Company Vincent Mantsoe
Stanford Lively Arts, Memorial Auditorium
March 16, 2007

Yin Mei Dance
“Nomad: the River”
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
March 23, 2007

Shen Wei Dance Arts
“Rite of Spring,” “Near the Terrace”
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 24, 2007

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2007 by Rita Felciano

Artists who choose, for one reason or another, to live and work outside their cultures of birth carry something with them that imprints itself on their creations though they breathe air which is so very different from that of their formative years. They will never be at home again in their place of ancestry nor will they be quite as rooted anywhere else. Three of these immigrant/émigrés artists recently showed dance in the Bay Area that could only have come about by having a foot in two worlds.

Vincent Mantsoe, originally from Soweto, South Africa, now living in France, brought “Men-Jaro” (“friendship”), a quintet for himself and four internationally trained dancers. What impressed in addition to Mantsoe’s climactic solo was the lilting quality of these not all that different looking dancers. They engaged each other with a focused attention that yet preserved an inward-looking individuality. But the piece ultimately lacked tensile strength.

“Men-Jaro’s” low to the ground swooping and sweeping gestures, the use of a flexible spine and the abrupt explosions into airborne energy called attention to the African element in what Mantsoe calls his “Afro-Fusion” vocabulary; elements of jazz, hip hop and martial arts were clearly part of the mix. Much to his credit Mantsoe restricted this vocabulary to fairly well defined parameters. Their accents may be different, but these dancers spoke the same language, allowing them to project a sense of communal consciousness. Picking up cues from each other, they looked almost as if they improvised their encounters, genially moving between solos, duets and unisons. Some of that looseness descended into excessive meandering. The intensity of a combative, head-to-head duet between Mantsoe and Lesole Z. Maine looked almost out of place, the more so as it was performed upstage behind the women. Even though the men reconciled, they appeared like party-crashing bullies.   

The most puzzling and by far “Man-Jaro’s” most intense episode came in Mantsoe’s shamanistic solo. A highly expressionistic dancer with a strong jump and a quick-silvery manner of delivering sharply articulated gestures, he went into a trance. The music stopped, and all we heard was his muttering, the in and out of his breath and the thump of his dropping feet. There is no question in my mind that this was not a performance but an act towards transcendence. We were no longer an audience but had become a congregation. Much as I admired what I saw, I began to question my presence there.

James Julian Cloete’s commissioned score, performed by an exceptional quintet of South African singers/musicians, was imaginative and fresh.  This “Afro-Fusion” succeeded on every level.

New Yorker Yin Mei was born in China. The images — both kinetic and visual — of her whisper quiet “Nomad: The River” floated by like leaves in the stream at the back of Christopher Salter’s magnificent design. Initially, it was difficult to see a connection between the work’s placid, barely inflected tone and the content of the dairy Mei read on tape. But you quickly realized that the writer and the dancer were two different people. One of them spoke as an enthusiastic fourteen-year old supporter of the Cultural Revolution; the other was an older woman who looked back through the veil of time.    

With “Nomad” the grown-up Mei took a careful journey into memory. It was only partially successful because some of the choreographic inspiration petered out. Initially she used sheet metal squares — as coffins, as blankets, as toys, as hats — imaginatively but after a short time the choreography began to look like an exercise of how many uses can you devise for a single prop. Dancer Pedro Osorio beating bouquets of chrysanthemums against a gong-like cardboard moon had its moments of mourning resonance but the supine Marilyn Maywald and Lindsay Gilmour sticking them between the toes of their raised legs didn’t add anything but self-indulgence.

“Nomad’s” meditative, small-nuanced choreography moved in bits and pieces. Moments of blandness were enlivened by sections of poignancy: a finger-pointing trio and ominous beckonings, daring someone to resist the call; a dissolute circle dance hitting the stage like storm out of nowhere. But a drunken brawl needed more of rationale, and the scurrying about between the panels relied too much on the sound score’s emotive appeal.

One of the Nomad’s most appealing features was Mei’s use of repetition. Certain incidents, like troubling memories, returned over and over. Osorio lifted an impassive Mei, and he and Gilmour rearranged her corpse-like body. Hanging over Osorio’s bent back, Mei looked as if about drop down a precipice. In another repeated scene Osorio and Gilmour stood behind Mei, Gilmour fondling her breasts, Osorio sticking his fist up through her legs. The sense of violation shocked, made the more chilling because it was presented in such an emotionally uninflected manner.

Lea Xiao’s dark lighting design and Salter’s exquisite set of semi- transparent panels suggested a dreamscape into which the dancers receded and reappeared. Salter also signed for the soundscape; it included two appropriately placid compositions, the second movement of Philip Glass’ Second Symphony and Keren Ann’s introspective ballad with its refrain of “Don’t Say A Word.” “Nomad” could not exist without these first-rate collaborators.

For his second appearance at Cal Performances, Shen Wei Dance Arts brought back Wei’s “Rite of Spring” and the earlier “Near the Terrace, Part I.” The first was athletically physical, the other dreamily static. Two very different pieces resulted from the same impulse: make the visual kinetic. The works drew, whatever their power, from Wei’s visual imagination and his experiences as a painter and with Chinese Opera.

The fact that Wei used dancers as his design elements much the way a city planner might move model houses or trees around a map, may raise eyebrows in a discipline which is so dependent on individual human beings.  But if quality means a clear concept, exceptionally well realized, Wei is a winner. His work is mesmerizing and seductive, ultimately lightweight as it may be.

Much as one admires the skill with which these dancers realized the choreographer’s demands, there was also something so autocratic about them that the pieces began to look uncomfortably dictatorial and off-putting. A dance exists in time, and not only in space; it needs to breathe otherwise it will choke. And that’s where Wei’s choreography is weak. It’s airless.  

Intriguing in watching his choreography is observing how he “fails.” In order to make them his tools, Wei puts these dancers into rigid molds. He allows for little individuality; the more striking it is when it breaks into relief. In the “Rite” they walked out with arms slightly curved tight to the torso, hands in a small cupping position. They were all alike, and yet each of them, was different. He may put them into Butoh-white anonymity but when James Healey exploded into a summersault at Stravinsky’s first explosion, he looked like a startled teenager. The magisterial calm, which Joan Wadopian brought to her body-contorting solo of, turned in legs, awkward stretches and limb-challenging weight shifts profiled her as the outsider. When the dancers stood downstage in a line, eyes closed, each little twitch betrayed individuality. As they scooted around like little robots on wheels to re-align the floor patterns, more often than not the action of one precipitated a response from another in the vicinity. They began to look as if they were in a relay race.

The dream-soaked “Terrace” had the advantage of a sense of humor. While intense in its insistence on pictorial values, the piece had a playful, i.e. very human dimension to its evocation—an eerie one, in fact—of Delvaux’s paintings. All kinds of mini-narratives popped up. The work opened on an all female world. And when the men finally rolled in, transformations took place. Human shapes mutated into new creatures and some familiar ones. I saw at least one swan, a seal and a very prominent faun. Lindsay Clark’s downstage progression, for all its attempt at controlled anonymity was full wonder and curiosity. A tiptoeing blonde scurrying in an out of the wings looked like a bride who was late to her wedding. A woman in a huge red hat slowly descended the stairs never to be seen again. Duan Ni loaded women on her back like bags of rice to gently let them slide off her. The end, with the dancers pouring down the stairs that they had just ascended, probably meant to avoid a conventional finale. It looked oddly glued on.

Volume 5, No. 13
April 2, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Rita Felciano

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