Le Sacre du printemps / common ground[s]
It all started on a beach in Senegal, surrounded by sand and the blue sea. Thirty-eight black dancers from 14 countries, boys in dark pants and girls in white blouses, encircle a large rectangle. The meandering melody of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring begins, and when the rhythmic sounds of the strings come in, those unique expressionist ports de bras – one arm overhead, one along the body drawing a barely noticeable curve – are immediately recognizable as the mark of Pina Bausch.
We were first introduced to this Le Sacre du Printemps with African dancers on video and then in the theatre. It immediately incited general excitement. That rehearsal footage in Senegal made the rounds of the dance world. But between the rehearsal and the presentation of the show in the theatre was Covid, and many feared there would be nothing more than the video testimony.
But now we are ready to see them live, on a stage. Better yet, outdoors.
Because the Roman Theatre will make the piece even more impactful, if that’s possible. The ground dusted with dirt, the stones of the ancient theatre, the dance compelling one to move with no escape.
It was 1975 when the piece debuted in Wuppertal, more than fifty years. The fact is that such a sincere and cruel look at human relations, the conflict between man and woman, never ceases to shock us. After all, in 1913, it was Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s original choreography that was shocking, and it has carried the sulfurous smell of modernity ever since.
But now, here we are, ready to witness this great feat.
The initiative was started by Mama Africa and the great Germaine Acogny, creator of the Ecole des Sables in Dakar and winner of a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award at the Venice Biennale, along with the Bausch Foundation and Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
In addition to the Wuppertal company, Bausch’s Sacre has also been performed by the repertoire of the Paris Opera and the Flanders Ballet.
“For a long time, Pina Bausch’s pieces were mainly performed at the Tanztheater Wuppertal, and many performers were in the company for years, even decades. Few outside the company had the opportunity to dance these pieces. The project started with the suggestion of Jorge Puerta Armenta from Pina’s company,” Solomon Bausch, Pina’s son, confirms.
In the rehearsal videos with the African dancers, you can see him teaching the steps and movements to the group. Even just this is an engaging experience that we recommend a visit to YouTube or Vimeo for.
It’s nothing wild, as one might trivially expect. The rough, sacrificial conflict between man and woman here becomes an energy constantly held in check. There is almost a sense of terror in the women as they pass the red cloth that will become a gown for the chosen one, the one destined for death. And her final solo, collapsing to the ground, is engaging and exciting. The push downward, the call of the earth, the suppressed levity unites much of contemporary European and African dance. The performers develop an intensity, and all demonstrate excellent training.
A reflection on the relationship between contemporary European dance and Africa remains open.
Is the importing Bausch’s Sacre by African bodies for European eyes, most likely, an operation that reeks of neocolonialism, or does it serve to demonstrate how profound Bausch’s choreographic thought is, even when dropped into a foreign reality?
But it’s hard to say – if we are being fundamentalists – how necessary the project is to the dancers involved and the development of contemporary African dance, if not to be subjected to the rule of European models.
On the contrary, it satisfies that “colonialist syndrome,” that need to “compensate” that often resurfaces even in culture and entertainment.
Ever since the days of Joséphine Baker, the black, ebony, sensual or adrenaline-filled body of energy and exoticism has been an object of aesthetic, if not erotic, consumption for the white spectator. This is something we must consider. Bill T. Jones, for example, has reiterated this in many of his committed shows, such as Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It is true that we have simultaneously witnessed a reverse phenomenon, the path of appropriation of white dance culture by black ones, and this Sacre might be an example of this. One name is Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theatre and her fight to get principal roles.
The showy pageantry of the attire of certain African American stars likewise smells of vindication.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who choreographed the video Apeshit, featuring Beyoncé and JAY-Z covered in glittering clothes and jewels in a treasure chest of beauty and wealth, the Louvre in Paris, points out that, “Europe built its wealth thanks in part to the exploitation of the African continent and slavery. And it leads us to reflect on emigration from Africa to Europe today. There is a whole part of European history that is not fully taught in schools. Some of the actions of our ancestors are not worthy of pride, and a lot of our wealth was taken from elsewhere. All this has created a kind of credit that must be discussed at some point. Sometimes it is the children who pay for the mistakes of the parents, but that is the way it is. And so there is a need for Europe to wake up and understand that it cannot just take without sharing.”
And the Senegalese Sacre is certainly no compensation, nor are the many actions by French nouvelle danse intent on exporting their models to Africa or inviting African choreographers to France. How to help African contemporary dance develop is an issue and not imposing one’s own choreographic development is not easy, that’s true.
One good example to closely watch is that of Dada Masilo, who introduces and includes European themes within an African structure. South African-born and trained in Brussels by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, she discusses the popular movements of the European repertoire with a thoroughly African gaze and approach: black dancers doing Zulu steps in Swan Lake, a feminist approach to Carmen and the spirits of ancestors in Giselle.
Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo, two legends of contemporary dance, were both interpreters of the Sacre on different occasions and in different ways. Airaudo with Pina at Wuppertal and Acogny (Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale) with Olivier Dubois in Mon elue noire (My Black Chosen One). Two extraordinary lives, full of experiences. The second part of common ground[s], a new work conceived, performed and inspired by the lives of two extraordinary women is entirely dedicated to them. The two artists explore their shared stories and emotional experiences in a show that sees them together on stage for the first time.