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"The stage is a very very sacred place..."

- Interview with Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

January, 2004

Images of Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe by John Hogg
To right: "Phokwane"

 

“… We spoke about the gestures… the force changes... the same gesture in a couple of days may be different when I perform it - I might be feeling differently. In some ways I have created some kind of a language where people can relate themselves and try to understand the importance of what the gestures are. Performing around the world has showed me that you know it’s possible that we have a connection; and the kind of work that I do is close enough so people can understand it. People sometimes, they are afraid; we don’t want to be open to appreciate; they don’t want to see the information that we don’t even know or the truth of it. So, really presenting my work around the world, being a soloist, you know, I’m not sure,.. yes I am successful, thank you for that. I mean I truly believe that there aren’t many African, African man, black man or even a woman who travels around the world as a soloist, you know, presenting this kind of a work and been successfully going up and down and people really appreciating the work. So, really presenting my work around the world, being a soloist, gives me the chance to appreciate more of who I am and what I can offer. I was thinking about appreciation and kind of thinking in respect of our cultures and I’ve tried to carry that kind of knowledge that, you know, once I believed in this language of respect, trust, the preservation of culture and then I can be able to pursue my career with very, very open minded spirited, passion.”

Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe is an international dance artist who trains in varied forms of dance, performing in European theatre presentations. He draws from culturally specific dance aesthetics found in Europe, Asian and Africa. Movement experiences in these contexts are culturally specific, temporal and spacial events. For Mantsoe this confluence of cultural specificity, his particular encounter with alternative culturally specific dance aesthetics coupled with reflection of his childhood experiences in dance with his family in Soweto, encourages, indeed excites his choreographic inspirations. It is this overlap of worlds, the present day to day encounters impacting recollections and explorations with past and present dance-making practices that makes Mantsoe’s aesthetic an intertextual event. Mantsoe touches his past to intermingle with the present as he synthesises European and Asian dance forms and transliterates his embodied Africanist sensibilities to transform choreographic ideas into spiritual transcendence.

“I just enjoyed, I just love to move using the body’s language how one can actually transform himself; different techniques being done by one person it was fascinating and I wanted to explore that. I want to see how far can I go with different techniques being implanted into my body”



"Motswa Hole" (person from far away)

Mantsoe began his training thirteen years ago with a scholarship provided by the Schweppes Corporation to attend Sylvia Glasser’s Moving Into Dance. Previous to this Mantsoe danced in a youth club of 6 young men called the Joy Dancers. Inspired by the communal dance practices in his home township, videos of Fame and personalities like Michael Jackson, the Joy Dancers devised their own dances and performed in competitions, entertainment in nightclubs and weddings in Durban and Cape Town South Africa. This experience though was secondary to his family life where his Mother, Aunt who is of the Ndebele tribe and cousins are trained Zulu sangoma who utilise dance as a vehicle for spiritual transcendence.

“For me, personally, my own experience about dancing began basically at an early age; observing the rituals because my family is full of shamans and we practise rituals every weekend; these rituals include dancing… I did that from a very early age with my mother and she did it every single day to awaken or greet the Ancestors; she would wake up at 04:00 in the morning... the first thing that wakes me up together with my cousins is the drum. I would observe these rituals each and every day, the process of it; how trance took place in that moment which took for ever to get to and to get out of,... it was very scary… I still remember that point when my mother went into trance I was in tears I thought my mom, she was dying but it’s because of the transition of going from one point to another point, how they go into that type of state is very very important for them and terrible at the same time but then for me to observe them at an early age. Of course it was very scary; it was for me: What’s happening here! Is like people are dying for no reason and then they were in pain, why were they in pain? For me to observe them at the end of the journey they took, joy became the part of it; of course to observe the sacred world put one in a difficult position, but it is that wiliness or appreciation that the force of nature is inside us … I could actually see, I could actually feel when they come in and when they go out, but that was it; has been very very important to me to know.”

