When arts presenters schedule international artists, often all they have to go on are a few good recommendations and one subpar YouTube video. That’s exactly how Sam Sweet of the Atlas Performing Arts Center booked a solo show by South African dancer Gregory Maqoma. The North American tour of his 2011 work “Exit/Exist” was backed by MAPP, a reputable New York nonprofit group, but word was the piece had changed since its Belgian premiere.

Sure, the soundtrack in the video sounded good. What Sweet didn’t understand was that Maqoma’s piece would feature live music from a ridiculously good guitarist and a vocal quartet singing soulfully in Xhosa. You could say he spun the YouTube roulette wheel and lucked out. The weekend performances of “Exit/Exist” may well have been the best live music and dance collaboration Washington will see in 2013. The musicians were mesmerizing and seamlessly complemented Maqoma’s choreography. But the most memorable element of “Exit/Exist” may have been Maqoma’s feet.

“Exit/Exist” tells the story of a Maqoma ancestor who led an unsuccessful uprising against the British and died in the Robben Island prison. The narrative line isn’t always clear, but the imagery is stunning. In an opening scene, he wears a silver lamé suit and stands with his back facing the audience, flexing his fingers as if plucking an unseen zither. The lighting shifts, revealing guitarist Giuliano Modarelli sitting behind a scrim. He’s been recording and looping intricate tapping and picking, and Maqoma’s extremities respond to every pulse.

If Maqoma had been born on these shores, he might have been a tapper. He seems to balance on his lower phalanges — neither on the tips of his toes nor the balls of his feet. In several scenes, he moves across the stage by sliding one foot from side to side while keeping up a constant tap with the other. All the while, four men from a quartet called Complete are chanting in Xhosa. Their harmonies owe a debt to both American gospel and soaring Renaissance clear tones. Rough English translations of this tragic tale flit across the theater’s back wall, but it is often tough to look away from this dancer, who uses movement to tell a story of sorrow and struggle with such conviction.


South African dancer Gregory Maqoma. (John Hogg)

Ritzel is a freelance writer.