Vincent Mantsoe and Dance Theatre X

Defining African-derived contemporary dance with Professor Charles O. Anderson

Vincent Mantsoe
Vincent Mantsoe (Courtesy of C-Park Sang Yun)

When modern-dance pioneers like Mary Wigman and Martha Graham appropriated bits of indigenous movement and rhythm from Africa, Asia, and North America, they did so in a formal way, extracting the movements from their cultural contexts, curating, framing, and polishing them as acquisitions to a modern dance lexicon, where they were blended with ballet and anti-ballet to form new passages of expression. But for other choreographers, culture is stickier. For these choreographers, it feels unjust or insincere to extricate a movement from its cultural context. In fact, it's exactly those contexts that drive their exploration of how, for example, centuries-old movement idioms are relevant to contemporary experience, and of what happens when they are unpacked and picked apart with 21st century tools and perspectives.

Charles O. Anderson, professor of African diaspora dance at the University of Texas, explains that he is one of the latter. When he arrived in Austin from Philadelphia two years ago, however, he quickly realized that, here, "there was basically no context for this" – "this" being African-derived contemporary dance, also sometimes called Afro-fusion, or contemporary dance that uses as its springboard South and West African rhythms and movement. Unlike in ballet or Euro-American modern dance, African-derived movement in this genre might arrive onstage with humanity's baggage (good and bad) and cultural memory still clinging to it, like soil to roots. "We're explicitly using the black vernacular," Anderson explains, "rather than pretending to refine it." And whereas modern dance folks sometimes fear literal movement like the plague, many choreographers of African-derived dance include spoken word or songs in their work, since traditional African cultures don't distinguish among music, dance, and spoken language. Anderson says he's "not afraid of using the lyrics" in his own dances, and he has an infatuation with literature: He's included texts by Octavia Butler and W.E.B. DuBois in his work, acknowledging fiction and narrative as another layer within the strata of experience.

The writer James Baldwin is part of the inspiration for Anderson's work-in-progress, Restless Natives, an excerpt of which his company, Dance Theatre X, will perform alongside an evening-length work by the South Africa-born, France-based Vincent Mantsoe. Mantsoe, a friend and collaborator of Anderson's, has performed solos in Austin twice thanks to Dance Umbrella, but this time UT's Department of Theatre & Dance is bringing him along with his company, Association Noa. Restless Natives is set in a juke joint, and Mantsoe's work, Opera for Fools, is rooted in the experience of the shebeen, a sort of South African apartheid-era speakeasy. Both settings, born from the restriction of people of color from white-run establishments, are, historically, hubs of community, color, and music; in these works, they serve as deep wells for expression. And both Anderson and Mantsoe source their dancers from all over – Philadelphia, New York, California, France, South Africa – which is sure to make the performance as rich as it is deep, and a rare opportunity for Austin audiences.

Opera for Fools and the excerpt from Restless Natives will be performed Friday, Sept. 20, 8pm, at the McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. For more information, call 512/471-1444 or visit

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Dance Theatre X, Austin dance, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Dance Umbrella, Restless Natives, Opera for Fools, Vincent Mantsoe

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