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Down to Earth

Casting is central to the most recent revival of Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring.” Touring with a new duet entitled “common ground[s],” the mixed bill was put together as an homage to Bausch. While Bausch’s 1975 masterwork features 34 extremely talented, diversely trained dancers from 14 African countries, “common ground[s]” creates an entire universe with just two captivating dancers in their seventies: Senegalese-French choreographer Germaine Acogny, founder of the international education center for traditional and contemporary African dances, Ecole des Sables, and the French dancer Malou Airaudo, who is a former member of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. The show, co-produced by the Pina Bausch Foundation, Ecole des Sables, and Sadler’s Wells, was set to premiere in Dakar in early 2020, but the pandemic forced the newly assembled company to disband before that performance. (However, the film “Dancing at Dusk,” captures the final run through of “Rite,” on a beach, before the world went into lock downs. It is available here through Friday, January 5th.)

Performance

Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY, November 29 - December 14, 2023

Place

“The Rite of Spring” by Pina Bausch / “common ground[s]” by Germaine Acogny

Words

Candice Thompson

Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo in “common ground[s].” Photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

In the large, cavernous space of Park Avenue Armory, an open stage is set with small piles of stones, a bundle of long, thin sticks, and two stools. After a long and complete blackout, a low orange light illuminates two figures facing upstage, seated. As Acogny and Airaudo come into focus—after an optical illusion of the Zeynep Kepekli’s lighting gives the sense they are moving toward us—their shadows trace large figures on the side walls. The low necklines of their elegant black gowns, designed by Petra Leidner, reveal the muscles of their backs. 

With measured movements, they embrace each other in tender cradles. Once standing, they roll in and out of each other’s arms in a motif of care that returns at intervals throughout the 30-minute dance. On the move, Airaudo guides Acogny with a gentle hand on her shoulder. They mirror each other and explore different uses of the stick.  Flipped parallel to the ground it becomes an oar they can row forward, side by side, or a bridge for their hands to walk, drawing them back into the center, toward each other. Turned perpendicular to the ground, Acogny holds it as though a regal staff; together, they beat the end percussively against the ground. In this way, Acogny keeps a rhythm as Airaudo dances a Pina-esque solo, bending her torso and sweeping her arms in wide circles. 

Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo in “common ground[s].” Photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

Acogny’s shoulders become their own theme as her scapulae articulate through a playful sequence. Later, Airaudo rubs two small stones together and uses them to massage those overworked muscles. As Airaudo rests her feet on the stones, Fabrice Bouillon Laforest’s composition for strings grows to include sounds from nature: crickets chirping and birds cawing. Acogny conjures a vision out of the air with her arms and draws Airaudo into conversation. Airaudo reminisces about the color of the sky and Pina and the first time she traveled to Senegal. They digress into song and as their light-hearted rendition of “Que Sera, Sera,” dies down they gather pails and return to their stools, now facing one another.

They seem to relish and appreciate their differences and similarities, content to follow their own movement impulses or pick up on the patterns of the other. When Acogny mops up some water with towels under her feet, the phrase morphs into a pattern of West African footwork that extends itself to Airaudo. Even from the enormous risers of the audience, it is possible to see how their eyes twinkle a little brighter when they are nearest each other. To the sound of rushing music, the pair reprise some of their earlier sequences before returning to the stools. Staffs in hand, they face each other and seem to conquer time and space with the unfaltering tempo of a metronome as the lights fade.

“The Rite of Spring” by Pina Bausch at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

In one of the most delightful intermissions I have ever spent sitting in my seat, the audience was treated to the highly choreographed routine that creates the massive dirt field for “Rite.” After rolling up the Marley floor, the incredibly coordinated stage crew nailed down a black mat, stomping upstage on it in near perfect unison to smooth it to perfection. Applause erupted spontaneously from all around me. Next large silver carts rolled on full of earth. In quick succession, they were toppled to allow the contents to be raked across the mat. Stagehands meticulously leveled the dirt, sweeping the perimeter into clean lines for several minutes before they were satisfied. The installation felt like a ritual within a ritual, quite literally laying the ground for the sacrifice to come.

At the top of “Rite,” the first high notes of the bassoon coincide with the image of a woman lying prone on the dirt with what appears to be a red silk scarf spread underneath her. Low side lighting illuminates the small undulations of her body only to be interrupted by a spotlight catching another woman running downstage. She grabs at the hem of her pale slip and lifts it up to her face. The cast gradually grows, with women darting in all directions, their bodies possessed by strange impulses, as Igor Stravinsky’s iconic and influential score folds in more instruments. They gather in a moment of stillness as the bassoon motif returns and the dancer with the red fabric stands. 

Considering the portents of this bundle, she decides to drop it. Her action drives all the women to back away from it and huddle upstage. They pulse up and down, arms slashing across their center, to the now churning music, chugging in a kind of automatic unison that feels beyond the reach of free will. Even with the clear differences in the technical backgrounds of the dancers, there is a shared sympathy in the intention and intensity of their pleading motions that unifies them. 

“The Rite of Spring” by Pina Bausch at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

When the men run in, they add to the mounting tension with big, slicing shapes. The red fabric is passed around among the women in a twisted game of tag, while the men kick up dirt. They pace, appraising the women with menacing looks, and the stakes couldn’t be clearer: eventually one woman will be left holding it. 

The symbolic nature of the work plays to Bausch’s strengths as a choreographer. At a moment when the music sounds like a dirge, the cast forms a circle that extends to the edges of the dirt. Like the unstoppable wheel of life grinding toward death or the constant cycling of the seasons, they follow one another around with deep knee bends, torsos wavering in genuflection. Likewise, the gendered archetypes and violence that often finds its way into Bausch’s partnering feels timeless and profound here. The women’s bodies fly at the men like cannonballs in terrifying interactions where legs scissor at the air and back bends sweep dangerously low. In one brilliant bit of counterpoint, the women and the men dance side by side in two separate groups: the sharp elbows and jumps of the men, alongside the low, supplicating convulsions of the women, embodies Stravinsky’s competing rhythms so clearly.

Eventually, another round of the game catches Khadija Cisse with the red fabric in her hand. This time she is forced to put it on (it turns out to be a red slip dress) and acknowledge her fate as the chosen one. A man pins her arms to her sides and frogmarches her before the throng of onlookers. Their heads loll on their necks, giving a kind of passive assent. The man lays down on his back in front of the crowd, his arms hovering off the ground, while the Cisse is left to dance to her death. 

Khadija Cisse as the Chosen One in “The Rite of Spring” by Pina Bausch at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

In a marathon of a solo, Cisse’s arms and elbows carve through the air while her torso shudders in ever larger spasms. She tosses her body as though roughly guided by malevolent and invisible hands that push her, more than once, face down in the earth. Arms silent at their sides, the ensemble watches her suffer and stumble in an eerie quietude. When the man’s arms abruptly lift in a gesture of execution, she falls forward and the lights blackout.

“Common ground[s]” was billed as an antidote to the lush and unsettling “Rite.” Early on, I wondered about the effectiveness of this cure arriving ahead of its poison. But no matter. Even after the allure and dark drama of Bausch’s “Rite,” and its excellent dancers, the more placid and hopeful images of Acogny and Airaudo endure: their hands climbing across a staff to find each other and the steady beat of their friendship marching forward into the darkness.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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