Zimbabwe-born Bawren Tavaziva has developed a distinctive choreographic signature that seamlessly blends African, ballet and contemporary dance in highly physical works, usually inflected with an African theme. The style tours well and widely, and often goes down a storm with Tavaziva’s youthful audience.
Africarmen transposes the classic story of Carmen into an African setting. The cigarette factory is now an oil plant, Don José and his wife are now Mhondiwa and Mawere (Theo Samsworth and Anna Watkins), the toreador Escamillo is now the boxer Kanyaretu (Carmine De Amici), another kind of fighter in a ring. Carmen (Lisa Rowley) remains Carmen, flagrantly disdaining decorum and inflaming male desires. Fayyaz Virji’s score mixes Spanish cadenzas with African chants and beats, quoting habañera rhythms for the seduction scenes and syncopating military marches for the soldiers’ section.
This is dancing with the volume turned up
The piece begins compellingly, with choreographic motifs that echo the girded construction of the oil rig that towers over the stage. The following workers’ dance sets the tenor for the rest of the work: deep crouches, explosive stretches, corkscrew spins and whiplash limbs. It’s upbeat, impressive and after a while, wearing. This is dancing with the volume turned up, and it makes for a certain flatness of drama: dynamic, but generic.
The drama itself is hit-and-miss. A scene showing two couplings – an attempted rape and a successful seduction – seems uninterested in its own implications. The appearance of masked soliders strikes a chilling note, but the militarist thread is left dangling, and the high-energy routines make the soldiers look like eager entertainers. The boxing scene, with its glitzy cheerleaders, punctures rather than develops the drama, as does an episode where Mondhiwa strips to his jockstrap to emote in front of the blatantly phallic oil derrick.
Blatantly phallic? Perhaps, but the piece seems largely unconscious of its own subtexts. The dancers are dynamite, but they detonate on the surface, strewing the stage with hormones and energy. It goes down a storm with its audience.