On Wednesday night, ACE Dance and Music presented a two-part programme of original work; TNBT – The Night Before Tomorrow by Serge Aimé Coulibaly, and Mana – The Power Within, by Vincent Mantsoe and Gail Parmel. In TNBT artificial grass, benches and a table, alongside the seven dancers (five women and two men) dressed in casual hot-weather street clothes, suggested an outdoor scene. The company burst across the stage to Yvan Talbot’s score with a blistering energy; leaping, spinning, falling, they seemed driven by a furious rage against each other and against the audience. Their ferocity felt like an assault as they vented their anger, silently mouthing words that we could not hear, challenging each other, yet strangely dissociated from one another, pursuing their own trajectories as they moved between different formations, brief duets and solos. There was a passing feeling of more intimate connection between the guest performers Thabang Motaung and Mthoko Mkhwanazi, who introduced a sense of wit in a dance in which they interacted moving with fluidity and precision, but the overall impression was one of isolation. When Mirabel Huang-Smith danced on the table, although she was surrounded by the company, strobe lighting seemed to capture her movement in a series of stills, as if she was being observed by outsiders.

What did it mean? Half way through spoken word voice-over revealed that the driving force behind the work was resistance to the colonial legacy and the refusal of colonisers to listen to those that they oppress. Seen in this light, the dancers’ mouthed but unheard words silently echo the Rhodes Must Fall protestors, who tape their lips in solidarity with the generations of subaltern peoples who have had no voice.

After the interval, it was something of a shock to be transported from a critique of colonisation to a scene that seemed to embody mystique, ritual, and an exotic ‘otherness’ that could almost have come from La Bayadère. The auditorium had been cleared, and we returned for the second work Mana to find the stage transformed into a dark cavern set with gorgeous free standing twisted and gilded poles; one for each of the six dancers, who, their hair styled in topknots, wore beautiful golden costumes reminiscent of Mughal dancers’ dress. This work, to music by Andy Garbi, was beautiful to watch, and culminated with the anointing of a dancer with a stream of red powder from high above his head.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering how this treatment of sacred shamanic ritual was different from the orientalising scenes in nineteenth century ballets; perhaps it is the serious desire to understand and share experiences that are universal to the human condition that can make the difference.

Maggie Watson
10th March 2023

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