guide her) not to whip through these acts but to draw them out: they are the whole play.

They also set us up for the ending. We must identify with the woman's self-comforting acts, feel as if we're performing them ourselves. Taking off her shoes and putting on slippers, fixing and eating her supper, picking up a book or an embroidery project--each at first gives pleasure but soon palls. We know that the cookie stolen before dinner tastes much better than the three or four stuffed in after. It's possible--and necessary in this work--to see one's whole life as a failed hedge against the loneliness and boredom that are life. It's not a pretty sight.

Most intriguing, however, are those times when the woman does nothing. Much of the play is taken up by mundane change for the sake of change and by habitual acts--the woman washes her ashtray every time she uses it. But sometimes she just smokes, watching the smoke or the floor, or pauses to stare at nothing, and then you think, what is she thinking? Or remembering? What would be in my mind on a night like this?

It's in the nature of a work like Request Concert to approach real time, not compressed theatrical time: this depressing piece lasts almost an hour. And tedium is part of the concept--we're meant to wish the woman offstage, to wish the piece over, whatever it takes to end the drawn-out charade of pleasure. But as a result, by the time we came back from intermission for the two works remaining, I was not at all up to the demands of a work like Truth Spin, the evening's second premiere.

Mordine has said this dance's starting point is the way we manipulate information to serve our own ends; Shawn Decker's commissioned score uses sensors tripped by the dancers to subtly change the music with each performance. So the dance carries a lot of intellectual baggage. It also continues, I think, Mordine's preoccupation with the difficulties of confronting change and uncertainty, a preoccupation also apparent in Delicate Prey (1988) and the earliest incarnations of Subject to Change (1990). Here the investigation is cool and aloof: Bowen's design creates barely perceptible columns of light; James Grigsby's white, buttoned-up unitards look almost clinical; and the movements of the dancers (Sabine Fabie, Todd Kiech, Dardi McGinley, Pamela McNeil, Scott Putman, and Sanchez) are often stately. It all looks suitable to government offices or scientific laboratories (as we imagine them, at least), those official agencies of deception. A text, which the dancers speak by turn, consists of every imaginable cliche about truth--the naked truth, the unvarnished truth, just the facts, ma'am--recited, I take it, for ironic effect.

Someone once told me that Mordine's dances are never about what she says they're about. And I did feel I might have enjoyed Truth Spin more without its heavy subject. The choreography is engaging: the dancers swirl together like oil and water, almost but not quite touching, attracted and repelled at once. They're so close, so connected, and yet not the same--like two different tales describing the same event, a double helix of information. But though the final image is touching, the dance as a whole does not have a clear point or evolution.

Then again, maybe it does. Last year I enjoyed Stream of Recollection, Mordine's ambitious, highly polished memory piece, immensely. This year I sat like a lump, depressed, worn out, and waiting impatiently for it to be over. Mordine's Request Concert had done its work all too well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.

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