Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe is a magical dancer. He has traveled far from his birthplace in Soweto, South Africa, studying martial arts, Balinese dance, and contemporary western forms. Yet his native traditions—Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Venda, and Shangaan—course through him and mingle. Bent over, shoulders rippling, knees lifted, feet treading softly, he seems to be listening to ancestral voices without losing an awareness of everything around him. Watch him, and you see landscapes both actual and virtual.
Now resident in France, he has choreographed works for a number of companies, but, with the exception of a piece he made ten years ago for Dance Theatre of Harlem, I’ve only seen him perform several remarkable solos. Collaborating with composer Anthony Caplan, and co-presented by Danspace Project and 651 Arts, he brought a small group of dancers and musicians to Brooklyn’s Kumble Theater.
The members of the African Music Workshop Ensemble, including Caplan, play a variety of traditional instruments: drums of all kinds, small pipes, rattles, thumb pianos, a small harp (nyatiti), a long necked string instrument (botsorwane). Vocalist Priscilla “Sasa” Magwaza can croon softly or roar with extraordinary power. The dancers, like the musicians, are a diverse group. Cécile Maubert Mantsoe (the choreographer’s wife) trained in France in ballet and jazz. London-born Aude Arago has studied classical Indian forms, flamenco, and circus. Japanese Meri Otoshi has performed in range of western dance styles. Lesole Z. Maine, originally from South Africa, danced with Alvin Ailey’s company and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, among other groups.
Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe: A magical dancer
If Men-Jaro tells a story, it’s simply one of people dancing together in a spirit of friendship, often playfully. They dance in unison. They watch others dance. When Laurent Pirard’s lighting fades up, the five are standing with their backs to the audience, legs wide apart, backs bent slightly forward, and arms outspread. Slowly, softly, they take up the phrase that Maubert Mantsoe has begun. Before long, they’re clustering—teasing and conferring with their stamping feet. Throughout the dance, they come and go, as if entering a clearing. They meet in duets, the two men wary, each with his own agenda of steps. Everyone performs a solo. Arago’s long, slim arms and pecking head match Magwaza’s fluttering bird trill.
They’re all fine dancers, but the rich movements look faster, stronger, more flexible, and more defined when Mantsoe performs them. He can jump high, wheel around, and land , etching every fraction of a second on the air he passes through. His snaking arms seem to be propelled not just by his shoulders but from deep within his back. At times in his solo, he’s very aware of us; he comes close to the first row, eyes wide, teeth shining (he’s not a neutral performer—his face is always alive with passing thoughts and feelings). But he’s also introspective, and at one performance, he seems to work himself into a trance, possessed by forces he honors. Maine walks onstage, watches him for a few seconds, and then touches his shoulders to stop him. Mantsoe sags against Maine, and for a while Maine struggles to get him upright and balanced again. Finally, Mantsoe nods almost imperceptibly, and in silence the two men work their way into a duet. The terrific musicians start to play again, and the dance resumes. Moving so completely, every part of the body heating up in complex relations with other parts, could easily, I should think, transport the animating spirit of a performer like Mantsoe to some timeless realm. In another sense, and with conscious skill, he always takes his audience on a journey.