Engineers who dance to the sound of America

The 32 members of the Boston-based Mandala Folk Dance Ensemble spend what appears to be three-quarters of their time in rehearsal and performance, with the other half is spent in jobs as computer specialists, teachers, and engineers to support their dancing habit.

If the mathematics sounds impossible, it is necessary to sustain a professional company's long and demanding schedule.

Now in its 15th season, Mandala has evolved from its origins as a recreational outlet for a group of highly paced "technies" from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a polished troupe giving 30 performances yearly. Although the transition has meant some changes in company management, the original structure continues, with the members meeting weekly to decide policy.

In addition to performing, various members act as suite directors, costume designers, and choreographers, although many of the dances are set by outside specialists in the national styles. In keeping with the collective spirit, dancers and musicians are not credited in the program, even for the most virtuoso solos. Except for two staff people who arrange business details, the members of Mandala are not paid.

Costumes are the main investment for Mandala. The members do most of their own sewing, often using one authentic costume to make patterns and suggest fabrics and colors. The costumes are ablaze with colorful embroidery, appliqued flowers, and weaving, copied by Mandala in testament to the homecraft skills practiced in villages around the world. Shoes -- such as the Yugoslavian "opanci" (soft leather shoes with pointy toes) -- are ordered from the various countries.

Another unique attribute of Mandala is the quality of the music, both in songs and instruments. Nearly all of the dancers double as musicians or singers. Many may play a banjo or flute in one number, then dance in the next.

The variety of instruments is astonishing, adding a special texture to the projection of a national image. Castanets punctuate the Spanish jota, a Russian balalaika throbs the melody for the Moscow quadrille, and there is even a washboard and spoons as accompaniment for an Appalachian square dance. The company has imported such exotic instruments as tamburitza from Croatia; a tupan , the large drum from Bulgaria; and a middle- Eastern dumbek. Ethnic songs by the performers progress from the hard consonants of middle Europe to the languid syllables of Central and South American languages.

The Mandala repertoire is taken from a large part of the collective heritage of the United States. A recent addition to the program is a series of country dance figures from Ireland. Bright green cloaks complete the women's costumes and serve to complement the fancy footwork of the jigs and reels. "Los Viejitos ," a dance from Mexico imitating old men's movements, is an amusing combination of vaudeville pratfalls and stamping feet similar to American tap dancing. The performers wear dark red masks and hobble around in bent-over position with knobby canes for support. Since the dance is done traditionally by young men, the continuity of the generations underlies the humor.

My favorite is the "Vrlicko Kolo," from the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia. This mysterious, somber dance for a circle of men and women in accompanied only by their own singing, the noise of shuffling feet, and the jingling of coins on their costumes.

These dances, and others in the repertoire, have in common the patterns of the circle and straigt line, suggesting the community of experiences shared by men and women who dance out their joys and fears. There is more than a hint of magic in the recurring circle as protection against the unknown.

Another similarity is the frequent use of the green bough, either as costume ornamentation or prop, which is central to the choreography. The presence of the vegetation is reminder of an earlier time when the manifestations of nature were integrated into daily life.

As the years have passed in Mandala's development, the staging has become more theatrical. A suite of dances, rather than one example, is arranged to tell a story. In the Appalachian grouping, a sewing circle of women sits around a quilting frame as one sweet voice warbles a mountain song. When their work is done, the frame is set aside and the women are joined by the men for a rousing square dance.

Next fall Mandala will perform in Vermont, Connecticut, and New York, and the following spring, 1982, in the "Tribute to American Dance" series at Brooklyn College Center for the Performing Arts.

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