In an old can factory down by Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, nine figures shuffle across a splintered floor with wedges of chalk tied to their feet. Some wear cardboard appendages, others swags of lemony fabric. This is the stuff dreams are made of, I think: the dreams of prosthesis salesmen. But Julia Mandle reminds me I'm seeing things out of context, and to her, context is everything.
The dancers are rehearsing Kalch, which premieres during Monday's lunch hour at Collect Pond Park, near City Hall. The five-acre pond is long gone, drained and filled by work- relief crews during the 1808 depression. Mandle wants it back. "I'm interested in what lies beneath our feet, and in Luc Sante's idea of smaller, darker histories resurfacing."
An inquisitive soul with friends in high places (her dad heads the Rhode Island School of Design), she studied history and fine arts at Williams before apprenticing with directors Robert Wilson and Ann Bogart and architect Steven Holl. In 1996 she started J Mandle Performance Company "to create site-specific performances in unexpected locations that heighten the perception of everyday movement." Kalch, the troupe's sixth piece, began with an old map in Holl's office. The title, Dutch for chalk or lime, was used to describe mounds of oyster shells Indians left by the pond. English settlers wrongly pronounced it "collect." That explains the funny footwear, but Mandle goes further: "The chalk shoes are burdensome, a weight you have to pull. And they're drawing implements, drawing people's attention."
The cardboard and fabric, too, are abstract references to shoveling. Mandle and her worldly band of collaborators were "looking for repeated movements that could be structured into the costumes, so the workers' bodies and musculature reveal their emotional state."
Lately some buildings in the area have reported problems with wet foundations. "It could be lots of things," Mandle says, "but it's poetic to think the pond is reclaiming its space."