Sun, sand, human sacrifice: Rite of Spring danced on a beach as the world shut down

By Lyndsey Winship

Dresses rippling in the wind, sand beneath their feet, a sky fading to a heathery dusk as dancers sway and thrash to the urgent, ominous chords of Stravinsky’s music. This is Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring as it’s never been seen before.

Earlier this year, proving yet again that some remarkable moments can come out of global crisis, 38 dancers from 14 African countries gathered at the Ecole des Sables, a dance school an hour from the Senegalese capital, Dakar. They were there to recreate Bausch’s 1975 masterpiece, a reinterpretation of the infamous Ballets Russes work depicting the pagan ritual of a sacrificial maiden dancing herself to death.

This new project – devised by Bausch’s son Salomon and Ecole des Sables’ director Germaine Acogny, known as the “mother of African contemporary dance” – hoped to bring a different energy to the 45-year-old dance work. Made with London’s Sadler’s Wells, it was to be premiered in Dakar on 25 March, before touring to Bausch’s home town of Wuppertal in Germany and London in April and May. But then coronavirus upturned all that.

‘A beautiful adventure’ … Mohamed Y Shika at Ecole Des Sables.
‘A beautiful adventure’ … Mohamed Y Shika at Ecole Des Sables. Photograph: Abdoul Mujyambere

“It was a real shock,” says dancer Serge Arthur Dodo, speaking via translator over video from his home in Ivory Coast. “That morning we had our first complete run-through and it went well. The month and a half of hard work was paying off. We were performing in 10 days’ time so we were really excited when we all went for lunch. And then they made the announcement and all public gatherings and performances were forbidden. It was a total contrast to the emotions of the morning. It felt like everything was in slow motion.”

In the background, however, things were on fast-forward as the show’s producers hastily remade their plans – including dealing with a shipping container full of peat that had just arrived at a nearby port as part of the set – and began trying to book everyone flights home before borders closed. This was made more difficult because the dancers’ passports were in Paris waiting for visas for the European tour; three were unable to beat the clock and are still in Senegal.

Six weeks earlier, the young company were strangers tackling a completely new way of moving. Now, as a group bonded over their “beautiful adventure”, as Togolese dancer Anique Ayiboe puts it, there was huge disappointment. Then Salomon Bausch proposed a final run-through on the beach, which was captured by a documentary film crew who were following the dancers.

Intense performances … dancers Gloria Biachi and Serge Arthur Dodo.
Intense performances … dancers Gloria Biachi and Serge Arthur Dodo. Photograph: Polyphem Filmproduktion

Performing on sand had its own challenges. “It was really stressful trying to do these movements,” says Ayiboe, who danced the role of the Chosen One. “But once the music started and the girls started to enter the stage, we just went for it.” Dodo adds: “There was this last push of doing it all together.” It’s certainly an atmospheric setting, the ruffling wind and vast sky adding to the elemental character of the piece, humans at the mercy of nature. The moment brings some intense performances from the dancers.

Dodo admits they didn’t really grasp the enormity of the situation immediately. There was still a birthday party planned for that night, and a trip to the swimming pool the next day. But, amid their farewell celebrations, they performed their own rituals that recognised the gravity of their circumstances. “We made a massive fire and gathered around it and prayed,” says Dodo, “for the health of everybody on the team, for us to come back together and for the world as a whole. And the day after, we sacrificed a sheep and it was a moment to pray and eat and share the meat. That moment around the fire was a very strong moment.” Ayiboe calls it “an exceptional response to this very exceptional situation”.

You can’t help but see the parallel with the Rite of Spring, with its story of sacrifice – albeit of a very different kind – and the power of ritual, community and the forces of nature. “In Africa as a whole, [animal] sacrifices are part of cultural tradition,” says Dodo. “So we feel that link when we’re performing the piece.” Ayiboe agrees: “When I dance the Chosen One’s solo, there’s a very strong connection between my traditions, my culture and the dance.”

“The way I see it,” adds Dodo, “it’s not about doing something, but living it. So when we’re performing that piece, we’re not pretending. We’re living our traditions.”