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Flash Review 3, 11-1: A Lone Ensemble
Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe Expands The Place

By Colleen Teresa Bartley
Copyright 2001 Colleen Teresa Bartley

LONDON -- The man is beautiful. Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe's triple bill of solo performances at the Robin Howard Dance Theatre (The Place)on October 23, part of London's Dance Umbrella, was inspired and stunning. Mantsoe's choreography was quite personal and ritualistic and the evening had a sense of spirituality. For those die-hard contemporary dance fans who drool over abstraction, this may have been a bit much. The appreciation for his work was also facilitated by the venue. In a larger space, the subtleties could have been lost. The intimacy of the theater gave the audience a sense of being part of the performance.

Most of the African dance that tours England is ensemble work with live musicians. It is rare to find contemporary African dance in solo form, and even more difficult to capture an audience for a full evening of solo performance. Most contemporary choreographers present a combination of group and solo work. Soweto-born Mantsoe managed to infuse the space with enough energy to carry the audience along with him on his journeys.

Mantsoe began the first piece in silence, standing with his back toward the audience. He slowly stepped backward, reaching his right foot like a thirsty plant into a dark wooden bowl of water, which rested behind him on a small rug.

The performer wore a pair of tattered black trousers that resembled rehearsal clothes, with a more traditional fabric was wrapped around his waist. It was a woven cloth with a checked pattern and a red, black and blue pom-pom attached on each side and at the back of his waistband. His torso was bare, which showcased the slinky, free movement of his chest and arms.

Mantsoe moved with grace, slowly dipping his feet into the water, one by one, and then stepping on the cloth to dry them. Then he circled the bowl, crouching low to the ground, as if to complete the ceremony. During the dance, he moved the heavy bowl to slightly different positions by holding it gently while sliding the rug to new spots -- first upstage then slightly left, where it remained.

At the beginning of the work, Mantsoe's back told much of the story as he moved his shadow with curiosity in and out of a small box of light that was projected onto the back wall. The crease of his spine and the dimples of his shoulder blades appeared like a contorted face telling a tale.

There was a sense of order, progression, layering and ritual to the dancer's changes in action, the way the piece was sectioned with music, and in the manner in which he danced with, in and around the long lengths of undyed fabric that lay in a row at the front of the stage.

The soundtrack of layered harmonic African singing alternated with the tinkley music of rainsticks and finger harps.

Although he danced solo, Mantsoe was not alone. He gestured to invisible spirits, gathered in what appeared to be a group of children or a crowd of people of some sort, and argued with and scolded unseen souls. The music contributed to the sense of a group presence. The dancer engaged with the audience, looking sternly over his shoulder, standing with hands on hips, then later inviting the spectators to come splash in the puddles of water. He spoke to the sky and caressed the earth.

"Motswa Hole" accumulated movement and energy from the first two solos -- "Phokwane," a spiritual tribute, and "Barena" -- but introduced unique gestures in its story. Mantsoe scooped up earth and spread it on his limbs, circled an area while digging with hands held prayer-like, doused his head with water, stomped out rhythms in the puddles, and shouted to the sky. While each piece had elements of joy, this last was the most blissful. The performer's smile absolutely lit up the auditorium.

"Phokwane"'s lamenting bare message highlighted Mantsoe's ability to move each muscle in convulsions, shaking out tension. One section in which he knelt in a rectangular pool of light, skin glistening with sweat and neck exposed, captured a sense of vulnerability. "Barena" was more formal and regal. Dressed in a red skirt and white waist cloth, Mantsoe carried a walking stick with a hippo carving on top, and a rusty red cloak with a green stripe. Both were transformed into different tools and symbols of ruling, hunting and other aspects of village life.

In all three works, Mantsoe transformed himself into characters and embodied a range of emotions and qualities. The personae included a stern old man, a boastful youth, a prince, a playful boy, and a seductive woman. His face changed dramatically to evoke fear, indicate shyness, invite laughter, or shy away. At times he moved with animal qualities -- as a small bird looking nervously in all directions, a gawky pigeon walking, an eagle with wide wing span, a predatory cat leaping high and landing without a sound, or a peacock proudly posing.

As a performer, Mantsoe was masterfully fluid and relaxed even in his execution of high tucked jumps, lunges across the stage, and sudden squats to high leaps. There was softness in his movement, rounded and organic, unstained and unfolding. He yielded to the earth, to the power in his body, to the forces in his imagination.

His bones bounced, the muscles flexed, and his arms rippled like watery snakes, his shoulders shimmying in conversation. His wrists aided the expressive hands as they unfolded like flowers or with the exquisite expression of a flamenco dancer. His joints were like rubber, absorbing the shocks of his strait-legged landing, his crouched stomping and his contained explosions. He stood perched on his toes. He fluttered his legs. Each bone, each limb, each muscle seemed to have a mind of its own, yet move in harmony.

Mantsoe's body was a receptacle for rhythm, not only reflecting the change in music but creating its own music and telling its own story. He punctuated the movement with pauses, poses and walks like the silences and dramatic pauses of dialogue, as if telling the story with words. These pauses were at times predictable and and others surprising.

The artistry of Mantsoe's performance was reflected in each piece. Each was rich, stimulating and full but with no extras, much with the economy of a tribe hunting only for what is needed and using every part of a slaughtered animal. The stage was relatively bare, the costumes simple, and the lighting suggestive. All left room for his presence. He used symbolism and imagery to tell his internal stories and conveyed this by living the experience. We were privy to his exploration, his journey. The performance was authentic, genuine, captivating and fun. The audience was drawn to empathize. The artist invited emotional engagement in his ecstactic, embodied offerings.

The conclusion of "Motswa Hole" drew the evening to a close as Mantsoe ritualistically rearranged the strips of fabric into a semi-circle one half at a time, before gathering the strips together like a bride's train and dragging them across the stage through the water, clearing the stage. Once upstage, he paused, split the pile, crossed each bunch over his back and pulled them across the stage, like a burdened but light load. The recorded music faded. He disappeared into the wings, singing away and carrying his stories on to the next town.

London's Dance Umbrella continues through 10 November.

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