ONCE A YEAR, South African dancer and choreographer Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe prays to the spirits of his ancestors, seeking permission to use elements of sacred tribal dances. These gestures and movements, which are traditionally not to be viewed by foreign eyes, now constitute part of Mantsoe's award-winning contemporary dance. Mantsoe's afro-fusion style draws on classical ballet and Chinese tai chi, as well as Balinese and Indian dances. He mixes old and new, east and west. Jokingly, he describes his seminal piece Gula, which means 'bird', as an 'African Swan Lake'. It, along with three other pieces, will be part of Mantsoe's first Hong Kong performance next weekend. Mantsoe was born in Soweto, South Africa, an area beset by political and social unrest during the apartheid years. Mantsoe's main interests, however, have always been more artistic than political. Seven years after winning a dance scholarship, the township schoolboy went on to become the resident choreographer of Movement into Dance, a company started by Sylvia Glasser in 1978 as a form of cultural resistance to apartheid. 'My work is about the interaction of cultures,' Mantsoe says on the phone from France, where he now lives. 'At one point we have all got something in common. But we don't even realise this, as we're so concerned with politics and other things.' Mantsoe explores this commonality - or 'one language' as he calls it - by looking inwards towards his own roots and outwards to other cultures. 'My work is very rooted in the African context, but I have a lot of influences coming from different backgrounds,' he says. Although this will be Mantsoe's first performance in Hong Kong, he's no stranger to Asia. He visits Japan every year to perform and teach and has studied many eastern forms of dance. His dance Motswa Hole (2001), which means 'Person from Far Away', is meant to speak to a universal audience, he says. 'Motswa Hole is about what you achieve as a person throughout your years and the wisdom within that journey.' It portrays a process of self-healing, symbolised by the use of water on stage. 'Water for us, in the African context, is for purification,' he says. 'So, for me to use water on stage was very significant.' He uses ribbons to represent the path from childhood to adulthood, although he leaves the interpretations of these abstract images to the audience. 'Dancing is an amazing process to go through, but the audience has to reflect for themselves,' he says. NDAA, also to be performed in Hong Kong, is his most recent work, created during his residency at Montreal-based dance company Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault, and it received glowing reviews at last year's Dance Umbrella annual festival in London. In NDAA, which loosely translates as 'Greeting', Mantsoe delves deep into his own psyche and his cultural roots. The dance refers to certain codes of behaviour in African culture - for example, that it would be considered disrespectful for a younger person to look an elder directly in the eyes when greeting them. With these traditional gestures in mind, Mantsoe focuses on the symbolic meanings behind minute physical movements, particularly traditional African ones. The son of a sangoma, or healer, Mantsoe says he's been greatly influenced by African spiritualism. He describes a 'smelling of the spirit', which is something a person can't see, but only feel. Thus, NDAA takes on another level: there is the physical gesture, the cultural importance of gesture, and the spiritual significance. A gesture as minor as averting one's eyes during a greeting can be related to motho, an important African concept relating to being humble and respecting life. Mantsoe says many cultures are losing their traditions in an increasingly globalised world. In particular, he worries that African culture is disappearing. 'It's upsetting that we're losing our own cultural background, and we forget who we are and where we come from,' he says. His work is shifting to reflect this loss, and includes an intense exploration of African life. But Mantsoe says he doesn't believe in a rigid rejection of modern life, either. 'It's about the preservation of culture. [We should still] move with the times and have a balance between tradition and the modern: a yin and yang.' Vincent Mantsoe's Solo Soul Series: Gula, Phokwane and Motswa Hole, July 9-10; NDAA and Motswa Hole, July 11, HK Cultural Centre Studio Theatre, $100, $160, Urbtix.