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Letter from London, 4-26: Merging lanes
Tavaziva doubles over; Protein laughs out loud

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2011 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "Held" opens with a crowd of school-boys, positioned in strict military lines, enacting a drill, while four of their peers beat out rousing rhythms on the drums. Like boy soldiers they are zealously committed, their energy contained but ready to explode at any moment. The first of three pieces made by members of the Tavaziva Dance Company in a community dance project which involved school children in central London, it was followed by two short pieces, "Broken Silence" and "Eh-ca-ungoki-ya!!," choreographed with the same bursts of activity but with greater variety in dynamics and mood. All showed the company members' skill in working with large numbers of teenagers on stage. Often with teenage dance projects, the participants look bored or embarrassed, but in this case, they were animated, focused and utterly engaged. The lack of professionalism in getting on and off stage was soon expunged by the sheer joy the youngsters took in performing highly energetic African-based dance phrases to an electrically vibrant music score. Dancer, musician and choreographer Bawren Tavaziva, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe and now lives in the UK, uses a mixture of Zimbabwean, African and Western dance music which could persuade the most reluctant mover to spring into action, and which is effectively deployed in the company work that made up the rest of the program, seen March 8 at the Place.

In "Double Take," Tavaziva reflects on his experiences in Africa and England. His group of eight women and one man delivers the piece with a tour de force of charisma and attitude. The dancers exude a fierceness of attack that sometimes verges on the aggressive, but is physically empowering. Herculean leaps and balances performed with the fluidity and speed of Western contemporary dance fuse effortlessly with African dance techniques employing undulations in the upper torso, intense expressiveness, pelvic rotations that reverberate through the whole body and an earthy low center of gravity. Central to the actions is the Muchongoyo, a popular Zimbabwean dance that is performed at festivals, funerals and other important community events. Through side-shuffles, shoulder shimmies, flailing arm gestures, jumps with knee lifts, stamping, bottom shaking, arabesques, air-splits, flying lifts and hand-stands, each dancer tells a personal yet universal story, the whole of which encompass celebration, mourning, meetings and partings, tradition and new environments. The women's bodies, muscular, short, and compact, are perfect for the demands of the punchy choreography; long, lean limbs and torsos would look out of place here.

Tavaziva draws inspiration from his life in Zimbabwe ? the religious, traditional, hectic, tragic and colourful moments. Rather than get lost in reminiscing about these, he blends his African identity with his newer European one. Exploring his more recent world -- the independence, excitement and experimentation it offers -- he also conveys loneliness and spiritual emptiness. The score shares a symbiotic relationship with the movement and the dancers are often accompanied by African vocalist Tsungai Tsikirai. Wrapped in a blanket, she prays, shouts, weeps, moans and sings, relating to the dancers like a mother to her children, chiding them, calling them home or sending them away. Even with the linguistic barrier -- she sings in Zimbabwean -- Tsikirai is still able to convey the hardships, conflicting emotions and confusion of identity that anyone growing up in Africa then moving to the West must encounter. In Tavaziva's score, traditional Zimbabwean music with its syncopation and poly-rhythms complements the more simple, melodic Western orchestral notes in the same easy way that Tavaziva incorporates Western and African styles in the choreography. The dancers respond to the singer, sometimes personally by performing a solo beside her, other times collectively. Two women in particular keep breaking away from the others, perhaps symbolizing the departure of Tavaziva himself from family, country and community. Their fierce determination, defiance and exhilaration melts into vulnerability as they imagine the unforgiving and anonymous Western life.

While most of "Double Take" is uplifting, immediate and resonant, it drags on rather too long; stories which convey trans-cultural experiences so evocatively in the first half become rather more labored in the second part. However, exceptional performances by the dancers maintain the focus to the end.

Katie Cambridge in Tavaziva Dance's "Double Take." Irven Lewis photo courtesy the Place.

At a time when many of us in Western consumerist society are now totally in the grips of social networking sights, it is not surprising that our online love affairs, complete with their expectations and disappointments, should now be the subject matter of dance. Protein, a London based dance-theater company directed by Luca Silvestrini, is dedicated to making material which reflects on aspects of Western contemporary culture, and "LOL (lots of love)" is no different. As cyber-text goes, "LOL" is one of the oldest bits of nomenclature, usually standing for "laughing out loud." Silvestrini peals it out more broadly, reinterpreting the initials as "lots of love" as an excuse to explore a whole universe of cyber-relations, as I discovered when I saw the show March 10 at the Pace.

Simple in its design, "LOL" includes three narrow backdrops which serve as a triptych of imagined computer screens, onto which is projected a plethora of computer-related images. A significant prop is a massive tangled bundle of colored wires, which represents the physical embodiment of technology, and which the dancers pass around like another body. Both prop and stage design serve the hectic movement and spoken content effectively. Monologues are recited by the performers throughout the piece, even whey they are dancing full out out, the subject matter of these speeches endless trivia from e-mails, Facebook, and Twitter delivered in a babble of consciousness. Slick, fluent choreography and text convey the hellishness of life in this virtual landscape. Our heads start buzzing.

"LOL" doesn't speak to those of us who might use Facebook or Twitter strictly for professional or creative purposes. It's aimed at single people who use social networking to meet other singles, addressing dating, the exciting or disappointing content of texts, e-mails, and social networking sites, the anticipation or disillusionment that arrives with one quick click. Experiences are shared through confessionals delivered in Facebook jargon. The physical action which accompanies the text reinforces it, in outbursts of frantic activity as bodies bump together in twisted clumps or disentangle and drift away in still, quiet solos. Each performer portrays a familiar character, such as the tragically lonely and desperate woman who never hears back from her online lover or the naive guy from the provinces new to the city who doesn't know how to play the dating game. All of them fall for people they don't understand or are non-compatible with. Some of them make it to actual physical dates, but the majority fall by the virtual roadside. Finally they are reduced from human beings to simply a list of physical descriptions, likes and dislikes. By the end I understood "LOL" to mean "lack of love" and "losers on line." Although I left the show without learning anything new, I could certainly feel, thanks to Silvestrini, the futility of our online cravings.

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