When Zimbabwean-born Bawren Tavaziva founded his eponymous dance company Tavaziva in 2004, his vision - as stated on the company’s website - was simple: “to make original contemporary African choreography that excites, transforms and enriches people’s experience of dance.”

Drawing from deeply rooted passions in music, choreography and nurturing young talent, Tavaziva has since challenged traditional conventions and unspoken controversies through innovative and inventive productions, taking a different showcase to venues across the UK each year.

2015 will see the turn of unique dance amalgamation, Africarmen. Loosely based on French composer George Bizet’s opera, Carmen, Tavaziva transports this story to Equatorial Guinea, where seduction and betrayal is played out against a backdrop of oil-laden deceit.

It soon becomes clear that the same passion, pace and innovation exhibited by Africarmen’s performers similarly pulses through the veins of production.

Though eyes may be fastened to the foreground, the show’s backdrop is not to be overlooked. From aesthetics to engineering, the stage will boast a story of its own. As I catch up with set designer, Joseph Bisat Marshall, it soon becomes clear that the same passion, pace and innovation exhibited by Africarmen’s performers similarly pulses through the veins of production.

I cringe slightly when people say that they are a ‘multi-disciplinary designer’ – design is multi-disciplinary – it’s like saying you’re a crime-fighting policeman!

Elizabeth Neep: Can you tell us a little about your background?

Joseph Bisat Marshall: I grew up in Nottingham and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a childhood so intrinsically rooted in the arts – it gave me an artistic way of looking at the world, with curiosity, emotion, structure and chaos. After doing a foundation course, I moved to London to study Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins - set design itself was never an intended career. I call myself a designer because it avoids having to over-define my practice. I cringe slightly when people say that they are a ‘multi-disciplinary designer’ – design is multi-disciplinary – it’s like saying you’re a crime-fighting policeman!

EN: How did you find yourself applying your graphic design skills to stage design?

JBM: The stage designer, Totie Driver, taught on my foundation course. At the time she was working on the UK tour of Oliver! and asked me to help her with some model-making. I ended up doing a lot of work for Totie, which led to more work with different designers and now here I am - accidentally working as a stage designer alongside my work as a graphic designer. I owe Totie a lot!

Each sub-genre has a slightly different process because the aesthetic priorities and practical considerations go in slightly different directions.

EN: How did you first become involved in Africarmen by Tavaziva?

JBM: I met Beth Cinamon, the Executive Director and Creative Producer at Tavaziva, at a dinner following a completely unrelated event. I spoke about the work I’d been doing and she told me about Tavaziva’s new show – and that they were looking for a set designer. Sometimes this kind of exchange leads to nothing, so I was very excited when Beth contacted me to arrange a meeting to discuss the project further.

EN: How does this differ from the work you have done in the past?

JBM: I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with many extremely good, world-renowned set designers, but this is the first show I’ve done on my own. I’ve worked on musicals, plays and operas, rarely on dance productions – each sub-genre has a slightly different process because the aesthetic priorities and practical considerations go in slightly different directions. It’s a huge learning curve – interesting and terrifying!

There’s a sense of all components – story, choreography, set, lighting, music and direction – converging on a single point.

EN: How much creative freedom do you experience throughout the design process?

JBM: This tends to alter depending on what stage the process is in. The beginning is extremely free - practical parameters haven’t been set and it’s about exploration through discussion, research and making. That process needs to narrow in order to define the most appropriate direction and, particularly with stage design work, that process needs to be done collaboratively. There’s a sense of all components – story, choreography, set, lighting, music and direction – converging on a single point.

In this kind of environment, design has to be allowed to grow and change in a way that isn’t too prescriptive.

On Africarmen, I’ve been allowed a lot of freedom and, as a designer, my work responds well to being trusted in that way. Having no formal theatre design training, I don’t necessarily follow a canonical way of doing things, I design in a way that makes sense to me – it’s an innate and exciting process. In this kind of environment, design has to be allowed to grow and change in a way that isn’t too prescriptive.

As a company, Tavaziva produces work that is often dark, sensual, abstractly emotive and incredibly beautiful – the set needs to exist comfortably in that space.

EN: What aesthetic are you hoping to achieve for the show?

JBM: As a company, Tavaziva produces work that is often dark, sensual, abstractly emotive and incredibly beautiful – the set needs to exist comfortably in that space. I’m personally drawn to work that has that kind of contrasting depth. For me it is about creating something that makes sense contextually and provides the necessary visual architecture whilst also providing something abstract and beautiful. It’s all about designing a concept.

EN: Can you tell us about some of the specific pieces you have created for this show? What challenges have you faced in the design process?

JBM: The set comprises of a single oil-rig structure that looms over the stage. The design spec required the set to fold down so that it could be carried by one or two people – originally they were considering various lightweight options. When I became involved, I felt that it needed something real, seemingly heavy, and rooted. The challenge was always going to be designing a structure that had the right visual presence and yet the engineering to enable it to be collapsed and assembled relatively quickly.

Chris Fogg has helped write this new version of the story, which includes the structure almost as its own character in the narrative.

Throughout my research, I kept returning to the kind of latticework frames that you find on cranes, electricity pylons and oil rigs. It also seemed to provide the right aesthetic – a kind of brutal industrialism that is also sculptural and potentially beautiful. The rig has a powerful omnipresence on stage and dramaturge Chris Fogg has helped write this new version of the story, which includes the structure almost as its own character in the narrative. I’m working with Circus Kinetica – a company that makes strange and wonderful, mechanical sculptures – to engineer and build the structure.

I have designed the structure of the rig to provide impressive austere shadows that reach across the stage and into the audience.

EN: And then what happens next, once this structure is complete?

JBM: From here onwards, the set design process becomes more closely entwined with lighting. I have designed the structure of the rig to provide impressive austere shadows that reach across the stage and into the audience. Sherry Coenen will be lighting the show; I’m looking forward to working with her closely over the next few weeks – she will help transform the stage into a complete world in which the dancers will perform.

Africarmen by Tavaziva will be touring the UK from 30 September 2015 – 27 February 2016. More details can be found at: tavazivadance.co.uk/whats-on/africarmen/

Words: Elizabeth Neep

Photography: Manoj Nair / Dillon Rose