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Duke Performances presented an unusual — even for them — dance company in Page Auditorium on the Duke campus. Association Noa/Company Vincent Mantsoe performed Men-Jaro, a single act, "evening-length" piece for five dancers, with an "original sound score" (I would have called it "music") by Anthony Caplan, who was also one of the five musicians. Although it had many lovely moments of sound and movement, the impact of the work was not very great.
Mantsoe is a contemporary choreographer from Johannesburg, South Africa, who works in a modern syntax while drawing on traditional forms, particularly southern African forms such as those of Zulu, Pedi, Xhosa, Venda and Shangaan dance. He combines these with Tai Chi movements, and bursts of energy from martial arts practices, with some Aboriginal Australian, Indian and Balinese patterns for extra spice. Although his troupe includes European born and trained dancers, Mantsoe's work arises from a Pacific world, one with sensibilities quite different from the Euro-American-West African-Atlantic world.
The dance and sound have a strong spiritual component — Mantsoe comes from a family of traditional healers — which sometimes felt too literal. The relationship between art and ritual ceremony has fascinated artists in all fields for a very long time, and I would never say that the two could not co-exist in the same time and space. But somehow this work felt caught between — neither fully artful nor purely ritualistic.
Part of the problem may have been the venue. Page Auditorium can hardly be called an intimate or nurturing or spirit-enhancing space. Perhaps the spirit of Men-Jaro would have been more powerful in Reynolds, or even in the Ark, with almost no separation between performers and audience.
Best might have been an outdoor site, where there could have been a true flow of energy from earth to dancer, and the enchanting sounds of Priscilla "Sasa" Magwaza's vocals and reed pipes could have mixed with the music of spring peepers and cooing doves. Then the balanced and elegant images Mantsoe produced with his dancers' bodies might have filled the heart with the same joy one feels coming accidentally upon a cluster of the long-legged storks and herons they resembled.