by Margaret Chrystall
STANDING behind dancer, choreographer and dance company founder Bawren Tavaziva is a line of people who have inspired his achievements.
The idea for his latest production, Africarmen – which comes to Eden Court next Thursday (Feb 24) – came to him after he saw Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s version of Carmen.
Bawren says: "That inspired me to think of doing an African version of Carmen.
"Mine is based in Africa and Equatorial Guinea.
"For me, most of my work is to highlight places that people don’t really know about – or my culture – and I’ve really been focusing on that for the past 10 years.
"Equatorial Guinea is now a really rich country because of the oil, but the richness of the country doesn’t filter down to the poor people.
"The rich are the corrupt politicians who benefit from it and abuse it.
"So Carmen lives within that poor place and is on the up – everybody loves Carmen – but she’s taken advantage of and it doesn’t work out and it becomes a disaster."
So far, so traditional.
But when it came to Bawren’s original plans for the production’s music – the traditional Georges Bizet opera music – some unplanned improvisation was needed.
Bawren explains: "We were going to take the Bizet and play it as live music.
"Then the funding didn’t happen for that and so with composer Fayyaz Virji of Warriors International we decided to make a new score to be very African with hints of the original Bizet."
Back in his small town in Zimbabwe, a young Bawren was 12 when he first really became interested in dance.
"As an African, I was born in a family where everybody danced – African dance – but when I was young I was always very inspired by American dancing – and music, like New Edition and Michael Jackson."
Bawren laughs: "I always wanted to be like Michael Jackson – and that is where growing up I learned other styles of dancing, like breakdancing.
"The National Ballet of Zimbabwe were doing some workshops in the high-density settlements, the poor places. I wanted to do the workshops there.
"That is when I was introduced to contemporary ballet and classical dance."
But if there were footsteps that Bawren literally wanted to follow, they probably belong to the former artistic director of Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Company, Neville Campbell.
Bawren remembers: "Neville had decided to come to Zimbabwe to start his own company, Tumbuca. He was about 26 and I was really young and wanted to be as creative as he is.
" also wanted to have my own company one day.
"I was lucky to be in his Tumbuca company, and my focus was to have my own one.
"I thought I would have it back in Zimbabwe and thought if I came to England and learned a lot more about dance, I could go home and start my own company."
Instead he has stayed. Bawren came here 18 years ago and danced with the Phoenix in Leeds, as he had dreamed.
"I worked with them for two years and then moved on to other companies in London."
In 2004, he started Tavaziva after his own choreography saw him become a finalist at The Place Prize with a piece called Umdhlalo Kasisi, in memory of his sister who sadly died of AIDS.
"I’ve got a strong understanding of a lot of different styles of dance so, for me, to take advantage of those and fuse them to create my own dance vocabulary is what I want to do – and am doing today."
With his own company establishing a reputation for work that can be controversial, aiming to provoke and change audience’s perceptions, Bawren likes to challenge conventions and highlight important issues that are often unspoken.
He also champions dance training – one strand is the company’s ZIVA dance programme. It’s open to all, but with the aim of breaking down the barriers that put boys off the idea of dance.
As well as touring Africarmen for a second time, Bawren would like to take it farther.
"I would love to take Africarmen back home to Zimbabwe and see the response," he says.
And it seems the risk in trying to stage such a different, new version of a classic like Carmen – and its specially-created music – has paid off.
Bawren says: "I think how that went was for the better – we’re less to be criticised for playing the music ‘wrong’.
"It’s big music and even tackling the Carmen idea is very risky, also calling it Africarmen.
"But I know I am contributing to keeping the story of Carmen alive in this time.
"It has a long history, but still, we are all inspired by it."
Africarmen by the Tavaziva dance company is at Eden Court tonight (Thursday, February 25).