The evening kicks off joyfully, first with a curtain-raiser courtesy of The Grey Coat Hospital School, who are one of the latest groups to benefit from Tavaziva Dance’s extensive community and youth work; then, as the main event begins, with a vibrant drum solo which elicits whooping and dancing in the audience. The lone percussionist, holding a steady pulse with his foot, overlays virtuosic and complex rhythms, earning himself several rounds of applause in the process.

With the audience sufficiently warmed up, the first dancer enters onto the stage. He dances with energy and impact, every movement sharp and brutal. At first it is refreshing to see such gusto, particularly after my normal diet of calm and contemplative contemporary dance, but soon the novelty wears thin and the following hour of aggression proves to be a little jarring. Even slower sections and smaller movements are attacked by the dancers, who seem intent on accenting every action, letting no motion go unnoticed.

Sensual Africa is a response to Malawian tribal rites of passage, but it speaks most of mating rituals and the more intimate aspects of coming of age. The choreography is at first suggestive – the dancers’ body language is charged with sexuality – but it quickly shifts from abstraction to mime. The imagery is obvious and a little shocking, certainly out of bounds for the easily embarrassed. The relationships in the piece carry the same aggression as the movement; they are fraught with abuse, manipulation and sex.

Bawren Tavaziva’s inspiration for Sensual Africa came from a three-week trip to Malawi last year where he was granted access to some of the guarded rituals of the Tumbuka and Chewa tribes. Speaking after the show, he describes one tradition that involves boys being taken into the bush to find sticks to thrash each other with. The boy who stands tallest and strikes hardest is inducted into the tribe further up the hierarchy. This same strength, gritted determination and aggression pervades the work.

Tavaziva’s homeland, Zimbabwe, is infused into his vocabulary, which contains elements of African dance, ballet and contemporary. The combination is unlikely but works, and manifests Tavaziva Dance’s signature style. The music, composed by the choreographer, contains the same African influence in its percussive elements, both recorded and live. Later a baby crying and chickens clucking are worked into the score, sounds that stayed with Tavaziva from his time in Malawi. The thumping sound both complements and drives the visual; at times the combination risks being headache-inducing, but the energy is infectious and engaging.

The dancers execute Tavaziva’s movement with fantastic technical skill. Their stamina is more than simply impressive as they charge through the steps at breakneck speed and maintain the hard-edged dynamic for the entire evening. Unfortunately, it is not only the physicality that proves too much. The outward performance is just a bit overwhelming. The cast dance with confidence and pride, but for me their showiness and over-performance becomes grating.

Tavaziva Dance - Sensual Africa, at The Place TheatreTavaziva's African-infused contemporary dance exploring transition into adulthood is reviewed by Kit Brown.3