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Flash Review 3, 1-2: Long Ago and Far Away
J. Mandle Performance Returns Time and Again

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 by Darrah Carr

NEW YORK -- Attending a performance directed by Julia Mandle, as I did December 22 at GAle GAtes in Brooklyn, is to be invited in by a host who has arranged every detail with extreme forethought and utmost care. Such attention entails Mandle's combining contemporary choreography, original music, and innovative video with visually stunning costume, sets, and lighting designs. The end result is so well integrated that the performance becomes not just multi-disciplinary, but interdisciplinary. Such seamless work is a testament not only to Mandle's impeccable eye, but also to the skill of her J Mandle Performance collaborators in these various disciplines: Stacey Napoleone, Paul Geluso, Randy Zwirn, Johanna Bartha, Adrian Jones, and Aaron Copp, respectively.

The company's latest work, "Return." is inspired by an 84-year-old relative of Mandle's named Walter, who was a fighter pilot in WWII. Today, Walter struggles to maintain clarity of thought in his advancing age, and to reconcile his regret at not marrying his true love when he returned from the war. The piece effectively draws parallels between navigating an airplane through cloudy, smoky skies and navigating one;s thoughts through drifting consciousness and murky memories.

Given the interior nature of the subject matter, it seems fitting that this is the company's first indoor performance (in the past, it's worked in site-specific outdoor locations). GAle GAtes is a vast, cavernous space that Mandle makes clever use of, carving out pathways, delineating sections for different scenes, and exploring interesting sight lines. A guide is on hand to lead the audience from place to place. Her initial function, however, is to welcome us, provide a few details of Walter's life, and pose the following open-ended questions, "Does regret give loss a life of its own? Do we regret the things we do or those we do not do? Thus, the themes presented are not only specific to Walter's life, but they are also open to the audience as a vehicle to examine the bittersweet edge where memory and reality meet in our own lives.

Indeed, it is not difficult to make associations or become personally engaged in Mandle's work. "Return" is both rich in symbolism and densely layered -- the kind of thoughtful work that would only grow more interesting with repeated viewing. A surreal video tableau in the beginning foreshadows themes that return throughout the piece. The color red, for example, is assigned multiple meanings. It is seen in images of burning planes, in the costumes of the Red Cross nurses, and as the bright love letters that drop by the dozens at the end. Props, too, have multiple functions. Parachute straps float through the video. As props, they literally pull Walter backward and into his memories at the beginning. Later, they bind him to a dancer portraying his younger self.

Multiplicity not only in meaning, but also in form, haunts "Return." At one point, Walter sees multiple incarnations of his beloved stretching down a narrow corridor. In another scene, he is surrounded by numerous nurses who cage him in with red chairs. In the midst of these thick, well-crafted layers, the choreography shines through with clear, straightforward lines that perfectly complement the elegant panels and folds of the costume designs. It is this combination of complexity and clarity that makes Mandle's work so engrossing. At the end, I was surprised to find that the guide had led us right back to where we started. The space had been so transformed, and the labyrinth of Walter's mind was made so real, that I could have been six blocks away, if not 60 years back in time.


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