"Barena" (Chiefs)

In Mantsoe’s family dancing with specific rhythms is the means to transcend the mundane to achieve a state of trance. Within the trance is the opportunity to enliven the spirit and secure diverse knowings, celebrate, or make connections for healing or direction. Mantsoe’s dance making is a process of synthesising these first specificities of dance with newly chosen sensibilities found within the infrastructure of his embodied knowledge. Mantsoe’s movement experiences of the African dance he learned in his home are complemented by his study of Graham, Limon, release and European ballet techniques, Tai Chi, jazz, Alexander, Labanotation, and the basics of Australian aboriginal, Balinese, Indian classic, and Cambodian forms. His multiple ways of knowing movement allow him to express one thing in several movement languages or take a simple gesture and twist its meaning to suit his choreographic purposes. Each choreographer has his own aesthetic, his own way particular way to make his art. His lived experience entails different ways of knowing movement that like a visual artist forms a palette of different colours, a palette of different movement senses, different ways of moving that he taps as source material to make his dances.

“…when I create the movement which specially may be coming from a traditional form, and having to transform or translate it into a language that can be readable to my body and for the Audience too. If they came naturally to me, I also have to understand why I have the gestures or movement. And I just dance it to fill the force of nature. It is with this knowledge that I am still in the process to understand or trying to learn more about… because some things are naturally unexplained ‘they are just simply there’; there’s so many different gestures that I do that, you know, they might be coming back in a different work for different reasons, so that is the connection of life in dancing. I’m creating something today and if the next day I’m creating another work, the same movement will come back again.. it’s a process a journey where I try to find a language where I can speak to my own body in a better way so that you know the person who is watching can be part of it. This language I am creating doesn’t have the names for you to put in a book to say gesture one mean this and so forth,.. the only names I’ve got for this kind of movement are body, spirit, mind, soul. And when you include all those four things together they come into what I call personal legend.”


"Bupiro-Mukiti"


Mantsoe’s “personal legend” illustrates many postures revealing his grace in the expression of several cultural attitudes. These varied attitudes point to the intricacies of his embodied knowledge. Family relations understand him through blood memory, by culture or affiliation. His friends, associates, and supporters surround him and encourage his singular significations but as he moves in an intertextual world, he is isolated by his particular profundity. Mantsoe’s legs walk many roads some of which he has never known first hand but ache from the travel none the less. Mantsoe’s “personal legend” forms the substance of his identity, his dance’s aesthetic. Only those who recognise the cradle of his movement knowledge acknowledge the inspiration, indeed the roots of his movement allegiances and the more you know the more you see.

The continent of Africa has hundreds of different voices, different dance significances, and different embodiments. Each community has a distinct, holistic approach to dance that shapes its significance and purpose within that community. Embodied knowledge within these varied dance practices is integral to lived experience. African dance, from the continent or its alternate places of origin throughout the African Diaspora, is an event where dancers, musicians and audience members partake in presentations that through the use of music, dance and storytelling combine ritual symbolism and religious practice in sacred as well as secular presentations. African Dance has its sources in spirituality where a traditional religious belief system acknowledges with specific rhythms, songs, gestures and body design, attire and accruement, God, deities, celebratory events, rites of passage, and ancestors to list only a few. The ritual and symbolism that accompanies these dances reveal an individual cultural identity with a coherent, holistic approach to life that substantiates validity and guarantees continuance of its form. Individual ways of making and knowing dance are drawn from this multiplicity of varied cultural affiliations that comprise Africanist expressions. Africanist expressions are by their very nature a multiplicity, indicating there is no one-way to dance in Africa or the African Diaspora.

"Phokwane"

“I truly believe in the process of preservation with the ability to move with the times because if you are really a better artist, you want to progress meanwhile you are still having your knowledge of cultural movement in your body but still when one dances you want to fill the force of nature taking place, then your own kind of vocabulary being kept because this is you. Then you want to bring in other elements and that you have to foresee what’s happening in front of you and that’s when you create, you collect all these different modern techniques, wherever they come, then you add them into the dance. And so that’s, you know, what you call preservation moving with the times, very important for me”

Mantsoe with his particular up bringing and training has devised a dance aesthetic full of spirituality. He choreographs a journey of self-healing that offers, indeed invites audience members to travel spiritually also. Mantsoe’s experiential journey takes a luminal path making the performative act more than simple possession or sensual exhibitionism or the translation of embodied knowledge into dance art. Mantsoe’s aesthetic reveals the archaeology of his dancing body.

