Accidentally! I moved here from Minneapolis in 1968 where I had been teaching at the University of Minnesota. To make a living I taught in several locations--sometimes five in one day. One of my students recommended me to the theatre director at Columbia who invited me to teach a dance class.
Within a year Mike Alexandroff, the President of Columbia College from 1961-1992, initiated a new direction for the College. Mike felt that the avenue for the democratization of education was through the arts. I was invited to be a part of that vision by teaching in the College’s newly envisioned theatre program.
RTG (Car Researcher Rachel Thorne Germond): What was Columbia College like when you got there?
It was a very small college and it wasn’t as arts -oriented. However, I must mention that William Russo and John Schultz were already on board and contributing valuable ideas that would inform the College’s direction.
Mike Alexandroff had a profound sense of how he wanted to shape the College, and all who took part shared his vision. The climate in Chicago at that time was permeated with the immediate and subsequent effects of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. We are talking about a time of political upheaval. This environment permeated everything.
I remember a bunch of us toured a rock opera composed and directed by Bill Russo that had songs with anti Vietnam war lyrics like: “That war is a mother that takes back youth!” We performed it around Chicago. The environment was very loose and people were experimenting with drugs, and just about anything really. This was true of all or most college scenes at the time.
Before I taught at Columbia, when I first moved here, I had a troupe of dancers called The Chicago Dance Troupe and we worked, rehearsed and taught classes at Hull House. Our first performance was in a store front on Lincoln Avenue across from the Oxford Pub. That group of dancers came with me when I accepted the position at Columbia.
As time went on, it became clear to myself and the dancers that we couldn’t work in an undisciplined atmosphere. Dance requires too much discipline. You just can’t work and carry on your life like that! The dancers and I wanted to focus on training as dancers and making dance works. So we started teaching dance classes outside of the Theater Program, and they started to fill up and became very popular.
The company’s first major performance was a piece called Journey. It was an hour-long theater piece including walking on stilts, climing ladders to another floor, and I remember roller-skating in a tuxedo and singing opera. I don’t think anything like that had ever happened in Chicago before! It was wonderful stuff. It was a real happening. There were dancers climbing in the windows and a video was projected that showed what was going on outside. There were four core dancers--Donna Sugarman, Tom Jeremba, Susan Kimmelman and me--and a chorus of 12 people on which I built structured improvisations. We toured to some colleges and universities with it. That was in 1969: our first big piece. Those were exciting times. We made a work with Henry Threadgill, a member of the AACM, we performed at the old Museum of Contemporary Art on Ontario and Tom Jeremba and I made a duet together called Double Play.
What else was going on in Chicago at that time?
Maggie Kast was working in Hyde Park and Phyllis Sebold had a company in the suburbs. Nana Shineflug was dancing in her company at the time. Sybil Shearer was in Northfield. Ruth Page directed the ballet company with the Lyric Opera and Gus Giordano had a school in Evanston.
That was pretty much the scene I entered. There was nothing else going on in dance in Chicago. Maybe a few isolated teachers here and there, but nothing that had any sort of foundation or organization with the exception of Ruth Page’s studio. I must mention the Harper Theatre on 47th in Hyde Park. For many years Bruce and Judy Sagan presented exciting contemporary dance companies.
The Dance Program at Columbia developed organically and out of necessity. People came to work with me and we began to build more and more work. Our first major performance space was on Wells and Eugenie, the second and third floors of the old Vogue Wright building that was eventually torn down. After a time and with the generous contribution of one of the dancer’s father, the college secured the Dance Center on Sheridan road and Lawrence. There was a real need for this.
I didn’t set out with any sort of idea like: This is what I want to do! This is what I want to accomplish! I just wanted to make work and I knew we needed to create a supportive environment for us to grow in, for dancers to learn in.
When did you start presenting work of other companies?
As early as 1972 we started presenting companies from outside Chicago that would provoke our growth and form a base that could support the art form. It’s amazing how it has grown.
I’ll never forget the first MacArthur grant we were awarded for $100,000 for presenting at the Dance Center. It was to help increase the production and technical level of the shows we were presenting there.
Who were the first companies you brought in?
Meredith Monk. She set a work on us! We also presented Hubbard St. Dance in its early formation and also Muntu Dance Theater.
We had a large space up on Sheridan road--it was an old theater. We built a platform floor and put Marley flooring on it and built risers. It was really quite wonderful. We began to build a reputation not only in Chicago but nationally.
Then, also at that time (1974), a group of dancers that I was working with broke off and formed MoMing. This group, my first company, decided they wanted to form a collective and forge their own direction. I was a good 15 years their senior with a lot more experience and didn’t want to be part of a collective. And there was a real difference in point of view (it just happens) about dance. So they broke off and formed MoMing. That’s how MoMing came about - it was created by dancers from my first company.
Who were those dancers?
Jackie Radis, Jim Self, Susan Kimmelman, Eric Trules, and Tem Horowitz were some of them. Moming lasted about 15 years- until the late 1980’s and made an important contribution to the dance community.
With new arrivals to the city including Jan Erkert, Carol Bobrow, Richard Woodbury, Tiny Schwinghammer, Gary Riegenborn and others a second company evolved called Mordine & Company. The company and the Dance Center itself were getting more and more recognition. I started working more directly as a choreographer than a part of a collective process. I was enjoying making work. The classes were growing and people seemed to love coming to the theater to see dance. Things built from there.
And then the Joffrey Ballet came later to Chicago in the 1990s.
Yes, and Hubbard Street was transforming itself from a musical theater base to more serious contemporary choreography. They had just begun to work with Twyla Tharp. I am so amazed now when I look back at how little was here when I came, and now how the scale of things has expanded. It’s all quite healthy.
You must be very proud to have been a part of all this and to have helped it to grow.
I’m really pleased I was able to contribute. I think the main contribution was to ESTABLISH A BASE.
To plant your flag pole down like the old homesteaders!
Yes! We gave dancers a place to perform and to learn about their art form.
Shirley Mordine began her early training in San Francisco with Welland Lathrop, Anna Halprin, and the San Francisco Ballet School. She performed with the Welland Lathrop Dance Co. for 10 years. After graduating from Mills College in Oakland, California, she taught at the University of Minnesota for three years and continued her studies with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. Moving to Chicago in 1969, she founded the Dance Center of Columbia College and directed it until 1999. Under her direction, the Dance Center has evolved into a multifaceted institution at the national forefront of dance education. A teaching, learning, and performing arts center, the Dance Center is Chicago’s leading dance training program, and its public programming has engaged companies from around the world. In light of her extensive and consistent contributions to the field of dance and the student and professional life of Columbia College, Mordine was presented in 1999 with Columbia College’s Presidential Medal for Distinguished Service.
Beginning in 1969 Mordine created several seminal works for the Chicago dance scene including Journey, RSVP, and Tongues. She received the first Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Individual Contribution to the field of dance and was honored again in 1994 with a Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement.