writers on dancing


A Person from Far Away

“NDAA” & “Motswe Hole”
Vincent Mantsoe
Dance Theater Workshop, New York
February 11, 2005

by Tom Phillips
copyright © 2005 by Tom Phillips

Even in the bad old days of apartheid, South Africa was incubating a mix of cultures as rich as anything in the world, and today those seeds have grown into unique and world-class art. Vincent Mantsoe learned to dance as a boy in the 1980s, at home in Soweto and on the streets of Johannesburg. His main influences were his family, which included several traditional shamans or healers, and videos of Michael Jackson. In 1990 he began working with Sylvia Glasser’s Moving Into Dance, an anti-apartheid group that was South Africa’s first multi-racial dance company. Now he performs in a style that combines African traditions with European, Asian, and American forms, but is completely integrated and completely his own.

Mantsoe performs solo, but he is never really alone on the stage. The shaman is not expressing himself, but serving as a vessel for personalities and forces beyond himself. He is also exploring the world on our behalf. In his two-part program at Dance Theatre Workshop, Mantsoe gave us two mysterious characters, utterly unlike each other. in “NDAA,” (Awakening of Self) he seems to re-enact the creation of life and the early stages of human evolution. He begins hunched over like a bird in an egg, then hatches himself in stages, padding backward on powerful flat feet like a duck. Suddenly he leaps into flight, flashing his arms out from the shoulder blades at an inhuman angle. Later he becomes a hunter, drawing a bow from a tensile crouch. The character is full of trepidation at every turn, dealing with a mysterious and dangerous world, mastering it in methodical steps and inspired leaps. The world is represented by a minimal set, designed by Mantsoe and Michael Maubert: a forest of about ten spindly metal rods, slightly taller than our dancer, standing upright like bamboo shoots, with a fence in the background. The shaman confronts the rods—the other—hides behind them, faces them down, breathes into them. His breath becomes part of the soundscape, which is recordings of African songs, chants, and the chatter of civilization. The piece ends with the dancer leaning into the audience, expelling his breath into his hand, breathing life into us.

After a brief intermission another character takes the stage. “Motswa Hole” means a person from far away. Here, Mantsoe's partner is a large bowl of water placed in the center of the stage. He flicks his toe in it, dances around it, bathes his face and neck, laughs, sings, and then starts to tease the audience. He dumps water on the floor and dances in it, kicking drops into the first rows. (I don’t know if he ever saw old American movies, but Mantsoe’s delight in splashing is just like Gene Kelly’s in “Singin’ in the Rain.”) A huge clownish smile breaks out—he draws his lips aside and shows all his teeth. Then he gets in the audience’s faces, with an act that seems part harassment, part baptism. The crowd at DTW seemed mostly happy to get a little wet as he carried his bowl through the aisles and rows, offering water and then splashing it around to make sure everyone took part.

Our shaman then gathers up his stuff and exits, laughing. What has he done for us? Something that few dancers can do these days, and enough to earn a standing ovation. Mantsoe’s dancing expresses the very opposite of alienation; it’s a penetration back into our own natures, our ancestors, our original selves.

This is South African art—a unique combination of primal authenticity and sophisticated stagecraft, the result of a cultural collision and collusion that has released extraordinary energy. New York audiences saw it last year in a production of medieval mystery plays by a group called Dimpho di Kopane: bible stories played, sung and danced by black South Africans in a mélange of English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu. Technically advanced but free of modern intellectualizations, it was like a splash of clean cold water. Just like Vincent Manstoe, except that he performs the magic all by himself.


Volume 3, No. 5
February 14, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Tom Phillips


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