"Rite of Spring" Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.
Common Ground[s] Photo: Maarten Vanden-Abeele

Common ground[s]/The Rite of Spring

Pina Bausch' famous ballet presented by an all-African cast.

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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“Common ground[s]”
By Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo

“The Rite of Spring”
By Pina Bausch

“How would you dance if you knew you were going to die?” asked German choreographer Pina Bausch of her dance company during the creation of one of her most memorable pieces, “The Rite of Spring.” Now, the piece is touring with a cast made-up of dancers from 14 countries on the continent of Africa. The results are stunning.

Pina Bausch died in 2009. Her company, based in Wuppertal, Germany, lives on. “Tanztheater,” the form she invented to marry dance to the revolution in theater that was happening in Germany (Regietheater—which is non-text-based), generally involved evening-length dance works which were collages of scenes exploring, in often humorous ways, human desires and drives. The process she developed for generating new work often involved interviewing her dancers. According to the company website, she would ask the dancers 800-1000 questions during the research and development of each piece. Out of 40-50 of the answers she would compose her work.

“Rite of Spring,” (1975) was different. She used the Stravinsky score in its entirety rather than a specially created sound score, and there was little of the quirky, personality-based movement she used to shine light on the talents and idiosyncracies of her family of dancers. Perhaps because this is one of her few “pure-dance” pieces, there is nothing to be lost in translation, and it has been one of the group’s biggest hits, danced all over the world.

Germaine Acogny, co-founder of the influential École des Sables in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, a center for the teaching and development of traditional and contemporary African dance, helped spearhead the collaboration between groups. “When I first saw Pina’s Rite of Spring, I felt it was an African rite.”

The stage is covered in peat and female dancers in white slips run, fearfully, in the dirt, raising dust and kicking up soil as they fly. Soon, the white gowns are stained with sweat and dirt, the air reeks of humus. The women gather in lines and then groupings, and then huddle together, shivering. One square of red cloth, standing out as brightly as blood, is passed among them like a hot-potato, soon gotten rid of—the unlucky prize, a gown of last resort.

It is the day one of them will die. Bausch’s jagged, muscular movement and gestures add tension which only becomes more intense with the arrival of the community’s bare-shirted, horny men. Stravinsky’s brutal musical expression created its own tensions. Here, a group of dancers who were not uniformly trained (some of the dancers come from street dance, hip hop and commercial entertainment) were subsequently well-schooled in Bausch’s vocabulary but left also to be themselves on stage. They seemed to embody something even more devastating—less perfectly presented, more powerfully felt.

“Common ground[s]” opened the evening. (The stage was piled with peat during intermission, with the curtain wide open.) Acogny worked with Malou Airaudo, one of the early Bausch dancers. Basically a presentation of two 70-something women moving slowly, appropriately, and thoughtfully, it was a gesture bringing together the world of Tanztheatre, with the work of Acogny’s “École des Sables” without showing any of it. It was conceptual rather than choreographically interesting, but it did serve as an introduction to the wild, high-throttle dance about to be seen in Act 2.

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