In mid-March, as the sun set on a beach in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, 38 dancers gave a foreboding performance of a modern dance masterpiece: Pina Bausch’s rendition of The Rite of Spring.
The dance, based on Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet and concert, has been reinterpreted in many lights, with each version moving through primal rituals toward a climax, where a sacrificial maiden must dance herself to death for spring to begin.
Bausch’s rendition was known for being particularly expressive, demonstrating her ability to create visceral theatre productions that convey human emotion. She has since been referred to as the creator of dance-theatre and one of the greatest innovators in the last 50 years of dance. Shortly after Bausch died in 2009, her son Solomon Bausch created the Pina Bausch Foundation to continue her legacy.
“There is […] much fear in it,” Bausch said of The Rite of Spring to the New York Times in 1997. “I thought, how would it be to dance knowing you have to die? How would you feel, how would I feel? The Chosen One is special, but she dances knowing the end is death.”
The Rite of Spring, like most modern dance that we see in the West, has been typically performed by majority-white casts predominantly from Europe and North America. For this latest performance, the Pina Bausch Foundation decided to move away from more Eurocentric companies and collaborate with the École des Sables, a school founded by Germaine Acogny, who is known as “the mother of contemporary African dance.”
“It feels right when you are watching it,” Josephine Ann Endicott, one of the artistic directors of the École des Sables performance, told Hyperallergic. “You get into it — your body stands on edge when you see them coming out.”
Like many of the tales we call classics today, the original version of The Rite of Spring would probably seem egregiously racist without adaptation. Long before Bausch’s rendition, the original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky (with Igor Stravinsky’s score) depicted “foreigners” hopping oddly with hunched backs, turned-in feet, and faces painted white with exaggerated wrinkles. While certainly considered distasteful by today’s standards, it’s not far off from the offensive use of yellowface and fu manchus frequently used to depict “Chinese” in multiple versions of The Nutcracker or the Bolshoi Ballet’s use of blackface in La Bayadère.
But the École des Sables adaptation demonstrates one way that dance can evolve to match the times. The all-Black cast spent six weeks in Senegal before the pandemic began, immersing themselves in grueling rehearsals with Endicott, who was a dancer from the original cast of Pina Bausch’s 1976 rendition.
The dancer Gloria Ugwarelojo Biachi was selected to join the group after traveling to her audition from Nigeria with a grant from the Goethe-Institut.
“My most difficult time in this work was ﬁnding myself within it,” Biachi shared with Hyperallergic. “Trying to understand where I belong; why I am here; why I am doing it; why I have to move; what ﬁnding myself in a piece of 35 minutes is.”
But days before the show’s premiere was set to take place in Dakar, the Senegalese government initiated a statewide lockdown and closed the borders. Bracing for the impending uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tour was postponed, and the dancers were told to suit up and rehearse one last time for a film crew on a beach near the École des Sables. The resulting film, titled Dancing at Dusk, is now streaming online via the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.
“Dance it now like it’s the first and the last time you will ever dance it,” Endicott remembered telling the dancers. “Because we never knew what was going to happen after.”
Though The Rite of Spring is usually performed on a stage covered in 1,000 pounds of dirt, the company’s order hadn’t arrived yet, so the sandy beach became a makeshift stage. The film shows a crew member still raking the sand as dancers are reminded over a speaker that every backstage moment is now completely visible to the camera. A rehearsal director is heard saying, “I lost my shoe.”
It was their first full run-through, and they hadn’t even had time to block the spacing of the dancers.
But with no resolution in sight and the news of a canceled tour sitting in their guts, the dancers performed one of the dance’s most evocative moments. Their beige dresses violently rippling in the wind blend into the endless backdrop of sand. It feels otherworldly. At times, dancers can be seen realigning and adjusting, but the film is not meant to show a perfect work. It captures a moment in progress.
“Before the end of the run, my eyes were ﬁlled with tears, as I felt everyone’s energy and commitment,” Biachi said. “We gave it our all.”
Although the dancers won’t be able to complete their five-city tour this year, the film captures the rendition of The Rite of Spring in a world on the verge of lockdown, demonstrating the ways that art must evolve and adapt to reflect the moments we are living in.
“It is dynamic in its simplicity,” Biachi said. “I have never seen a work that accepts you for who you are, as long as you move and believe.”
Dancing at Dusk — A moment with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring is streaming via the Sadler’s Wells Theatre through July 31.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to include the name of the choreographer of the original version of The Rite of Spring, Vaslav Nijinsky.