École des Sables

When the world stopped, the dance continued

A programme note to accompany Dancing at Dusk — A moment with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring by Sarah Crompton

A beach of white sand. The light bleaching from the sky. A girl lying on a red cloth. An eerie bassoon piercing the silence. This is the way in which audiences get their first glimpse of a remarkable collaboration between the Pina Bausch Foundation, École des Sables in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, and Sadler’s Wells to create a new version of Pina Bausch’s ground-breaking The Rite of Spring. 

Restaging this work was always a bold venture: the first time The Rite of Spring would have been performed by a specially-recruited ensemble, the first time by dancers from African countries.  But the onset of Covid-19 meant that its planned premiere in Dakar was cancelled just days before it happened, as was the subsequent tour to Sadler’s Wells in London and other European ventures, including the home of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Germany. 

Out of that postponement, however, the documentary film-maker Florian Heinzen-Ziob and his team, who were documenting the project, have conjured something wonderful.  By capturing the final rehearsal on camera, he has underlined what those involved in the project had always hoped: that this production of The Rite of Spring would provide a new way of looking at the piece, offering different inflections and insights.  It is clear from this evocative film that the dancers from 14 countries across the African continent have come together to create something that is both true to Bausch’s intention – and yet somehow singular and distinctive. 

For Germaine Acogny, co-founder of the remarkable École des Sables, a centre for the teaching and development of traditional and contemporary African dance, the first run through of the work felt like a fulfilment.  “I was deeply touched and moved,” she says. “I wished that Pina could have seen this powerful interpretation.”  Although their paths only crossed a few times, the venture represents the culmination of her relationship with a woman she had felt close to for a long time, “I felt there was a synergy between what we both were doing,” says Acogny. “For me, The Rite of Spring should be danced by African dancers because it is something universal.  When I first heard the Stravinsky music, I felt it was an African rite.” 

Dancing at Dusk © Florian Heinzen-Ziob / Polyphem Filmproduktion

“Bringing The Rite of Spring to the beach and shooting it just after sunset was a spontaneous reaction to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Salomon Bausch, executive director of the Pina Bausch Foundation. “It was the last moment of being together within a crisis surrounded by uncertainty.”  Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, says that the resulting film, with sand replacing the peaty earth on which the dance is normally performed, is a record of “a powerful, one-of-a-kind moment, which feels very much in harmony with the spirit of Pina Bausch.”  

The idea for this version of The Rite of Spring came from the Pina Bausch Foundation which is committed to keeping Bausch’s work alive both by preserving an archive and by encouraging new generations of dancers to explore her creations under the supervision of dancers who worked with the choreographer herself.   

Salomon Bausch, Bausch’s son, believes that these “transmission projects” will help increase understanding of one of the 20th century’s most significant and important bodies of work. “I am really curious to learn what is inside this heritage,” he says. “What is it?  What does it mean to people today? We need these new projects where we try to provoke things and learn new things, to do things in ways we have not done before.” 

Watching rehearsals in Senegal, he felt the project had succeeded. “It opens the eyes to aspects of things we haven’t seen before not only in the piece itself, but also in terms of what the work does to the people who dance it,” he says, in a documentary film made to accompany this screening. 

Even before its planned premiere at Dakar’s Théâtre National Daniel Sorano was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, this was an ambitious project.  More than 200 dancers from all over the Continent submitted video audition tapes to Josephine Ann Endicott and Jorge Puerta Armenta, former dancers with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch who are in charge of this restaging.  One hundred and thirty-seven were invited to audition workshops in Burkina Faso, Senegal and the Ivory Coast where they were taught excerpts from the material and a final cast of 38 were chosen.  Then the rehearsal process began in earnest.  

Dancing at Dusk © Zapo Babilée

The dancers represent a range of backgrounds and techniques, which made the project thrilling as well as challenging. “It will be different,” says Acogny. “But that’s what makes it exciting.  These dancers will do what all dancers do; they will interpret the movement of Pina Bausch.” For Endicott, those variables brought a positive energy to the work “the dancers had such spirit. We were all together in Pina’s world somehow.” 

Endicott noticed the way in which the dancers were particularly receptive to Stravinsky’s music – adapting to it more quickly and easily than some ballet-trained dancers do. In this, the collaboration reaches back to The Rite of Spring’s creation in 1975 when Bausch laid particular emphasis on the score.  “She had this huge respect for the music,” remembers Endicott who was in the first cast. “It wasn’t easy finding the movements. We tried this and that until she was content. She always followed her instinct. The dance is the music, the dancers are the music.  That’s the key.” 

The piece also relies on a total immersion in Bausch’s visceral response to the score and the theme.  “How would you dance if you knew you were going to die?” she asked, when trying to find the right steps to match the elemental power of the music.  Her answer to that question means that The Rite of Spring requires extraordinary commitment and exposure from its dancers. Endicott observes: “You run with your heart and forget all you have learnt before and just come out and be yourself.  It has to be real. If you are not exhausted at the end, you haven’t danced it properly.” 

The dancers in Senegal have absorbed that approach deeply, in their minds and in their bodies. As Serge Arthur Dodo, one of the dancers, remarks: “When we watch the videos or see the movements the stagers give us, it’s clear that we want to do it like them, but I would say that for me it is about being myself.  It’s about being able to take what they give us and make it ours.” 

Dancing at Dusk © Florian Heinzen-Ziob / Polyphem Filmproduktion

That belief is characteristic of this staging.  It looks back to Bausch’s heritage and puts down a marker for a way of presenting her work in future. As Alistair Spalding remarks: “It really is an exchange.  It takes this repertoire to the Continent where it has rarely been seen before. And audiences around the world get a chance to see different dancers and a different spirit. There is a very strong passion about this project”.   

Germaine Acogny agrees. “It gives these dancers an opening and a curiosity to do other things than they are used to doing. It will make them grow.” For Jo Ann Endicott it has been “a wonderful challenge, a wonderful experience.  It is the right moment for something like this to happen.” 

Everyone involved is committed to bringing it to stages around the world when theatres reopen, when lockdown lifts.  But for now, Dancing at Dusk is a record of a particular moment in time, just before the world stopped, but the dance continued. 

Watch Dancing at Dusk — A moment with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring

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