The complexities of Vincent Mantsoe

2012-08-31 13:10

‘I’m a South African choreographer in France, not a French choreographer,” says Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe with a touch of belligerence.
 “I have refused to become intellectually European.”

Yet, repeatedly during our conversation, the 41-year-old dancer-choreographer uses words like “shaman” instead of “sangoma”. It’s what works best when trying to explain his inspiration to foreign journalists. Still, every time he does, it jars.

In France, he burns mphepho and has dreams about the country he grew up in. He returns to South Africa several times a year. But when he refers to home, it is Saint Pont, where he has a studio for his “mix masala” dance company, Association Noa, formed in 2005.

“Culturally, it’s a village. It’s a bit like the homelands, with the cows walking past.”

He has lived here in a converted farmhouse near Vichy with his French wife Cecile and their children Ana Noanaledi (10) and Louis Masilo (4) for the past six years of his decade in France.

There is more pride in his voice when he talks about his children than at any stage of discussing his achievements.

And these have been considerable. Awards and standing ovations, trips to important festivals, residencies in Australia, Canada, the US, Denmark, Japan, Germany, South Korea. There have been five in France – yet only one in South Africa, where Mantsoe was to be king.

The last time I interviewed him was in 1996 – an earnest, quiet young man with warm eyes. He had won just about every choreographer-of-the-year prize on offer, including Best African Choreographer at Dance Encounters in Angola.

His solo piece Gula (Bird) was the breakthrough.

Sinewy and tense yet fluid and shape-shifting, it was trademark Mantsoe – a channelling of ancestral spirits cast into contemporary dance languages by fusing cultures ranging from Pedi and Shangaan to Asian and Aboriginal.

Born in a Soweto home with a mother and aunt from a long line of sangomas, he would beat drums for them every morning.

He learnt to dance by cloning Michael Jackson moves off the TV.

He was tutored at Sylvia Glasser’s Moving Into Dance, the new face of her Afro-Fusion movement.

Gula was invited to Paris. Tours and accolades followed and Mantsoe was spotted by Michel Kelemenis.

It was working with the popular French dancer-choreographer that Mantsoe met his wife-to-be, a dancer. “We’d talk in broken French and broken English.

We hit it off,” his voice smiles over the line from Saint Pont.

“I fell in love with the cultural aspect of France,” he says, “they really appreciated my work – they really appreciate art in general and encourage children to get involved.”

He moved back and forth between countries.

In South Africa, the new school of contemporary dance was emerging to limited resources, a lack of residencies and small audiences.

It was compounded by criticism that his work was not African enough.

“It created complications for traditionalists because I was not a qualified sangoma. But I performed ceremonies to ask permission.”

Mantsoe is misunderstood – something he raises more than once during our chat.

“There’s a resentment, accepting the work, even today. It’s not traditional and it’s not contemporary. It’s not easy enough.”

It’s a fairly shrill irony that he is not “African” enough, even in France, because of his multicultural company.

When I ask him about it, he gives a high-pitched laugh.

“How dare I use white dancers for African spirituality? In Europe, the older generation is only happy if they see dark-skinned, muscular Africans. When we presented in Tunisia they were disappointed too ... but a spirit is not a colour.”

The godmother of local contemporary dance, journalist Adrienne Sichel, puts it this way: “Vincent creates ambience and vocabulary in his choreography – it confronts and challenges the notion of African dance.”

In South Africa lately there was a different problem. His piece, Opera for Fools, played with the spirit of resistance during apartheid. It was applauded in Joburg but led to walkouts in Grahamstown.

“Some people may not have grasped it because of its complexity. Today people are looking for entertainment,” he says.

I will confess that I am one of those people.

Its complexity was lost on me. I loved much about it – but it felt too French.

Too understated and repetitive and under-lit.

Now Mantsoe is back in town. A new solo, Skwatta, was born from his alarm at the increased rate of informal settlements around his mother’s East Rand home as urbanisation clogs cities.

Perhaps, also, it’s a response to the audience that walked out.

“Skwatta is a return to the Gula years. I’ve wanted for a while to go solo again. I understand myself better. I revisited my early work with much more aggression and depth ... I’ve surprised myself.”

My final question makes the middle-aged wunderkind pause.

“What if you’d stayed in South Africa? Where would you be now?”

“I really don’t know ... possibly I’d have my own company, but for how long?

There’s no economic subsidy or, if there is, it’s limited.

“And the acceptance for the art I do is getting thinner. The younger generation is into intellectual ideas, not spiritual ones. There are more trained dancers, but back then dancing was more raw. It wasn’t about showing off but about showing the work. Many of them are very intelligent, but ...”

He trails off. But?

“But I foresee the possibility that we’ll end up like Europeans if we don’t pay attention to our culture.”

» Skwatta is on at Durban’s Jomba! festival tonight at 7.30pm, and at Dance Umbrella on Wednesday at The Joburg Theatre

»For reviews and debates on both festivals visit

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