In collaboration with École des Sables, Sadler’s Wells and Tanztheater Wuppertal, this new production of Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring is brilliant, brutal and now more relevant than ever, writes Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou.
There’s strange comfort in watching technicians drag soil across a stage before a performance. This is Pina Bausch’s pre-show to The Rite of Spring, a ritual as old as the dance itself, with a company under strict instruction to show this most requisite of preparations to the audience. I watch, as a chorus of stage managers wheel large metal bins loaded with soil into our midst. One by one they ceremoniously tip them over, man-made contraptions buckling under the weight of too much earth. Mounds of rich soil form in their stead, gradually becoming smaller and smaller as the earth is smoothed into a near-perfect carpet covering the floor. The last technician exits to a short burst of applause from me, us, ‘the audience’ (we’re all playing our parts as Pina would have us). The stage has been set. The dust has literally settled. The real rite can now commence.
For those familiar with Bausch’s repertoire, seeing a bare stage covered in soil will come as no surprise. She has flooded performance spaces with water (Vollmond), coated them with petals (Der Fensterputzer), decorated them with plants (Mascura Fogo) and even the odd tree (Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört). But the set for The Rite of Spring remains, for me, her most visually and viscerally arresting; the earth-strewn stage a potent reminder of where the brutal choreography will end.
Though it wouldn’t come as a surprise for new audiences to baulk at such a sight – as her first company did in the early days of her directorship. Bringing the outside in, creating a language of dance that springs from the raw elements of life and the lively music of Igor Stravinsky, challenges dancer and audience expectations alike. Yet Bausch was never one to be deterred from realising her vital vision. Elegant and sexy as her works may be, she’s never shied away from dishing the dirt on human behaviour, however ritualistically and socially embedded. Getting down and dirty and dangerous in one of classical music and ballet’s most famous works – such as The Rite of Spring is – was always going to shock viewers, strip away sensibilities and stir emotions.
Since The Rite of Spring was first performed in 1975, shock has transformed into awe at its sheer ambition and passion. And this rendition, as part of a collaboration with École des Sables, Sadler’s Wells and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, certainly awes and inspires. Comprising 36 dancers (from fourteen countries across Africa), all of whom are not part of Bausch’s original company, the ensemble brings something different to the earth upon which they passionately and frenziedly tread. Initially halted by the pandemic in 2020, the project premiered and resumed its tour in 2021 to rightful acclaim. Fittingly ambitious in scope and size, what strikes one about this new ensemble for The Rite of Spring is the resonance of the soil, the power of an earthy performance for dancers who come from a continent bearing the brunt of our current climate catastrophe. It is not only the diverse backgrounds and cultures of the dancers that make The Rite of Spring so palpably powerful; it is also the sense that, perhaps for them, performing a deadly ritual to bring about the life-inducing season of spring holds a poignancy many of us are still struggling to grasp.
Regardless of its environmental and geo-political resonances, this dance of death begins tremulous with life. Young women wearing pristine translucent slips gently glide and wispily unfurl, slowly awakening to the promise of a new day. Spring is calling but its price of blood is yet to alarm the assembled women on stage. One languorously lies against a red dress, blissfully unaware that this slim piece of cloth will dictate who is sacrificed. Another twists poetically, jumping like a gazelle innocent to the ensuing danger and distress. Though not a pastoral scene in the classical sense, Bausch conjures up a most feminine sight and season; a momentary dream of female looking and longing (before the existential and erotic angst begins); of young women not yet prescient to the carnage that will unfold, but sensitised to themselves, their surroundings and the initial unfurling embodied pleasure such a site affords.
What disrupts this eerie Bauschian dreamscape are the men. Clothed only from the waist down in dark trousers and entering on a diagonal from upstage right, the male dancers tip the gentility and grace of this moment into one of deliberate disorder and disarray. Their entrance is a declaration of dominance – a bold and bounding show of taut torsos and strident athleticism, of male prowess and absolute authority – which stresses their unwillingness to compromise or slow down a rite they see as their own. But it won’t be a man that’s sacrificed; and it won’t be a woman that has a say in the matter. Causing palpable disconcertion and stress amongst the women, the ensemble rush, dart, spiral and spin across the stage, as if to prepare the earth for the blood it clearly calls out for. Peace turns to concerted chaos, which Bausch powerfully synchronises with Stravinsky’s musical orchestration. Unable to seek solace or safety with each other, the women must succumb to the ritual the men so ardently and coercively pursue.
One of the most redolent movements in Bausch’s piece (and an emotionally affective and effective interpretation of Stravinsky’s score) is the Rondes printanières (the spring rounds or the Khorovod). Bracing myself for this passage, wanting to contract down into the earth with the dancers, the Rondes printanières never fails to intrude on your own bodily space or sense of embodied selfhood. Forming a large circle in the centre of the stage, the dancers fall under the enormity of what they’re about to be part of; folding, contracting and doubling down in the deliciously dark earth, the men and women move to a rhythm no longer their own. Spring has taken over, or at least the brutal rite of it, and the heaviness of what the ensemble are about to do reverberates around. Sinking into the soil, then rising up and solemnly stepping to the side in a circular formation, the dancers carry and convey the inevitability of fate. It is the cost of coming together and maintaining a unified whole. This will be the last time they live and dance as one.
The pressure to choose the young virgin who will dance herself to death does not end abruptly. Much like the movement, the music builds into a claustrophobic and monstrous crescendo of epic proportions. Moving on a diagonal too, the women resume their thrashing, downward plunging and upward rising sequence across the stage. There is a sense of self-abnegation, of self-effacement and punishment for what they cannot control. Beating their bodies, pounding themselves and the soil into submission, the women know, from the core of their beings, the fibre and tenure of their souls, what will happen to them all, though only one of them will pay the full and eventual cost. Eventually the women form a small cluster, vulnerable and alive to their victimhood. Peeling away from the protective huddle, moving towards the stone-faced stolid man who awaits with the red dress to hand, each trembling woman evades his reach, folding themselves back into the female hold – each woman that is, but the fatal, final, chosen one. The men, meanwhile, are a monolith of silence and avoidance, their backs to the audiences, their faces to the wall. They refuse to participate in this singular selection. Their proud and stoic disavowal of the action proof of their power over it. Unable to look, we become their eyes, their forms, their consciences, recognising what must take place for the performance to reach its natural, blood-curdling end.
That the chosen one, dancing on the very brink of death and then directly into it, is a woman, will of course have strong resonances for a contemporary audience. A young woman sacrificed to maintain the status quo, the social rites (or wrongs) of male individuals, larger corps of people, corporations, institutions, global situations, is nothing new. But Bausch’s mythic world makes it feel all the more invasively real and unjust. Horror at the beauty of the dance and the enjoyment we all feel watching it mirrors what plays out, again and again, across the screens of our phones, TVs and laptops. Stripped down to its bare essentials, to the dank expanse of earth from which we’ve all come, Bausch’s timeless classic, The Rite of Spring, never ceases to hit you, wherever you stand in these chaotic times. Stained and dirtied by the soil upon which they’ve danced macabre on, Bausch’s dancers give us life, all the while speaking into some of its darkest passions and experiences. The stage unsettled, the dust kicked up, the real rite goes on outside, Bausch reminds us, in the mess and stress of our sometimes brave, at times beautiful, but all too often brutal, world.
Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring was performed at Sadler’s Wells from the 7-11 June 2022. Watch Dancing at Dusk, a recording of the production danced on a beach in Senegal here until 11 July 2022. Read more of our coverage on Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch here.
The Rite of Spring by Pina Bausch at Sadler’s Wells. Photography by Maarten Vanden Abeele.