Vuyani Dance Theatre. MAYHEM The Dance Factory, Newtown, Johannesburg. Mayhem Choreographed by Gregory Maqoma Photograph: John Hogg

A red ribbon stains the stage; trailing intimations of pain, shame, abuse, disease and numbing isolation.

In Gregory Maqoma’s Mayhem, each of the nine Vuyani Dance Theatre performers is transformed into transmitters. The bodies of the dancers, who each developed personalised choreography from two minutes of material provided by the choreographer, emit maimed movement calligraphies.

True to its meaning, Mayhem unleashes madness and chaos; in this instance, as the programme note suggests, in a mental institution. The dancers were tasked to break out of confined physical and psychological spaces. These damaged altered states are framed by a South African society infected with gang rape, artistic expression under threat and blurred political and personal responses to burning social issues.

Depicting mental instability on stage can be highly problematic and downright uncomfortable.

The richly metaphoric Mayhem sidesteps pitfalls of literal, voyeuristic, caricature because of the organic integrity and the cruel honesty of the creation process.

The four women, wearing old-fashioned girls/women’s dresses, and the five men dressed in street clothes, embody a brutalised physicality. Their internalised vocabulary is spasmodically gestural, fragmented and tormented.

Wesley Mabizela’s recorded score sets the stark tone with loud pounding drumbeats which could equally be interpreted as heartbeats or death knells.

Shards of abrasive sound puncture the action, underscoring the symbolic ambiguities of this work – which unleashes blemished innocence and searing vulnerability.

Lulu Mlangeni and Gladwell Rakoma, in particular, express imploding identities of dangerously fragile human beings trapped in a malfunctioning environment.

The imagery, wide open to individual interpretation, provides fleeting glimpses of domesticity, childhood and normality which regress into an out-of-sync, discordant reality.

Mayhem is a difficult work to access. The viewer cannot be complacent because the emotionally demanding and raw subject matter is jaggedly structured, spatially spattered at times, and intimately focused at others.

This programme, staged at the Dance Factory until Sunday, provides two facets of contemporary African dance.

The opening work, Luyanda Sidiya’s Umnikelo (Offering), exudes lyrical spirituality and holistic fluidity.

This sharp contrast to the embodied deformity and scarred zeitgeist of Mayhem epitomises the poetic beauty of dancers rhythmically in touch with the earth and the universe.

The vocal and instrumental music provided by the Jaiva Ensemble (Isaac Molelekoa, Mpumi Nhlapo and Anele Ndebele on violin, guitar, percussion and vocals) symbiotically intoxicates the seven responding bodies.

This is the more familiar side of Vuyani Dance Theatre which performed Maqoma’s Isiqalo (Beginning) to drumbeats elevated behind the glass facade for the opening of the Soweto Dance Theatre on May 25.

The following day artistic director and dancer Gregory Maqoma joined African icon Salif Keita (whom he had never met) on stage in celebration of Africa Day and the birth of an important new stage.

For the Soweto Theatre mainstage Maqoma also choreographed the new version of James Ngcobo’s theatrcialistion of E’skia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, which now incorporates the acapella quartet Complete.

This production, as well as the forthcoming international tour of Hugh Masekela’s Songs of Migration (choreographed by Maqoma), is produced by Sibojama – a production company formed by Masekela, Ngcobo and Xoliswa Ngema.

Apart from The Migration 2012 tour to the UK and Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, in July VDT will present Maqoma’s historic new solo Exit/Exist (featuring Complete) at the high-profile Julidans festival in Amsterdam and at the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora’s The Bloom Festival at the Southbank Centre in London.

Closer to home, this month, the VDT Company travels to the Eastern Cape with Mayhem, which dances the idyllic African dream and treads the South African nightmare.

• Vuyani Dance Theatre’s double-bill Mayhem is being performed in the Gymnasium, on the National Arts Festival Fringe, in Grahamstown on June 28 at 2pm, June 29 at 12pm and 9pm, and June 30 at 10am.