Wuppertal may be an unlikely home for a world class contemporary dance company, but perhaps it is fitting because this city in Germany’s industrial heartland is itself very modern, having only been established as an entity in 1929.
Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal was created in 1973 and has gone on to become one of the most exciting and innovative companies on the international dance stage. So it is appropriate that it should be appearing at the home of the equally world-class Nederlands Dans Theater at the Amare in The Hague. Such is the esteem in which the German company is held that tickets for the four performances sold out, as they put it, in the blink of an eye. So yes, last night was a very special occasion.
The evening started with the duet common ground[s] created and danced by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo. Ms Acogny is considered to be first lady of contemporary African dance and was founder of Senegal’s École des Sables. Malou Airaudo has long been associated with Tanztheater Wuppertal and common ground[s] explores and reveals the differences that bond and bring the two women together. In this very laid back piece it was nice to see two more mature dancers in the spotlight.
In his day, the most modern of composers, Stravinsky described his Le Sacre du Printemps – The Rite of Spring – as a “grand pagan ritual”. Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes’s 1913 Paris season, Nijinsky’s choreography was, to say the least, controversial, defying the norms and preconceptions of classical ballet. Today it seems almost naïve, simplistic even, styled on misconceived perceptions of ancient cultures.
Pina Bausch first presented her The Rite of Spring back in 1975 when her starting point was how one would react if one knew one was going to die and her choreography has little or no relationship to Nijinsky’s. There are parts of Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story that are clearly influenced by The Rites of Spring and, conversely, there are sequences of Ms Bausch’s choreography, especially at the beginning when the boys enter, that strongly put one in mind of Jerome Robbins’ interpretation of Bernstein’s tour de force.
This new production of Tanztheater’s masterpiece, a collaboration between The Pina Bausch Foundation, Ḗcole des Sables and Sadler’s Wells, uses African dancers and takes us back to basics, to the real nitty-gritty, setting it in the continent and on the earth from where human life itself is believed to have sprung. Gone are Nijinsky’s flowing robes, long grey beards and stylised exotic make-up – this is more voodoo than druid. And the earth, the raison d’être of the ritual, itself forms a major part of this amazing, literally (literally literally) ground-breaking, production.
The whole stage is covered in rich brown soil on which the thirty-six dancers from fourteen African countries make us really believe we are witnessing some frightening sacrificial process being played out. Often the movements are quasi-mechanical, robotic even, creating an almost dystopian vision of a modern fertility rite. Bausch’s The Rite of Spring is always urgent, always uncompromising. The dancing is unrelenting, unforgiving and unstoppable, driving forward to the rite’s inevitable and disturbing dénouement.
It was a stroke of genius giving it the African angle and it was a rare privilege to have seen it. Overall, Pina Bausch’s brilliant The Rite of Spring is hypnotic and thrilling – now, that’s a word I’ve never used before in a dance review. Michael Hasted 13th January 2023