Leaving a Difficult Stage 

For all its shortcomings, the Dance Center of Columbia College will be missed.

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By Charlie Vernon

As the house lights dimmed, the performers shared a moment of anxiety with the audience. Would the show be a success?

For dancers at the old Dance Center of Columbia College, these feelings had always been accompanied by an additional fear: Will I stub my toe and crash in the dark on my way from the dressing room to the stage?

The stage was an open black box with no proscenium or front curtain; the dressing rooms were behind the audience. Performers learned to hold hands, proceed in a line, carefully negotiate the aisle, step onto the slightly raised dance floor, and either find their spots--bits of tape glowing in the darkness--or await their turn behind the velvet wings.

Since 1976 I'd watched this scenario unfold time and again. As the dancers took their places, I was always reminded of the buddy system. They seemed vulnerable, standing at attention, their leotards reflecting a gauzy glow. Think of the faeries in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the philosophical artistes of Jules Feiffer cartoons--they were a secret society emerging into light.

Last month the dance community bid farewell to one of its funkier institutions. An evening of student and faculty performances--showcasing pieces created by Tim Buckley, Rebecca Lazier, Erica Wilson-Perkins, Deborah Siegel, and Douglas Wood--closed the old Dance Center for good. On June 13, the staff packed up and moved out of the converted movie house at 4730 N. Sheridan; two days later the new owners--a social-service agency called Alternatives, Inc.--took over. The space is being gutted and turned into offices.

"Why are we so sad about a building?" Margi Cole asked. "Our whole artistic lives are wrapped up in it."

She wasn't exaggerating. A 1990 graduate of the dance department, Cole went on to manage the Dance Center's box office, run accounts payable, teach modern dance there, and perform with the resident troupe, Mordine & Company Dance Theatre. She's now the program manager at Columbia's Office of Community Arts Partnerships as well as a choreographer and director of her own company, the Dance COLEctive.

Cole, Colleen Halloran, and Brigid Murphy--all graduates of Columbia's dance department--served as emcees for the latter part of the evening, which in essence was a tribute to local dance pioneer Shirley Mordine. For nearly 30 years she oversaw the Dance Center, fostering generations of performers. She has always been "a majestic presence," says Tribune critic Richard Christiansen, "whether offstage or on."

Mordine started teaching dance classes in Columbia's fledgling theater department in 1969. "We were so successful we had to get a space of our own," she says proudly. In 1972 the Dance Center building was purchased by the father of one of her dancers, Marvin Sugarman; a few years later he sold it to the college.

For the last performance and farewell party on June 10, 200 current and former students, performers, and faculty members turned out to share their stories. Others sent E-mails and faxes. To them, the Dance Center wasn't just a theater: it was a classroom, think tank, rehearsal space, incubator. It was the place where epiphanies happened, bad or good news was received, kids grew up, and artists were born. Later on, some of those artists brought their children in to run around the first-floor space. The upstairs included a classroom, two rehearsal studios, a tech booth, and a sound lab where students learned about creating music for dance. The box office, dressing rooms, administrative offices, and a student lounge were located off the front lobby. For years, the audience entered through a side door; the only access to the second floor was a fire escape.

"The best seat in the house was on the stairs to the tech booth, floating above the audience," Cole says. "Looking down on the class, the rehearsal, the performance. All by yourself. That spot I'm going to miss."

ooo

Renovations over the years made the space more functional, but it always felt makeshift. Despite the addition of light grids and sound systems and cyclorama and copy machine and a real box office, the center seemed to struggle on the periphery, operating by its own rules and rituals. The Dance Center was Columbia's distant colony in Uptown. The work produced there came to be defined by what it was not: not ballet, not representational, not aerobic, not show dance, not therapy, and not commercial.

ooo

Part of the center's atmosphere--some describe it as circuslike--came from its Uptown location. Veteran performer and educator Jan Erkert, now director of Jan Erkert & Dancers, recalls teaching in the second-floor studios overlooking Sheridan Road. "There have been experiences more than once when the whole class would suddenly rush to the window to observe a woman hollering obscenities and revealing her breasts to the world. It is difficult to go back to the plie after this."

