As part of Duke University Dance Program’s three-day conference Across the Threshold: Creativity, Being, and Healing, Duke Performances presented South African choreographer and dancer Vincent Mantsoe. Co-sponsored by Duke Dance and the Hayti Heritage Center, an African-American cultural organization, the solo dance event took place in the Center’s intimate performance hall, formerly the sanctuary of the old St. Joseph’s church.

Mantsoe last performed in Durham two years ago, when he came with his company. The dances they performed then included many beautiful and intriguing moments but were hard to understand. Mantsoe’s dance on the 19th, Ebhoflo (This Madness), was even less satisfactory in that regard, being highly resistant to interpretation without some prior explanation. According to the program, the dance had to do with moving between the private, spiritual world and the public, physical world. The stage was arranged to represent a traditional South African homestead where, apparently, this kind of movement is a commonplace. These homesteads, again according to the program, are designed to foster a harmonious balance between the world of living people and that of the ancestors.

However, to this viewer, the balance was missing, as well as any sense of flow between the realms. During a lengthy prologue while the stage remained dark, we heard Mantsoe moving about, accompanying himself with a percussive rattling. By the time he finally emerged into light, I was secretly checking my watch. Mantsoe is a powerful dancer with a unique style created from African and Asian sources, but this dance just dragged on, its soporific pace occasionally interrupted by a series of three explosive leaps straight upward from a crouch. Mostly Mantsoe wandered, albeit gracefully, around the stage, looking a good deal like the indigent mentally ill I observe daily in downtown Durham. There was a Thorazine-paced walk, repeated obsessive-compulsive sequences, and the shaky pill-rolling behavior so common among the bench-sitting population.

In places, though, Ebhoflo (This Madness) had the merit of recalling from memory a former downtown neighbor, who lived for quite a while by the side of the rail tracks opposite my windows in a shelter he made, again and again, from furniture store cardboard and plastic sheeting. This man’s name is Mike, but I, and many others, call him Headphone Man, because he always has music going into his ears to balance the voices in his head. Call them voices, or demons, or ancestors, Mike lives in constant interaction with those representatives of his spirit world. It is hard for him to be still — he is as much a dancer through life as any dancer on a stage — and he goes through shoe leather at an amazing rate. Even after working hard as a day laborer, he’d walk back and forth through town, bouncing up on his toes, shoulders wriggling, head bobbing, before he returned to his little home. Once there, Mike’s routine at his homestead rose beyond obsessive behavior to the level of healing, balancing, harmonizing ritual — more completely than Mantsoe’s routines, in which, if you will pardon the language, such ritual is referenced.

At the end of Ebhoflo (This Madness), Mantsoe finally does something with the pile of pink sand he has approached and avoided for the entire dance. He beats it with a branch, and spreads it violently across the stage, so that the dance ends with an image of chaos and brokenness. Maybe this is a comment on the destruction of traditional culture. I don’t know. But I do know that I felt a whole lot better watching Headphone Man clean and order his self-made sanctuary each night before he set his boots out to air, than I did watching an international artist dwell on disorder in the sanctuary at St. Joe’s.