“When I have to dance this work, the first thing that happens, I have to be honestly, completely a new person. Stepping on stage is a different world than offstage. For me the stage is a very very sacred place, that’s how I feel it.. like when I am home, my mom playing a small drum in a special area where we speak to our Ancestors without dancing this time… that allows me to have the ability not only to dance alone on stage, it gives me the opportunity to see who’s around me, who’s dancing with me on stage and those people are my ancestors and kin. So when performing at festivals its very very important for me to have the ancestors around me, as I see the body being manipulated in different ways then I know that the force of nature is taking place and I can fill you and see if you are part of my journey or not. First as we spoke about the gesture, I can explore, I can do something else, I truly experience in different sources of life each and every time….the other part of the journey that takes place during the performances is that I separate my body into two and one part of the body it remains within the performance space and the other body it remains within the trance, the transformation or the trance part of it. It’s a very risky business but then you know, to make a thing the work to be, to be true to itself, I have to push myself to that point; not that I have to but then it just happens”



"Mpheyane" (Deceit)

Mantsoe’s movement goes beyond what is thought to be the traditional in African dance but admits a gravitational pull toward the philosophy of his traditional culture. Mantsoe seeks a communion with audience members so that they can join him on his plane where ancestral knowing leads to intercultural sharing and recognition. Mantsoe’s choreographic philosophy is open minded and revisionist. His approach to dance and dance making seeks to curtail those staid, short-sighted impressions that disable transcendence through spiritual connection when different cultures meet.

“Well I talk about the audience being part of what I do; for me it is not only about the inspiration, not only to give the people inspiration, but it is also about education. They may not know something that is hidden… they didn’t even know existed in life. But even myself there’s a lot I didn’t even know about it, its out there, educating myself as well about different life forms and whatever I do on that day, on that stage its that crucial for what I do for generation to come. So it’s really about to give the audience what I feel”

This is Mantsoe’s way of cultivating the possibilities inherent in the meeting of varied experiences or varied life views. Just as Mantsoe’s chosen movement vocabulary is multi cultural his music choices defy clear cultural classification. For example the music for “Barena”, which means “The Chiefs”, “the majority of the music is South African but then of course traditional South African music also being composed in the contemporary feel”. Having an astute ear, his selection of music always intends to be “very spiritual in a way but it can be very very fast, or very complex rhythm but still have the very spiritual ness of it”. He designs his own costumes and usually hires someone to make them. Props are collected as and when for their suitable significance within a work. When he is given the resources a lighting designer is chosen to design lights. For each element within his work a connection must be established and a shared sense of reverence and speciality which Mantsoe’s art warrants. “Barena” will be performed at the Barbican during the Moving Africa series 13 – 17 January 2004. The content of “Barena”, like all of Mantsoe’s art, is “based on African tradition or culture and as you can see in my work all the titles of my pieces are based on traditional words”. The content of this work is expressed through an amalgamation of several traditional and contemporary dance vocabularies. This merger of cultural specificity may not be readily recognisable but Mantsoe believes people will meet his work on one of its many layers.

“It’s a very unusual language for them and it might be a little bit difficult for them to understand why exactly am I doing that gesture… you just have to try to feel the environment of it, actually what’s happening in the piece.. Some of the gestures that I do specifically you know, either pointing into the audience or pointing to somebody you know specifically, and with the eyes as well, how I look at the audience, it’s with a meaning behind it; so even if you know movement or gesture that I do, comes very very important for them… People, they tend to be trying to ask themselves like, ‘what was that?’ I truly believe and I feel that I’ve created some kind of an openness to my work with the audience and people really appreciating the work you know, in a very different level of life… I would say some of the, not only the critics but in the public, they may not understand exactly and know what this is about and it’s fine you know. I mentioned the spiritualness of it, it’s not easy to understand my work at one go you know; you need, as a person, you need to look at my work at least twice; you need to look at like either once or twice or even thrice to understand the content of the work and what I’m trying to say because the work itself, it goes beyond just its content.”


Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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