Sensual Africa, Tavaziva Dance Company

Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, Saturday 25th February 2012, 8pm

by Caroline Potter

I went into this Saturday’s performance of Sensual Africa by Tavaziva Dance Company with mixed expectations. On the one hand I had heard good things about this company and expected a high level of professionalism from the choreographer and company dancers. As someone who has previously performed both contemporary and West African dance styles, I was also looking forward to seeing this company’s interpretation of African-contemporary fusion. On the other hand, the show’s marketing, which depicted the two Malawi-based tribes that inspired the piece as ‘untouched, pure, raw, natural, unearthed, mysterious and rich in culture and life’, made me (wearing my anthropologist hat) nervous that the show’s content might be nothing more than post-colonial exoticism of the worst kind.

On the first front, the company did not disappoint. The main show opened with musician Douglas Thorpe (himself also a professional contemporary dancer) hooking the audience in with a commanding percussive performance. Even from behind three drums and a mask, his gaze and bodily presence pierced the space during well-timed silences between an otherwise galloping crescendo of sound, punctuated by sharp slaps of the drumheads that demanded the audience’s attention. My fears of over-the-top exoticism were largely allayed when the first dancer took to the stage; the costuming, music (from this point on largely audio-recorded) and movement sequences signalled immediately that this was contemporary dance: African-inspired, but not attempting to pose as ‘African dance’ as such. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat attentively forward, eagerly watching the piece unfold.

The eight dancers (six women and two men) moved with powerful, punchy impact and never eased off from challenging both the audience and each other throughout the performance. The clarity of movement in every joint and the feverish, yet controlled energy generated by every dancer was compelling from the beginning. The dancers’ seemingly limitless vigour and unwavering stamina, combined with technical prowess, was a pleasure to watch throughout the roughly hour-long performance. The costumes – neutral-coloured short-legged unitards with minimal trim for the men, and two-piece sports bra and bike shorts with a single drape cloth and burnt orange accents for the women – were visually pleasing and effectively showed off the intense physicality of the movements. Additional production elements made the performance space feel thick: voices and calls that occasionally permeated from the wings, the periodic release of a hazy smoke that hung in the air, and the occasional accent of a live drum from off stage. The lingering patterns of sweat that two dancers left on the stage following floor sequences further emphasized the palpable heat generated by the performance.

My chief criticism stems from the non-development of the choreography. While exciting throughout, I never had a sense of journeying through the initiation ceremonies that supposedly inspired the piece. The interpersonal dynamics, conveyed especially through multiple duets of same- and opposite-sex partnerships, never moved away from struggle (manipulation/abuse of one dancer over another) or sexual play (lust/lascivious exploration between dancers)… were no other dynamics of sensuality (tenderness, vulnerability, acceptance, care) to be found during the choreographer’s research trip? The end of act one seemed a cohesive if somewhat underdeveloped end point, with the reappearance of a drum head and the drummer’s hands from the wings to accompany two masked dancers – the audience could have been forgiven for thinking that the show was then over, particularly in the absence of a programme (which gave the only indication of the 20-minute interval). The second act, although full of movement that was compelling for its own sake, did not lead me in any new direction. As one fellow audience member put it, it seemed that the choreographer was less concerned with conveying the process of ceremonial transformation than the moment of adolescent sexual becoming…to which his partner astutely responded that 80 minutes felt like a long time to linger in one moment.

Choreographic equilibrium aside, Bawren Tavaziva and the company’s talented dancers are to be lauded for bringing this energizing, high-quality performance to the Pegasus stage. An added bonus was the ‘curtain warmer’ performed by Oxford youth dancers, choreographed in line with the main show’s theme by two Tavaziva dancers. While lacking some of the technical clarity of the professionals, the youth dancers’ synchrony of dynamics, forceful intention and commitment to the movements was a compelling taster of the excitement to come. Tavaziva seems to have struck the right balance between displaying their own impressive talents and fostering the talents of others, and I for one hope to see the company continue its development in future tours.