Powerful, Beautiful, Dazzling: Mordine & Co Dance Theater Celebrates the 50th Season: a response by Ayako Kato

Mordine & Co 50th Season Celebration 
May 17th & 18th, 2019 at Links Hall*
Artistic Director & Founder: Shirley Mordine
Choreography: Shirley Mordine (Three Women/#MeToo, Collisions, I haven’t heard from); Timothy Tsang (What moves you?); Nick Schrier (My Own Best Friend); Danielle Gilmore & Melissa Pillarella (To: and From:)
Performers: Danielle Gilmore, Melissa Pillarella, Nick Schrier, Austin Shirley, Emily Stepleton, and Timothy Tsang
Live Improvisational Performance (Break Out Session): Fred Simon (5/17), David Onderdonk (5/18)
Original Composition (Collisions): Fred Simon 
Consulting Artist (Collisions): Ayako Kato
Lighting Designer & Technical Director: Sami Hussain Ismat
Video Design: Monica Thomas (Three Women/#MeToo, Collisions)
Costume: Duoduo Wang (Three Women); Nathan Rohrer & Jeff Hancock (Collisions); Jeff Hancock (I haven’t heard from you)
Management Director: Phil Martini
images by Chuck Osgood



On May 18, 2019 (and May 17), Mordine & Co celebrated its 50th season at Links Hall. Imagine, ten years before Links Hall was born, Shirley Mordine took a major historic part of dance seeding and grounding work in Chicago by founding her company and the Dance Center of Columbia College in 1969. Even just seeing the photo of her leaping and riding in the air on the program cover, we can see her endless spiral energy sparkling from her core as well as uniting external energy through the committed guts.

The legendary company opened the evening with Break Out Session by introducing those talented and dedicated company dancers: Danielle Gilmore, Melissa Pillarella, Nick Schrier, Austin Shirley, Emily Stepleton, and Timothy Tsang. With attuned guitarist David Onderdonk, dancers presented their virtuosity, creating this high-quality music and dance improvisational performance. Improvisation, especially in the dance field, may sound “whatever” or “easygoing”. Yet, we understand it’s a wrong idea when it comes to the performance done by this much well-trained dancers who can read the air 360 degrees around them. It’s almost like having eyes through all the pores or seeing all the way around through their mind eyes. They have been spending time together, listening to what Mordine must have repeatedly said. So it is also a big advantage for them to literary sense each other, cutting, sculpting and riding on the air as Mordine’s flying leap on the program cover. Mordine and her dancers are certainly from different generations, yet here we can witness Mordine’s spirit and wisdom of dance are beautifully succeeded by them. I notice that it’s very rare to see this much high-quality group improvisation dance “work” and how lucky to witness this intelligent live art of dance. First, this beginning piece revealed that Mordine has been giving generous space and opportunities for innumerable numbers of those talented and passionate dancers to work and express under her wings for 50 years, teaching them, creating and moving together.

Next piece was Three Women/#MeToo. This charmingly re-titled piece with the new “#MeToo” part was originally created by Mordine and performed by Mordine, Jan Erkert, and Carol Bobrow in 1974. This new iteration was performed by Danielle Gilmore, Melissa Pillarella, and Emily Stepleton with the original performance video designed by Monica Thomas. The video and live performance work largely helped the viewers to meditate on the common ground and connection between women from the current and past generations. Gilmore, Pillarella, and Stepleton are physically very strong. Yet, their outlook is very graceful and elegant. So this piece was perfect to bring up these contemporary women’s magical features: strong feminine beauty, which is cultivating the new relationship with masculinity and addressing holistic independence which affirms reciprocity. Three dancers shared hope and refreshing feelings regardless of generations and genders through this work.

Timothy Tsang proved his choreographic talent through What moves you? Focusing on being an outside eye as a choreographer, Tsang’s arranged four of his colleague through eye-pleasing formation and transformation, including the airly feeling between moving bodies. His ability to compose movement is firmly assuring and cannot help being looking forward to his future twist and endeavor to further establish his own choreographic color.

Through dance movement in silence and with sound by Vijay Iyer and Fred Simon and simple shadow projection by Monica Thomas, Collisions by Mordine reflects on sociopolitical and sociocultural conflicts which humanity constantly faces, yet perceives those as challenges which humanity also constantly wish to resolve. Again, dancers who seem to be able to do anything, including partnering skills by fully giving trust on each other, create the transient flow of patterns and forms through various spatial configuration and levels of intensity with unbelievable momentum as well as nearly disappearing/ceasing quality of slow movement. Through a duet section, Melissa Pillarella and Nick Schrier exhibit constant-ever-changing relationships between them merely through movement with the nuanced weight shift and exchange. Pillarella shows incredible strength by gracefully catching, lifting and supporting Schrier. Again, this aspect must be the reflection of Mordine bringing expected gender roles as one cause of collisions, yet to be overcome. It is not easy to keep the sensitive movement quality during the quick movement and control the volume of the large movement with the fast speed from soft to loud, yet somehow those dancers are capable to make them happen. The last scene, which dancers move circularly with the heightened awareness on one another, even in the distance, can be seen as the ideal state of how humanity can coexist, maintaining equilibrium.


