April 2024


The Legacy of Pina Bausch
Le Sacre du printemps and common ground[s]
at Cal Performances, Berkeley

Renate Stendhal

One of the most acclaimed works by the German dance-theater maker Pina Bausch (1940-2009) is Le Sacre du printemps/ The Rite of Spring from 1975, set to Stravinsky’s eponymous composition from 1913. Just over half an hour, it was originally written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky.

Stravinsky’s brooding, brutal score and Nijinsky’s archaic, shamanic tale of sacrificial rites had famously set off a riot in 1913, at the Paris Opera. Bausch’s own choreographic version turned into a provocation in a Germany caught between its stifling post-War puritanism and the sexual-feminist explosions of the 70s. Seeing it again now, the work struck me as both timeless and contemporary. Given the enduring war of the sexes, today’s gender battles and growing awareness of rape as a weapon of war, Bausch’s Sacre is as shocking as ever: a group of 14 young girls is ritually violated by a group of 18 men and (as in Nijinsky’s original) one of the girls, the “Chosen One,” is forced to dance herself to death.

In the half-century since its world premiere, Bausch’s LeSacre du printemps has almost exclusively been performed by her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. It was introduced to the US first in Los Angeles, opening the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Now, exactly 50 years later, it returned to LA and passed through Berkeley, presented by Cal Performances. The revival marked a stark surprise: it was performed by 32 dancers from 14 African nations. A second creation, common ground[s] filled the first part of the program, but more about that later.

The piece starts with the embarrassment of the girls having to face womanhood. They are wearing nothing but a thin white slip, which some of them raise to cover their faces like children trying to hide their shame, showing their underwear. They anxiously stare at a red cloth that lies like a pool of blood on the dirt-covered stage. They toss the crumpled red fabric – the only color onstage -- between them and pass it on surreptitiously like something too hot to touch.

The men arrive and both groups go into spasms of running, stomping, and dipping into deep pliés with wide-spread legs that stretch the fabric of the women’s slips. They slice the air with arms that pump and thrust toward the earth, toward their sex, with elbows hitting stomachs with ferocious repetition –gestures one can read as painful goading, self-hatred and fury. During Stravinsky’s lyrical, melancholic passages they trod in a vast circle like beasts of burden, crumpling to the ground.

The women gather in a tight huddle and a few try to slip away for a moment of longing, but quickly rush for cover. A bit later, a few brave or desperate ones glide away from the pod to approach the leader of the men who is motionless, waiting. One after another, they try offering him the ball of red cloth, only to shrink back in panic.

When the sacrificial girl finally comes out to be chosen, the whole group goes into a sexual frenzy, men hunting down women, women hurling themselves at the men. Then all stop to watch, breathless, sweating, covered in dirt, as the Chosen One is shown off to everyone by the leader. She now wears the red cloth as her dress. While he lies down on his back with his arms stiffly raised like an erection, she begins her dance of self -destruction.

“How would you dance if you knew you would have to die?” was the question Bausch asked at the start of her work on Sacre. She would always start with questions and the dancers tried to answer them until the work found its definitive shape. The revival follows the exact same
choreography set to the same recorded version of Stravinsky’s score, conducted by Pierre Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra. And yet. The 32 dark, glistening bodies seemed to exceed what the white, slightly more “dancer”-like company achieved in the past. The faces were blurred in the dim stage light, and the impeccable movements of the dancers electrified with their longer limbs, powerful speed and energy. More perhaps than ever, the depersonalized violence came across as total immersion -- an explosive force beyond “dance.”

After Bausch’s death, her son Salomon Bausch started the Pina Bausch Foundation to preserve and promote her legacy. He has been instrumental in this cross-cultural expansion of Bausch’s work. The revival of LeSacre printemps is a collaboration between the Pina Bausch Foundation, Wuppertal, the Sadler’s Wells, London, and the Senegalese Ecole des Sables (Dakar) with its founder-director Germaine Acogny.

Acogny, who goes by “the mother of contemporary African dance,” used to work with Maurice Béjart’s school Mudra in Brussels. She created Mudra Afrique as well as several dance companies. She met Pina Bausch and saw her Sacre in the 90s. Her international dance center Ecole des Sables sent out the call in 2019, and 250 dancers from all over Africa competed to be part of the project and world tour. The 38 chosen ones have diverse technical and artistic backgrounds, but the rehearsal directors – several of the original dancers from Wuppertal -- noted that the African dancers shared a comparative ease with the mind-boggling rhythms and syncopations of Stravinsky’s score.

Some people may have seen the documentary Dancing at Dusk: Pina Bausch in Senegal on YouTube -- a final rehearsal performed on a beach, in 2020, just before the pandemic delayed the project. It’s a fascinating document, but you need a theater, a stage-set and lighting to receive the full impact of the work.

common ground[s] – Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo

common ground[s] is an intimate scenic “dialogue” between the two women who were essential in carrying through the project of a revival of Bausch’s Sacre: dancer and choreographer Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo, a Tanztheater Wuppertal member of the first hour. They co -created a meditation on friendship and mutual support.

The two seniors in their seventies (Acogny is almost eighty) sit together in front of a huge backdrop that evokes an African sky going from sunset to sunrise and back to darkness. A beautiful score by Fabrice Bouillon LaForest melds strings, electronics and nature sounds. The two women in long black dresses hold each other in their laps like mother and child, embrace like sisters, perhaps fleetingly like lovers, shuffle around a bit, handle a long stick with grace, plunge their feet into water buckets, mimic flying together, exchange a brief, almost inaudible reminiscence of Pina, and address the unknown with fine irony by singing a few bars of
“Que sera.”

 Airaudo’s arm movements recalled the iconic Pina port de bras, but otherwise avoided “balletic” associations. Acogny only once graced the audience with a phrase of dancing, bringing her tall, androgynous figure and gestures to mesmerizing--but all too brief--effect.

I found the piece lovely but lacking tension and risk. It seemed to be a draft of something that still has to emerge. Here it served to set the mood for the extraordinary voyage into Pina Bausch’s “African” Rite of Spring.


The 1975 original can be seen on YouTube, and in order to imagine the almost unimaginable transformation of the piece, here is a glimpse.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XLRsR7cmIc


Photos - Maarten Vanden Abeele


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2024 Renate Stendhal
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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