Just a few minutes into Exit/Exist, the American Dance Festival‘s second offering of the season, I felt myself slipping out of the critical zone. The commenting mind put down its note-taking pencil and disconnected the flow of verbiage. For an hour, there was only a man dancing, and four men singing, and a guitar ringing and chiming. Within, a play of emotions – awe, pity, rage, mystification, comprehension–and a kind of lust, a joyous greedy desire of the eye and ear.

Even though words, projected onto the rear wall, briefly hint at the historic source material for South African Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theatre‘s work concerning Maqoma’s ancestor’s fight against the invading colonialists, the real information is in the dance and the music. I believe this would be true even for those who know the language of the songs, or the history of the place. Exit/Exist is an example of the very thing I’d been thinking about lately, a narrative of great particularity that can be understood at a fundamental level by the generality of people, without knowledge of the history’s factual details. (I’ve been meditating on this because Durham-based, Haitian-born choreographer Gaspard Louis will be presenting a new section in his work about the Haitian earthquake this week in the NC Dances program.)

It’s a terrible, wonderful story, of course. The invading British, with ideas about property ownership completely at odds with those of the Xhosa, came and took. The Xhosa, whose cattle grazed on common ground, were robbed of their land, their sustenance and wealth. In one scene, we see the dancer, attempting compromise, baited and boxed in; in another we see him searching for the missing cattle. We see him resist, we see him dragged off to Robben Island. We see him survive in the body of his descendant we see that history flows in the blood.

The piece opens with Maqoma alone on stage, dressed in a white suit. We see him from the back only for the entire opening section. He is side-lit, with the lights not touching his feet – he is moving in the ground-mists of history, writhing, twisting. The narrative begins when he strips off his white clothes to reveal plain black shorts, and other props and clothing items are introduced. The lights go up on the back scrim, revealing the guitarist, and four white-masked men appear, threatening. Masks off, they are the singers – their music is so powerful one wants to close one’s eyes and sink into it, but Maqoma is moving and it is not possible to look away.

There’s stuff about boundaries; about land and grain and animals and ancient rituals; about sustenance and riches; about existing or living. It is easy to follow the story that makes a warrior of a peaceful agrarian, and it is easy to admire that warrior, and even easier to admire the memory-keeper, re-telling a story nearly lost behind the more recent stories of struggles in South Africa. But one becomes uneasy. These wrongs that are never righted fester and poison us all. “Where are the cattle?”

This extraordinary dance repeats Monday, June 16. Even if there were no dance, the music would be worth the ticket. See sidebar for details.