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Company Vincent Mantsoe - 'Men-Jaro'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

October 18, 2006 -- Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Vincent Mantsoe’s newest work, “Men-Jaro,” partners him with South African composer and ethnomusicologist Anthony Caplan. Presented at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 18 October 2006 “Men-Jaro” celebrates these two artists’ rich creative perspectives on the intrinsic relationship between African contemporary dance, ritual and music. Whereas Caplan’s score utilises the sounds of South Africa with indigenous instruments such as mbira (thumb piano), umrhubhe (mouth bow), uhadi (gourd bow), botsorwane (string instrument), drums, shakers, clappers and vocals, Mantsoe’s movement material draws on his experience in Contemporary, Aboriginal, Asian (Indian, Tai Chi, Martal Art, Balinese) Dance and Ballet as well as sacred and secular expressions found in African dance (Zulu Dance, Pedi, Xhosa, Venda, and Shangaan dance).

Program notes, instead of providing audience members with text based access to the work, offered Mantsoe’s dialectic ponderings on the manner and context of his dance making. “Allow me to first define Afro-Fusion,” he writes, “different forms of dance (Western and Eastern) and traditional dances are brought together to form one spirit of Dance”. This is the propensity of cross cultural dance making: the choice to take embodied knowledge and elicit several expressions to formulate one. Fusion, euphemistically tagged as polyglot by some references, requires understandings of how movement material is embodied for each individual culture, then coalesced given work and understandings by maker, choreographer, dancer and audience member given the intent of the work. Devising compositional strategies to build a movement aesthetic that encompasses culture multiplicity is perhaps shared by Caplan, but only inasmuch as providing a creative non-literal approach to cross-cultural aesthetic appreciation. The approach to “Men-Jaro” seems along these lines, but there is something not translatable, not yet present in dancers who seem to know the nuances of varied cultural movement vocabularies but as yet have not fully captured the spirit Mantsoe seeks.

Incense fills the stage area as house lights dim. Musicians enter from upstage right and dancers place themselves on stage in the dark. As a voice begins to sing and a chorus of voices joins, dancers move sequentially in amber lights. A slow attitude is taken as dancers face upstage into low moves that touch the ground, enforce a stomp placed before a lunge while the voice is accompanied with claps and percussive rhythm.

Five dancers, Aude Arago, Lesole Z. Maine, Cecile Maubert Mantsoe, Vincent Sekwati Kokko Mantsoe, Meri Otoshi, dance an episodic arrangement of ensemble, solo, duet, and trio but each has a level of individual embodiment; independent understandings that reveal the level of performative skill. Mantsoe is the most fluent in this movement vocabulary of varied aesthetic voices transformed into one voice but this is not to severely criticize the proficiency of the work. Mantsoe and Lesole Z. Maine perform a sequence of undulating spine and stomps that travel downstage right diagonal. This progresses and seems to develop into a game of prowess and wits, mannish side glances and playful teases. A berimbau-type instrument joins to add rhythm as the men travel in jumps and bombastic moves. Mantsoe makes his exit upstage left with exquisite hand gestures.

Aude Arago and Cecile Maubert Mantsoe, Mantsoe’s wife, continue with a mixture of percussive and legato sequences that reach skyward and caress the earth. A flute section takes over, leaving Cecile Mantsoe performing rows into parallel plié with a gentle undulating sequence in spine, jumps, South African stomps and spins. Quick feet and hip isolations follow as the rhythm gets faster. Thumb piano and hand shakers introduce a duet for Maine and Meri Otoshi. Maine holds Otoshi’s shoulders as they progress, knees bent with subtle rocking from side to side. This develops into brisk feet and jumps with arms and spine in a gentle yonvalou. With more gentle steps and simple turns around each other, they caress hands and Maine exits. Otoshi’s solo is meditative with its praying hands and balances and possibly built on yogic ritualistic references more so than direct yogic movement duplication. Otoshi walks slowly while being accompanied by a heavy bass drum.

Mantsoe enters performing fast steps in response to the drums. Alternating his focus upstage right to the drummers and vocalists and downstage left to audience, Mantsoe has given himself a performative challenge. Mantsoe’s stirring gaze at the audience and physical definition when facing upstage indicate this solo draws from ritualistic understandings. This solo is a rendition of possession, an abstract rendering pulled from Mantsoe’s sacred ritual experiences. This solo is experiential, thus empirical; devised out of lived experience. This is what gives Mantsoe such power. Several lunges with brisk feet and stomps alternate with intense stances that evolve into a flurry of spins. Maine enters and rescues Mantsoe from his moment of spiritual incantation. In silence and with a gentle bounce, Maine accompanies physically and spiritually as Mantsoe returns to a state of normalcy. Their following sequence ends on the floor with both mumbling syllables.

There is more ensemble work performed by all the women with Mantsoe entering and exiting. The music, in its own way, continued to provide accompaniment for rhythm as well as ambience. Towards the end there is taped music heard that sounds like aboriginal chanting or perhaps a child’s song. Cecile Mantsoe performs a slow movement sequence of undulating spine, arms and turns with Mantsoe sitting upstage left watching. As the taped sound ends, a thumb piano ends the work as the lights descend.

One could say, as “The New York Times” has, that what is traditional and ritualistic in movement and music in “Men-Jaro” is transformed into abstract movement expressing a sophisticated meditation on the relationship between ritual and art. One could also say it is cleverness that resulted in this multiplicity of acquired aesthetic finesse, subtleties and nuances that become exquisite generalisations; clear but simultaneously on some of the performers in this work, bland, fluent but topical, mindful but not liminal; honest but not quite deep enough. These dancers seem agile, but have not reached that level within the performative act achieved by Mantsoe. It would seem that “Men-Jaro” was a process that revealed Mantsoe’s embodied knowledge acquired from years of experience to those with an ability to synthesize lived experience a priori. The success of a process such as this is noticed in how the person moves from the pelvis and the use of arms and legs with specific sentient connections to the ground. In this episodic work, a non-literal dance that borrows sentience from several sources to speak only of itself required more astute observation of Mantsoe as mover and performer for all involved to reach the level of finesse achieved by Mantsoe; an artist who truly can make embodied sentience speak for itself.

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