South African-born dancer and choreographer Vincent Mantsoe may be performing solo during his first major United States tour but he is never really alone onstage. When the lights dim, Mantsoe enters a trance state and his long limbs begin to execute his Afrofusion technique, a blend of traditional African, Asian, and contemporary Western dance forms. Then his ancestors begin to accompany him. "Every time I perform I have a close conversation with them," explains Mantsoe from a tour stop in Columbus, Ohio. "The spirits allow me to borrow these sacred dances." Some days the connection is more intense than others, but Mantsoe, who will be appearing at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, October 10 and Saturday, October 12, says it always exists.
Folks who don't consider Crossing Over with John Edward to be appointment viewing may dismiss Mantsoe's mystical experiences, but the proof is in the performance. The 31-year-old artist is clearly engaged in a dialogue, through his body and voice, with something elusive and powerful. Mantsoe is the son, grandson, and nephew of sangomas, wise women who taught him the significance of ritual singing and dancing. "Being a shaman is like being an artist," he observes. "I was a very curious child. I wanted to know about these aspects of my culture. I would be up at four in the morning with them to wake up the ancestors and introduce the new day."
Mantsoe was also drawn to popular culture, and as a teen he danced on the township streets to the music of Michael Jackson. Sylvia Glasser of the antiapartheid troupe Moving Into Dance recognized his potential and under her tutelage he has developed into a talent honored by African and international dance festivals alike. Despite growing up during apartheid, Mantsoe is adamant that his explorations do not carry a political message, although one could argue that his commitment to preserving culture is a political act in a country where native traditions were actively suppressed.
Mantsoe's Walker show features three works, including "Phokwane," a word that combines the names of his parents. The piece traverses family history through idiosyncratic movement, tongues that seem channeled from another realm, and movement that captures person and place with uncanny perception. "Barena" and "Motswa Hole," by contrast, tend to follow more solitary routes, yet they too demonstrate Mantsoe's ability to transcend the spare stage.
When the show ends, Mantsoe may release himself from the trance but his journey continues. "I feel rejuvenated," he explains. "I feel enlightenment."