The body of the extraordinary South African dancer-choreographer Vincent Mantsoe harbors a cross-cultural lexicon of movement traditions: rituals performed by his mother and aunt (both shamans); dances that he and boyhood pals did on the streets of Johannesburg to tapes of Michael Jackson; plus his training in ballet, modern dance, African styles, Balinese forms, martial arts, etc. Yet his works are anything but eclectic. All that he has absorbed flows into his personal responses to the world and to the spirit within.
His dances seem like journeys that could well last for hours. Yet the way he lives in every moment keeps you on the edge of your seat. He ripples a shoulder or an arm and you feel that ripple in your own muscles. He stares and the back of your neck prickles. NDAA (Awakening of Self) weaves through a grove of slim metal “trees” set beside a curving fence of metal tubes. For a long time Mantsoe, walking bent over, travels slowly backward along a path of spotlights that come on one by one. Retracing his steps, he erases the lights. Recorded voices envelop him: A woman chuckles, a baby babbles, people chatter.
To chanting and selections on thumb piano or woody flutes, Mantsoe expands into dancing. Every soft lunge and wary twitch, every explosive jump, the snaking of his arms, the flick of a leg, the picking up of a foot and setting it down again—all these make silky connections deep in his body. We can’t know why he suddenly scrubs at his face. We don’t know how the fence, which he barely acknowledges, shapes his inner life the way it shapes the stage space. We don’t know what his shadow means to him. But in some deep sense, we understand.
In dry Africa, water is precious; too, a thirst for knowledge is part of Mantsoe’s stated quest. Motswa Hole (Person From Far Away), however, is no somber ritual, but a larky wallowing in the delights of a water hole, represented by a large bowl. The dancer dips in, pours the liquid over his head, splashes it onto the floor and stamps in it. Droplets fly as he entices us, teases us. Two women in the front row hasten away. But another woman, sprayed as he walks up the aisle, rubs the water gently on her face. She knows when she’s been blessed.
Carolyn Dorfman started a company in Union, New Jersey, in 1982 and has built it into a success beyond that community through touring and other activities. Her dancers are skilled and appealing, and Dorfman has some stimulating ideas, especially in terms of visual design. It’s not always clear how two low, revolvable disks relate to the sprightly, Celtic-influenced dancing in her Pastorale Pause, but the vision of five dancers piled into evolving configurations on a slowly spinning circle is arresting. In her 2002 Echad (One), an immense spoked wheel of tubular metal is more potently symbolic. Set on edge and rolling, it becomes a vehicle for the eight dancers to ride. Laid flat it’s a ritual altar; tipped up again, it becomes a prison for Pamela Wagner. When Jon Zimmerman releases her, he encases himself in the wheel as if it were a huge skirt, spinning and dipping it furiously (amazing image, powerful performing). Later, David Shen and Wendee Rogerson use it as a jungle gym to flirt through. David Wall’s very dominating music suggests primal ritual, and Dorfman’s choreography implies human sacrifice, the breaking of that tradition, and the transformation of the wheel into something more benign.
Echad exemplifies both the strengths of Dorfman’s work and its flaws. The beginning beautifully establishes a sense of community. Four groups—a man and a woman, three women, two men, and a lone woman—engage in separate dances. Without stopping the flow, individuals move back and forth between groups. Dorfman clearly makes these activities represent the daily life of a society. But she doesn’t shape subsequent events to point up their import. I see the “plot” but don’t experience it fully as theater. For instance, people walk off the stage to make room for a quartet, duet, or solo as casually as if they were going to get a drink of water. Once Wagner is freed from the wheel, nothing about the way she moves profoundly reflects her ordeal or the significance of escaping it.
In Dorfman’s new Odisea (Odyssey) the scenic strategy is Sean J. Perry’s corridors of light. Like several of the choreographer’s previous works, this one explores her Jewish heritage. Lights, spatial patterns, Katherine Winter’s dark costumes, and Wall’s music with its embedded Sephardic chant refer to the odyssey of Brazilian Jews to America. The dancers churn from their paths into lifts and falls suggesting trepidation and arduous travel. The piece opens strongly, but Dorfman doesn’t develop movements and forms that resonate uniquely with her theme. The program also featured Enigmotion, a murky premiere by British choreographer Aidan Treays, in which a gift of leaves, pressed on loner Jacqueline Dumas by Lindsey Dietz Marchant, causes Dumas to leave the stage and return in a trendy little outfit, shaking her hips between two chums. There are many such inscrutable little dramas, and fake leaves from suspended bare birches are very, very important.