Tuesday, November 29, 2022

An African Rite of Spring

Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele

Within seconds, Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring has you by the throat, not letting go for close to 40 minutes of breathtaking dance. First created in 1975 and having since become one of the late German choreographer’s most celebrated works, it eviscerates themes of gender dynamics and social control with a blunt force that makes it hard to resist, or ever forget, once you’ve experienced it in the flesh. The pounding rhythms heard in Stravinsky’s 1913 score drive the choreography relentlessly forward, into a potently imagined ritual of human sacrifice as an act of creative renewal.

That sense of continuity is heightened with the work’s resurrection by Senegal’s remarkable École des Sables, among the first ensembles permitted to perform one of Bausch’s richly poetic dance dramas outside the Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Co-artistic director Josephine Ann Endicott is an Australian-born former Pina Bausch dancer who performed in the original cast. Together with the school’s founder Germaine Acogny — known as the mother of contemporary African dance — Endicott has assisted in a restaging of Rite of Spring that doesn’t just reassert the visceral power of the original. It takes it to a new level.

Jointly produced by Sadler’s Wells in London and the Pina Bausch Foundation in Wuppertal, the work, presently on a world tour, features an all-Black cast consisting of 38 dancers from 14 different African countries. The world premiere, originally scheduled for 2020, was postponed by the pandemic, causing the work again to be reimagined, this time as a now widely seen documentary film shot on a beach in Senegal. But as good as Dancing at Dusk is, nothing compares to the real thing, as those attended last month’s performance of at Toronto’s Meridian Theatre Toronto can attest.

This primal scream of a dance, in which a manhandled maiden dances herself to death, unfolds on a stage covered over with truckloads of nostril-pinching dirt and peat. The senses go on red alert even before the dancing begins. And when it begins it is terrifying. Bodies shake and flail; limbs slice through the surrounding space with the lethal precision of knives. Everyone in it is a victim, pummeled by some greater, barbaric force. The work’s sheer physicality is daunting, requiring near-superhuman strength and stamina to pull off. But these African dancers, many them trained in hip hop, do more than that. Besides physical prowess, they have emotional intensity, what is needed to make this dance feel fiercely alive.

Bausch, who died in 2009, always encouraged individualism in her dancers, regardless of the tight dramatic structures and social representations of her work. In Rite of Spring the women step out of the huddled mass of the human collective to assert what they feel, and feel deeply, as members of a pagan community where the female members are most vulnerable, more at risk than the men who muscle around them. A red dress, symbolic of both blood and womanhood, is passed around. The one left holding it is the one who must die. She wants desperately to live but the phalanx of taut- bodied men push her into submission. The other women, dressed in flowing white gowns, watch and quake on the sidelines, contributing to her sacrifice through timid acquiescence of the inevitable. The Chosen One doesn’t go quietly, however. Her frenzied solo is a tour de force performance, an assertion of the self in the face of brute conformity. Dancer Luciény Kaabral, from the Republic of Cabo Verde, was so spent by the end of it that she took her bow in tears.

Seeing (and empathizing with) the people in the dance also animates common ground(s), a new duet created to open the Rite of Spring program which also played recently to sold-out houses in Montreal. Performed by Acogny and and former Bausch dancer and muse Malou Airaudo, the original Rite of Spring’s Chosen One, it is an intimate and moving dialogue between two veterans of the dance stage. Airaudo is 74 and Acogny is 78, together representing more than 150 years of lived experience. On stage, they share their respective movement styles with each other, while swapping reminisces of past artistic encounters. Taking a less-is-more approach, they reveal the power of dance to move people across all kinds of divides, age, class, race, gender. Their performance, while not as explosive as Rite of Spring, feels just as potent as yet another act of artistic renewal.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer.

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