Pina Bausch's 'The Rite of Spring' reborn

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday February 6, 2024
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Pina Bausch's 'The Rite of Spring'<br>(photo: Maarteen Vanden Abeele)
Pina Bausch's 'The Rite of Spring'
(photo: Maarteen Vanden Abeele)

The riotous premiere of "The Rite of Spring" in 1913 Paris is something of a legend. Igor Stravinsky's dissonant, pulsating score; Vaslav Nijinsky's frantic, tribalistic choreography; and the ballet's depiction of human sacrifice shocked the audience, marked the liberation of ballet from rigid tradition, and proclaimed dance as a vehicle for radical, provocative expression in the 20th century.

Since that audacious premiere, countless choreographers have returned to Stravinsky's primal music, using their interpretations of "The Rite" to create groundbreaking works that test the boundaries of the dance art form.

An iconic interpreter of this seminal music was German choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009). One of the most influential figures in modern dance, Bausch transformed the dance world with her revolutionary "Tanztheater" (literally "dance theatre" in German) style, blending movement with theatrical elements including spoken word, song, props, and sets.

Upon the premiere of her "Rite" in 1975 by Tanztheater Wuppertal, where she served as Artistic Director for 36 years, Bausch said she was inspired by the question, "How would you dance if you knew you were going to die?"

Bay Area audiences will have the rare opportunity to see how she answered that provocative question this month, when the U.S. tour of Bausch's "The Rite of Spring," comes to UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, featuring a cast of more than 30 dancers from 14 countries.

An international collaboration between the Pina Bausch Foundation in Germany, École des Sables dance school in Senegal, and Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, "The Rite of Spring" will be paired with "common ground[s]," a new duet co-created and danced by two septuagenarians.

Although Bausch's son Salomon was born at the apex of his mother's career in the early 1980s, he was never interested in a career as a professional dancer. As the founder and director of The Pina Bausch Foundation since its inception in 2009, Salomon Bausch recently spoke with the Bay Area Reporter about his life journey, "The Rite of Spring," and his commitment to his mother's legacy.

Salomon Bausch (photo: Uwe Schinke)  

Philip Mayard: Were you ever interested in becoming a professional dancer?
Salomon Bausch: I grew up with the company in the studio and on tour. I enjoyed watching the work but it never came to my mind that I would do that professionally. I think it was good, actually. Because of my name, it would have been tricky to be in the same field as my mother.

You were going to be a lawyer, correct?
Yes, I was studying law, but when my mother passed away in 2009, I decided to establish the Pina Bausch Foundation immediately. We had talked about doing this, but there were no concrete plans or even a draft, it never felt urgent, it was just a general idea. When my mother died quite suddenly it was very clear to me, as the sole heir, that this is what I wanted to do, to found this foundation.

Let's talk about this project, "The Rite of Spring." This has been a huge undertaking, and quite different from the typical work for your foundation.
Yes, this has been a massive project. Normally, dance companies come to us and ask if they can perform one of Pina's pieces. If we approve, then we send a team to teach and rehearse the work, we oversee casting, and make sure there's enough time committed to it. We have worked with many of the big European ballet companies, like English National Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. That's how it normally works, but this project was completely different.

One of our rehearsal directors had the idea to stage Pina's "The Rite of Spring" with a company put together specifically for this one purpose. Then we could choose people with specific qualities, and everyone would be 100% committed to that work. I loved the idea, but we didn't know how to find the people, where to rehearse it, where to present it, and of course, who would pay for it.

At the same time, one of our other projects is the Pina Bausch Fellowship for Dance and Choreography, which gives grants to dance artists from any style or technique, age, or place. We get applications from all over the world each year, and I realized how many of the applicants were from or connected to the École des Sables school in Senegal, and the founder Germaine Acogny. I could see how important this school is not just for dance in Africa, but around the world. We met with Germaine and asked if she wanted to partner with us. She was absolutely shocked, but she said yes right away.

Pina Bausch's 'The Rite of Spring' (photo: Maarteen Vanden Abeele)  

I read that you had over 200 applicants. Were you surprised?
I didn't have any expectations, since I was not familiar with the networks we were addressing. We did workshops in three places in Africa: Burkina Faso, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. Then we brought around 140 dancers from each of the workshops to École to make the final selections for the cast. About 50% of the dancers are connected to École des Sables in some way, the other 50% are not. The dancers come from a huge array of backgrounds, from hip-hop to traditional African dance.

Our other really important partner is Sadler's Wells. We could not have done this without them. They organize everything. Rehearsing and traveling with 30 performers from 14 countries in Africa, two European countries, and two South American; dealing with embassies and travel visas; it's extremely complex. We also had the pandemic. We started this project in 2019, but just as we were finished setting the piece in March 2020, everything stopped for a year and a half. Then we had to get everyone back together again for rehearsals before we could perform the work.

Now that the piece is up and has been touring Europe, Canada, and the U.S. for nearly two years, if this project achieves one thing, what would you want it to be?
For people to see this piece in a new, different way. This project is an important step for my mother's legacy. The choreography is exactly what she created; we haven't changed anything.

But just by having this cast and this approach, it's impacted the dancers of course, but also our view of the work. This is important because a dance performance is gone in second. You have to work to keep it alive. We are committed to keeping Pina's work fresh, relevant, and really high quality.

"[common ground(s)]" and Pina Bausch's "The Rite of Spring," $33-$125, Feb. 16 & 17, 8pm. Feb. 18, 3pm. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus.

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