“Collisions” image by Chuck Osgood


My Own Best Friend choreographed and performed by Nick Schrier was well-thought and structured solo with full of humanness. Starting with Bluegrass music “I’m Working on a Building” by Bill Monroe, Nick begins the piece, facing to the wall and wearing the workman’s suit. He looks back to the audience, and we see a plastic mask on his face. Setting anonymity is clear. He keeps working, handling the electric code, takes out the mask, and drinks from his pocket bottle. He hides the mask and the bottle with his bandana. Then, as the heart of the piece, he rhythmically starts to introduce his work routine with the sound of trains and gradually reveals the worker’s personality with “Blue Railroad Train” by Doc and Merle Watson. Masterfully combining both clear gestural and technical dance movement with some emotional touch, Schrier depicts who he is. In the end, he tangles himself with switches with the electric code and picks up his belongings, wearing the bandana and drinking another last long sip from the bottle. He gazes and wears the mask on the back of his head. Strange, yet it’s working, suddenly letting me sense the fact that all the labor/work laid down before us in the history were done without us knowing who actually did it. Facing and walking to the back wall, he sings “Dark Hollow” with his deep voice, nostalgically informing that possibly the most understanding best friend throughout his life must be himself.

To: and From: choreographed and performed by Danielle Gillmore and Melissa Pillarella was a translucent and exhilarating duet. Wrapped in white costumes, they spirally build up the strong narrative through circular movement, enhancing the diagonal paths in parallel as they dance. These female dancers are working together with Mordine for eight years. Witnessing their growth, how they perceive dance now with honesty and genuine drive and how they actualize their artistic presence on stage shine like polished gemstones. Dance is holistic, intellectual and physical education, constantly and metaphorically evolving through daily practice and life itself. To find who we are, we learn: how to understand ourselves, how to listen to others and ourselves, how to read the air or the bodies in space, how to move, how to express, how to interpret, how to transform space, how to present ourselves to others, and how to be. Then, eventually, we learn how to grasp the meaning hidden behind beyond words with the whole moving Self. Still sensing their unknown path to the future with curiosity and ambition, Gillmore and Pillarella expressed their evolution, reflecting what assets they have been embodying, succeeding from their beloved and admiring master predecessor.

Utilizing five stools as simple mobile props to create multiple landscapes, I haven’t heard from you concluded the powerful enchanting evening of dance. This piece richly proved Mordine’s masterful choreographic virtuosity set with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364 and dancers’ excellent musicality. Watching this piece, I recalled when I witnessed Shirley’s work for the first time when I arrived in Chicago 15 years ago. “Joyous Freedom” is my word to describe her dance craftmanship. She knows how to work with what is simply given (yet can be endlessly complex): space, dancers, music, and herself both by letting go and controlling the image bestowed upon her, channeling through her core. In this work, charming, tireless and dedicated dancers are still full swing after one hour and a half in this celebration. It’s just astonishing to witness the supreme outcome of the teamwork between “Mordine & Co.”

Links Hall was filled with fans and supporters as well as dance professionals who are, one way or another, dance children of Shirley Mordine. Long time supporter of Mordine and the company Managing Director Phil Martini lead the toast with champagne. Everybody gathered to celebrate this tireless mother’s historic achievement with appreciation and admiration. Shirley, Congratulations and Thank you very much for keeping your curiosity, and cultivating as well as nurturing the Chicagodanceland with your love for dance.

“Able to evoke whole landscapes in a single exhalation” (New City Stage), Ayako Kato is an award-winning Japanese-native contemporary experimental dance artist originally from Yokohama. Ayako has been selected for Mordine & Co’s NEXT concert choreographer and mentored by Shirley Mordine back in 2010 for Incidents I. Shirley’s advice, “What you want to express is called butterfly effect!” clarified and changed Ayako’s choreographic notion. Also, Ayako occasionally has been invited to guest teach Mordine & Co over the past seven years. She has been directing her company Ayako Kato/Art Union Humanscape since 1998 through interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly focused with over 60 musicians/composers in the US, Japan, and Europe. She is a recipient of 3Arts Award in Dance; 3Arts Residency Fellowship at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France; “Best of Dance” in the Chicago Tribune; Links Hall Co-MISSION Fellowship; Players: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago by Newcity Stage, Meiner Achievement Award; Chicago Dancemakers Lab Artist Award and beyond. www.artunionhumanscape.net


(*) PRJ is partnering with Links Hall to celebrate their 40th anniversary by providing a platform for artist-to-artist responses to the work that is presented as part of the Pay-the-40th-Forward season. Thank you, Links Hall, for all that you do for the dance and performance communities in Chicago. Congratulations on 40 years!