Irv Meyer has been an engineer at Columbia College since 1975, often working at the Dance Center. Over the years he's dealt with squatters in the basement, working girls on the corner, and shanties in the alley: "There was a guy, years ago, who got up on the roof and tore apart one of the air-conditioning condensers and took the coil to the recycling place. He sold it for maybe 20 bucks--well, it cost us probably $14,000 to replace that unit up on the roof. A neighborhood like this gives a guy like me job security. People are scratching hard just to get by and you feel sorry for them."

On a recent Saturday night I encountered local dance historian and critic Ann Barzel at the Siam Cafe, just a half block south. She succinctly summed up the center's history: "Neighborhood movie theater becomes neighborhood dance theater." She said that in the 1970s New York Times dance critic John Martin "called it the finest dance theater in America, though I'm not sure I want to walk around alone at night."

The Dance Center was located on what might be the last Uptown block to gentrify. Mana, owner of the Siam Cafe, has been there for 15 years. "For many years, business was good," he says. "But three years ago it goes downhill." He points across the street to a shuttered Harold's Chicken Shack; a hot dog stand has also closed. Now there's a homeless shelter nearby, and a huge graystone was torn down to make way for a halfway house. When I ask if the closing of the Dance Center will affect him, he tells me he didn't know it was closing.

Curiously, in the last four years area condominium sales have gone through the roof: a 180 percent increase in the number of two-bath units sold and a 54 percent increase in average sale prices. When the 4700 block of Sheridan finally turns, the Dance Center will be settled in its new home at 1306 S. Michigan, close to Columbia's other departments.

The move has been a long time coming, says Margi Cole. When she was a student in 1986, she was told she would graduate from a downtown dance center. "It's been out of sight, out of mind for so long, I wonder what it will be like," she says.

"The new place is going to be a cupcake--all new plumbing, all new electric, five heating units on the roof," Irv Meyer boasts. "As a matter of fact, I can get on my computer at home and adjust temperatures and schedules right from home. We couldn't do that here."

"I will not miss tiptoeing through the audience to enter the stage space," reflects Jan Erkert. "It will feel kind of grown-up to walk onstage without sneaking on first."

ooo

Columbia College executive vice president Bert Gall has long been a champion of the dance department. As he toasted the old Dance Center, he spoke of positive changes--the school will have a new president, a new dean, and a new home for dance. Last December, Shirley Mordine turned over the Dance Center reins to Bonnie Brooks, a national figure: she's been the head of Dance/USA, the manager of David Gordon's dance company, a fixture at the National Endowment for the Arts, and a faculty member at UCLA and the University of Virginia. "This is Shirley's party," Brooks notes. "My party will be when we get to our new home."

This year Columbia's dance department produced a record 17 graduates, and there are more dance majors--140--than ever before. The strain of the department's transition was evident on the faces of long-term members, however, their foundations shaken and file cabinets uprooted for the first time in a quarter century. "It's not fun," one faculty member confided.

Artist L.D. Chukman has been a witness. He watched Mordine & Company spawn MoMing, and MoMing spawn Link's Hall. He saw the rise of performance art and attended early shows by Jim Self, Amy Osgood, Bob Eisen, Jan Erkert, and Xsight! Performance Group.

Chukman had attended the closing party for MoMing in 1989, and now he was present for the Dance Center's last gasp in Uptown. "I always felt my art and entertainment dollar was better spent at Columbia or MoMing than at Hubbard Street or the Joffrey," he says. "I could see more, get closer, and the dance aspect was identical." Still, he says, "Most of the people who turned me into a dance fan are not producing work anymore." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dance Center photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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