Saturday, January 31, 2015

Vincent Mantsoe: Philosopher of the Physical

Photo: Meinrad Heck

There is a point in NTU when South African dance artist Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe starts laughing. His belly roar punctuates the silence cocooning a solo that, he says out loud to the audience, is about “nothing.” Using spoken word and physical gestures, Mantsoe describes an existential state of being, a place where the soul spins blindly in the darkness of a friendless night, seeking comfort in something concrete. It is a vain pursuit, akin to a dog chasing its tail. This way madness leads. When he laughs it is because he recognizes the absurdity of his situation. Resolution is pointless. He will always dance alone. "Even if nothingness pervades,” he writes in his novelistic program notes, “there is always something taking form ... what may be created in your own mind."

Creating meaning in his own mind, and artfully articulating it through dance, is what distinguishes Mantsoe, a choreographer of conscience who blends street vernaculars with traditional African dance forms. Today a resident of France, he has won many awards around the world for his inventive approach to dance making. For the next few weeks Canadians can experience it for themselves. His two-part show, at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre Theatre until tonight, is part of a Canada tour that launched in Montreal and continues through February at venues in Peterborough, Ottawa and Vancouver. Make sure to see him.

A masterful performer, unique in his own way as Nijinsky, Mantsoe is an imagist of the body. A physical poet dancing the despair of the gutter. Potently political, he turns dance into social commentary, using it to explore difficult and complex subjects like the meaning of existence, and the breakdown of society. While a contemporary dance artist Mantsoe is never dance for dance's sake. His intensely individualistic dance style includes elements of Asian martial arts, Middle Eastern belly dance and the high-stepping, ground-stamping rhythms of Zulu. He presents a type of emotional dance theatre but where the passions are made flesh, and the body serves as a source of truth. (Movement never lies.)

Photo: Val Adamson
Mantsoe moves sometimes with studied slowness, to the point he appears not to move at all. He alternates those moments of calm with electric storms of flailing hands and legs, rhythmic thrusts of the pelvis and deep squats to the ground. His directional shifts are rapid, forwards, backwards, on the diagonal, in the air and on the ground. He shimmies and then stands stock still. His body cuts angular shapes, like a Brancusi sculpture, and also flows and sways, the arms feminized and the legs taut like soldiers. In NTU he laughs. But he also whimpers and mumbles incoherently, his gibberish symbolizing the mind's inability to articulate the essential fogginess of the human experience. Understanding falls to the body, which Mantsoe presents as mutable and in a continual state of invention.

Mantsoe first created NTU in 2005, debuting it in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre. A reworked version first appeared in France in 2011. It now features a spider web set design, silhouetting lighting by Serge Damon and a Mediterranean flavoured score by Hamayoun Shajarian and Dastan Ensemble. It also comes with a sequel. Called Skwatta, a reference to the squatter villages dotting Mantsoe’s South African homeland, Skwatta is more densely populated with human types, even though, like NTU, it is a solo. The South African Skwatta Camps – "the security without any security," as Mantsoe wryly calls them – teem with the poor, the hungry, the violent, the destitute. Mantsoe, who grew up in the Soweto townships outside Johannesburg, identifies with the inhabitants, describing them as marked by "hopeless desperation," and a commingling of beauty and bestiality flowing like blood in their veins. "We Skwattas are the sophisticated in the gutters of so-called civilization and the symbol of broken spirits,” he writes in notes that are meant to be read as a subtext of the dance. And yet there are moments of tenderness: “We sing, drink; dance the healing dance, laughing, perhaps to the soft moaning staccato rhythms in harmony Skwattas." Beautiful stuff.

Andrea Cera's score mixes Nina Simone and Madagascar musician Daryel Waro, the Kronos Quartet and South African percussion ensemble Amampondo to capture a sense of the audio collage present in the camps. Mantsoe's choreography similarly blends the traditional with the vernacular to make visible the range of emotion also experienced there. He rubs his face in his hands, he leaps lightly and pounds the floor with his feet; he grimaces and gives the finger behind his back while pretending to shake hands. He thumps himself hard and emits sounds, "small cries that echo inside the heart." He scythes his arms, looking as if he is cutting himself down, sinking lower and lower.

It's a tour de force performance, aching in its honesty, and it shows Mantsoe to be a soloist capable of giving form and identity to the collective. His dancing is also a pathway for self-revelation. In both NTU and Skwatta, Mantsoe is his own subject, a restless spirit in search of meaning. He finds it through movement. Using repetitive gesture and pushing his powerful physicality to the limit, he becomes one with the rhythm, one with the dance. The centre of the circle.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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