New production of ‘Rite of Spring’ features an African dance troupe

One of the greatest choreographic achievements of the 20th century, Pina Bausch’s version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” returns to Toronto nearly four decades after its first appearance here, in an ambitious production featuring 32 dancers specially recruited from this effect in 14 African countries.

Few of these dancers have extensive training in ballet or Western contemporary dance, but they bring energy, commitment and a degree of individual authenticity to this iconic work that honors its lineage while rejuvenating its spirit.

Bausch – known in the dance world simply as Pina – died in 2009 at age 68. She once said that she was less interested in how people move than what moves them. On that basis alone, Bausch would certainly have been thrilled with what the foundation dedicated to preserving his artistic legacy, in partnership with Senegal’s internationally acclaimed African contemporary dance center, École des Sables, has made possible. This iteration of Pina’s “Rite” is likely to become as legendary as the one the German choreographer created for her Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1975.

Of course, Stravinsky’s score has a much longer history. Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who commissioned it in 1913 for his Ballets Russes, gave famous instructions to his artistic collaborators: “Astonish me”; “Surprise me.” Stravinsky more than obliged.

His “Rite of Spring” evoked in almost brutalist musical terms the sacrificial rituals of ancient pagan Russia. As a work of early modernist music, it is rightly revered. For choreographers, beginning with Diaghilev’s protege and star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, he proved both irresistible and intractable. The choreographers are always attracted like butterflies by the flame of Stravinsky’s score and almost all of them burn themselves horribly. But Bausch did not.

By all accounts, Bausch’s version is the best we’ve ever seen, for the simple reason that it meets Stravinsky on his own terms and delivers choreography so raw and elemental that as an audience member you you almost feel part of a ritual rather than observers of a performance. Music and movement become inseparably combined in a work of such visceral power that once the earth has settled – it is danced on a layer of peat – it can no longer be forgotten.

Germaine Acogny, 78, of Beninese origin, co-founder in 1998 of the École des Sables with her 40-year-old companion, Helmut Vogt, is one of the most influential dance artists in Africa. Acogny’s varied international career and exposure to a variety of styles and traditions has allowed him to develop a training system that connects African traditions with broader currents of contemporary dance.

Salomon Bausch, son of Pina and director of the Bausch Foundation, was struck by the number of applicants from all over the world for one of his training grants for young artists who wanted to take courses at the École des Sables, a community located in the fishing village of Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, near the capital, Dakar.

At the same time, the foundation’s artistic team hatched an unusual plan. What if, instead of agreeing to allow an established dance company to learn and perform Pina Bausch’s “Rite,” they were able to assemble a group of dancers dedicated to her performance? And why not outside Europe?

“It’s so nice to work with people who are just very committed and just interested in this job,” said Salomon Bausch. “I immediately liked this idea.”

He was able to sit down with Acogny about four years ago while she was performing in Brussels. He made his offer.

“I think she was very happily shocked,” Bausch said.

Acogny had met Pina for the first and only time a few weeks before the choreographer’s death. Shortly after, she saw “Rite” performed by the Paris Opera Ballet.

“I told Helmut. Look, it’s so African. Acogniy called back. “I felt he had this very strong relationship with the land and the rituals depicted are close to those in Africa.”

Thus, Acogny did not hesitate to accept the Bausch Foundation’s offer. Beyond the work itself, he fulfilled a personal dream, that of setting up a company of African dancers not only from Senegal but from all over the continent.

The third crucial partner was Alistair Spalding, longtime director of one of Europe’s leading dance theatres, London’s Sadler’s Wells, and a personal friend of Pina Bausch.

“Without Alistair, this could not have happened”, said Salomon Bausch.

Once the audition notices were out, applications poured in from all over Africa, about 180 of them.

The foundation’s artistic staff responsible for the revival of “Rite” attended all three audition sites, not only to assess technical abilities, but to ensure those selected had the level of commitment and individuality necessary. Although “Rite” is a pure dance work and an ensemble piece, Bausch favored physical variety and dancers with something to say.

80 of them were then invited to the École des Sables where 38 were finally chosen.

Everything was progressing well towards a premiere in Dakar on March 20, 2020 and an extensive international tour to follow. Then the COVID lockdown order came.

“It was terrible,” says Vasco Pedro Mirine, a 28-year-old Mozambican dancer. “It was so intense with the borders closing and the dancers having to go back to their country.”

There was a silver lining. A documentary team was recording the project. At the suggestion of Salomon Bausch and within a very short time, they filmed the actors performing the work on a beach. The result was “Dancing at Dusk – A Moment with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring”. It has since aired and streamed around the world to great acclaim. A portion of the proceeds was intended to help cast members while they wait for the pandemic to subside and the project to resume.

It started over a year ago and to date this unique staging of “Rite” has been seen around the world. Montreal and Toronto are currently its only regular stops in Canada.

“Rite” is not a long job; little more than 30 minutes. To open the show, Germaine Acogny and Bausch’s longtime muse, Malou Airaudo, the original “Chosen One” of “Rite”, collaborated on a duet that symbolizes through metaphors of movement the meeting of dance traditions. . They call it “middle ground[s]”.

Acogny says: “I feel like Pina is there all the time, watching and protecting us.

“The Rite of Spring / Common Ground[s]”; Oct. 15, Meridian Hall, 1 Front Street E.;, by email at [email protected] or by phone 416-366-7723 or 1-800-708-6754.

Clarification — October 12, 2022: Montreal and Toronto are currently the only Canadian stops scheduled for Pina Bausch’s version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”


Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for The Star.


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