For him, dancing is a sacred art
Vincent Mantsoe melds ancestral, modern
By Valerie Gladstone, Globe Correspondent | September 23, 2005
Bare-chested and wearing ragged pants, the tall, lithe South African dancer and choreographer Vincent Mantsoe strolled slowly into the spotlight to begin a performance of ''Motswa Hole (Person From Far Away)" at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival two years ago. To the infectious sounds of voices, drums, rattles, and bells, he started swaying his hips and stretched his long limbs in an uninhibited, ritualistic dance punctuated with sudden jumps. Wending his way to a large basin of water near the front of the stage, he first dipped in one foot and then the other, celebrating the pleasure of water like a man long deprived of its refreshing qualities.
''Whenever I perform, I try to share my childhood experiences with nature," Mantsoe says over the phone from France, where he lives half the year. ''They had a tremendous effect on my life, and it has become very important to me to reconnect with my roots and introduce that aspect of my past experiences into my dances."
Mantsoe, 34, makes his Boston debut with ''Motswa Hole" and the vigorous, trancelike ''NDAA (Awakening of Self)" at Zero Arrow Theatre tonight through Sunday. Mantsoe's ingenious Afro-fusion choreographic style, a blend of traditional African dances with modern, ballet, and Asian dance forms such as Tai Chi and Balinese dance, has won him fans and critical acclaim all over the world.
''Vincent is a charismatic performer -- unafraid, intense, and very human," says Ella Baff, director of Jacob's Pillow. ''The audience feels his humanity and connects with him."
Growing up in Soweto during apartheid, Mantsoe chose to study dance in part to avoid trouble with the government, which often harassed and jailed young men. ''If you were attemping to be a performer, they were less apt to be suspicious of you," he says. His choice was also influenced by his mother, aunts, and grandmother, ''sangomas" -- wise women -- who taught him the significance of ritual singing and dancing.
''I wanted to know about all aspects of my culture," Mantsoe says. ''I would be up at 4 in the morning with them to wake up the ancestors and introduce the new day."
The practice had a powerful influence on him. ''Every time I perform, I have a close conversation with the ancestors," he says. ''They allow me to borrow these sacred dances."
Mantsoe's respect for tradition did not prevent him from embracing contemporary trends, though. During his teens he performed with youth groups, trying out street dances and imitating the moves he saw in music videos.
When he was 19, he responded to a newspaper ad for students placed by the pioneering antiapartheid Johannesburg company Moving Into Dance. Director Sylvia Glasser was so taken with his talent that she offered him a scholarship. Two years later, she enlisted him as her associate director and resident choreographer. Under her guidance, he began to merge traditional dances with contemporary styles.
''Finding Sylvia changed my life," Mantsoe says. ''She was open to what I had been doing as a child and also wanted to see how I could make those dances accessible to broader audiences. She never wanted me to water them down, only to learn more about other styles to see if they would enhance my work. I felt so liberated, especially because at the time she was the only director courageous enough to have both black and white dancers in her company. The spirit of my family and ancestors, along with Sylvia, inform everything I do."
By 21, Mantsoe was touring internationally, performing at theaters and festivals all over the world. He has won prizes in Europe and Africa for his choreography and has choreographed for many companies, most recently the Inbal Dance Company of Israel and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
''Vincent had never choreographed for a ballet company before," said Dance Theatre's director, Arthur Mitchell, who first saw him perform in Africa. ''But he created a beautiful dance for us. We both developed as a result of the experience."
Mantsoe's piece ''NDAA" expresses his belief in the underlying similarities among different cultures with a score that combines songs from Ethiopia, Gabon, and Kenya as well as taped conversations of Pygmies from Gabon. At times during the dance, Mantsoe appears to be in trance. But though his works often look spontaneous, they are all carefully choreographed.
''When I am floating out there and a little bit out of control," he says, ''my body always knows what to do next."
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company