Senegalese dance school École des Sables, Sadler’s Wells and the Pina Bausch foundation were due to tour a revival of The Rite of Spring until lockdown hit. Kate Wyver finds out about a unique production and how it lives on online
Dancers line up around a raked square of sand on a beach that seems to stretch out forever. The sky is bleached behind them and the wind whips at their light slips of clothing. “On y va,” a call comes from behind the camera. “Let’s go.”
In March, a highly anticipated performance of Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring was 10 days away from its premiere in Senegal when the country went into lockdown. Pina Bausch Foundation, Sadler’s Wells and internationally renowned Senegalese dance school École des Sables were intending to take Bausch’s convulsive choreography, in which a sacrificial victim dances to her death, on a world tour.
The company was made up of 38 dancers from 14 African countries, with 22 crew members from various European countries. When news came of the imminent lockdown, the producers knew they needed to get everyone home. But first they had time for one last run-through.
After sunset, on the last night they were allowed to gather in public, the company headed to the beach outside the dance studio. A film crew had been documenting the creation process for Pina Bausch Foundation, so they took the chance to film it. The result, now available to watch online, is an extraordinary screen version of a singular, elemental performance.
While Bausch does not have a significant legacy in Senegal, the German choreographer has long been an influence for Germaine Acogny. Widely acknowledged as the mother of contemporary African dance, Acogny is the founder of École des Sables, with dancers from all over the world attending her school in the Senegalese fishing village Toubab Dialaw to train in her style of modern African dance. “For me, dance is life,” Acogny says. “It’s an essential element to African culture. One has the habit to dance in all different situations. You dance to celebrate, you dance to get over pain, you dance to get through the suffering of having lost.”
The sky starts to bleach, light blue in one corner, purple in the other. Under Igor Stravinsky’s score, the women stutter in the sand. The men race between them, hugging them tightly.
Few dancers get the chance to perform Bausch’s choreography. When she was alive, all performances were staged by her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. But since her death in 2009, the foundation has licensed her work to other companies, including English National Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet, always under the eye of one of Bausch’s former dancers.
École des Sables’ production was unique, in part because Bausch’s work had never before been performed in Africa or by African dancers, but also because the ensemble was created specifically for this performance – all previous productions were by pre-existing companies. A hand-picked group of dancers from 14 different cultures were brought together in residency to be trained under the direction of Australian dancer Josephine Ann Endicott, a former member of Bausch’s ensemble.
While few members of this ensemble were formally trained in ballet of which Bausch’s style employs elements, half had previously trained at École des Sables. “It confirmed to me what I always thought: that traditional African dance – which is complex and difficult to learn – is a very good base to learn other choreography,” Acogny says. “The dancers’ capacity to adapt the technicalities and difficult techniques of Pina Bausch proves our dance training is as good as classical training.”
‘It’s for all the artists around the world who were in the middle of a creation process and didn’t make it to their premieres’ – Suzanne Walker, Sadler’s Wells
While Bausch’s style is very different to the one Acogny teaches, its roots are familiar. “It’s so close to nature and rituals,” Acogny says, “and in African dance, we are used to rituals. So from that side it’s not really something new.”
This proximity to nature is made even clearer in the performance on the beach. The film, captured by Florian Heinzen-Ziob with one roaming camera and one stationary, shows the sand billowing around the dancers’ feet. Named ‘school of the sands’, Acogny’s organisation uses sand as a tool for enhancing performance. “It’s not easy, but it’s important for the dancers to get the feeling of the ground being natural,” she says. One of their studios has a 400-sq-metre floor of sand, its sides open to the elements. While dancing on sand requires a lot more strength and energy than normal, the resistance makes an enormous difference when performers make the transition to an artificial stage. “I feel very light on stage,” Acogny says, “I feel like I can fly.”
Unusually for dancers trained at École des Sables, the filmed performance of The Rite of Spring was the first time the company had danced it on sand, as Pina Bausch Foundation – wanting all rehearsal floors to be the same – had installed a second artificial floor. The sand will have come as a shock to the dancers’ bodies. “But,” Acogny notes, “most dancers from Africa have some kind of experience dancing on the natural ground, so they adapted very well.”
The Rite of Spring is traditionally performed on a peat floor, with the dancers’ bodies coated in earth as the piece goes on. “The peat had arrived in Dakar but we did not have time to put it in the studio,” Acogny says. It is not known how the peat could have changed the performance, or how it compares to sand. “They will have to adapt,” Acogny says, looking forward to when they can remount the performance post-pandemic.
As well as the artistic losses caused by lockdown, there was logistical chaos. Getting everyone home was the job of Suzanne Walker, executive producer of Sadler’s Wells and head of the touring team. “We had 64 people in Dakar,” Walker says. “We had 38 from African countries and 22 from Europe. We’ve had a few challenges over the years, but nothing as big as this.”
Getting the Europeans home wasn’t too hard, but Walker’s team couldn’t book flights for the dancers immediately because their passports were all waiting to get their visas stamped. “We had to hunt their passports down and found they were at the British embassy in Paris. So we had to get 38 passports sent back to Dakar. Only then could we book the flights to get them out of the country.” Her team were in constant conversation with embassies, arranging new flights and reorganising them as airports shut down. “Someone was rerouted to Dubai just to get to Germany. Someone else had to quarantine after the first leg of their journey for 14 days before they could fly home.”
Eventually, they got everyone out except three dancers. Then the airport in Dakar was shut. They’re still there. “They’ve been very patient but nobody wants to be stuck away from home in this situation,” Walker says. “March 16 seems like a long time ago.” On three occasions the dancers have been booked on flights home to Congo and Madagascar. “Then a day before we have an announcement to say the airports won’t be opening after all.” When we speak, two of the remaining dancers are booked on a flight out the coming weekend, three and a half months after the beginning of lockdown. “Fingers crossed.”
Sadler’s Wells has released the film of The Rite of Spring on a pay-per-view model. “We didn’t know at the time we were going to share this,” Walker says. “But it’s captured something precious and unusual. It’s for all the artists around the world who were in the middle of a creation process and didn’t make it to their premieres.” Acogny is thrilled with the result. “It will make the screen explode.” They hope to remount the performance and rearrange the tour for 2021, and Acogny is hopeful they may also be able to tour to neighbouring countries.
Dancing at Dusk – A Moment with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, is available from Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage until July 31: sadlerswells.com/digitalstage