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Germaine Acogny, The One

It was June of 1984, when the West German dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, under the artistic direction of Pina Bausch, made its American debut at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Opening the 10-week long Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles with Bausch’s 1975 work, “The Rite of Spring,” dozens of barefoot women and bare-chested men were thrashing amid tons of leaves and peat moss to Stravinsky’s visceral and anarchic score.  

Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo in “common ground[s].” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

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Fast forward nearly four decades, and the work of Bausch, who died in 2009 at age 68, is as relevant, profound, and powerful as ever. Indeed, from February 8-11, as part of the 21st season of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, Bausch’s “Rite,” together with the L.A. premiere of, “common ground[s],” a decidedly tender work choreographed and performed by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo, promises to be nothing short of spectacular, as well as the hottest ticket of the year. (Due to high demand, an extra Los Angeles performance was added, with the works traveling to Berkeley February 16-18 and presented by Cal Performances). 

Co-produced by the Pina Bausch Foundation, Sadler’s Wells and École des Sables, Bausch’s “Rite” features 38 dancers from 14 African countries, including Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal, while “common ground[s]” will amplify the talents of Acogny and Airaudo. 

The former, who founded École des Sables in Toubab Dialao, a fishing village outside of Dakar, Senegal, in 1998 - and turns 80 in May - is known as the mother of contemporary dance in Africa, while Airaudo, born in 1948 in Marseille, was an original member of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, and, in fact, danced in Bausch’s notorious work. (Both pieces were recently performed in New York as part of Dance Reflections, the festival sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels.) 

The pair will open the program with “common ground[s],” a 30-minute opus that, in effect, sets the stage for “Rite.” The work, however, is not merely a prelude, but is also validation and testament to the septuagenarians having spent many decades on stage, with the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas describing the performers as sharing, “a special superpower, even in seeming stillness: the deep, magnetic history that their bodies hold,” 

And talk about bearing witness to Acogny’s body over the years: From seeing her work at dance festivals in Europe in the early 2000s, to a 2018 Los Angeles performance, when, at age 74, Acogny astonished in the 40-minute solo, “Mon Élue Noire” (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2,” choreographed for her by Olivier Dubois and set to Stravinsky’s “Rite,” this scribe admits to having been in awe of the artist ever since.

Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo in “common ground[s].” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

A descendant of the Yoruba people through her grandmother—whom she never met—Acogny was born in Benin in 1944, relocating with her family to Dakar, Senegal, at age 10. Her terpsichorean gifts already apparent, Acogny moved to France in the 1960s to study modern dance and ballet, eventually returning home to develop a contemporary teaching style that fused the African and European influences, albeit one with a grounded style centered in the spine. 

Then, in 1977 Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor—he was also a poet and cultural theorist – together with choreographer Maurice Béjart (his father was French-Senegalese), whom Acogny had worked with in Belgium, supported the artist as she founded the modern dance school Mudra Afrique in Dakar. Acogny, with her husband Helmut Vogt, would subsequently go on to co-found École des Sables, or, School of the Sands, in 1998. 

An international center for traditional and contemporary African dance, a research laboratory, and meeting place for conferences and artistic residencies, the school has been headed by artistic directors Alesandra Seutin and Wesley Ruzibiza since 2020, allowing Acogny to devote more time to dance. 

Accolades for Acogny have also been numerous and include, among others, her receiving France’s Chevalier of the Order of Merit in 1997, and Senegal’s Knight of the National Order of the Lion. In 2007 she received a Bessie Award for Dubois’ reimagining of “Sacre,” and in 2021, Acogny was honored with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Dance Biennale under Wayne McGregor. (Bausch, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Simone Forti are but a few of the boldfaced names that have also been honored with the coveted award over the years.)  

From talk of technique, her collaboration with Airaudo, and how nature is part of her choreography, to her upcoming Music Center appearances and her impact on African dance, Senegal-based Acogny proved open, charming and utterly compelling during a recent Zoom conversation conducted through translator Julia Diamond, with Acogny’s husband Helmut occasionally offering his thoughts for clarification.

“The Rite of Spring” by Germaine Acogny. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

What was the genesis of and when did you begin your involvement with Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring?”

Four years ago, I began my connection with the “Rite of Spring.” It was in the moment when it was the decision of Pina’s son, Salomon Bausch. It was his idea, because the Pina Bausch Foundation gives many scholarships to dancers all around the world. They noticed [that] many of the dancers who earned scholarships were students at École des Sables. I was in Brussels dancing Olivier Dubois’ “Rite,” and made the connection [for us] to come together.

Pina’s son and I talked about the possibility of exploring this work together. Then [he] spent some time at École des Sables with [Bausch] dancer Josephine Ann Endicott, and [were] inspired by the dancers there. It came at the same time that I was thinking about opening up to this kind of work with different dancers.  

How were the dancers chosen?

In the beginning, we did a public call for resumes to be submitted and we received over 200. [My son] Patrick Acogny and other dancers from the school went to different countries with people from the Bausch company who had danced the piece with Pina. These dancer artists [similar to répétiteurs] were going to teach them. 

They have the knowledge about the piece and were supposed to [set] the piece on the new company being put together. They got the group down to 100 from 200, then finally selected the group - 38 dancers from 14 countries. 

That’s incredible! What is the relationship, then, of “common ground[s],” your first collaboration with Malou Airaudo, to the “Rite of Spring,” and how did that work come about?

This is a decision that has two points of origin. One, it’s about an equitable relationship. The “Sacre” is a piece coming from Europe encountering artists from Africa, and it’s important because it’s a two-way conversation; it represents the African voice. Two, Pina’s piece always started with a prelude piece, [such as] “Café Müller.” 

[Pina Bausch Foundation’s Director of Archives] Ismaël Dia had the idea that Malou would be a wonderful artist to work together with me to bring her perspective; bringing Africa and Europe together in this piece that’s about common grounds between those two places and two women. She was a prestigious dancer in Pina’s company, and also had a connection with “Café Müller.”

“The Rite of Spring” by Germaine Acogny. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

What was your process with Malou in creating “common ground[s],” which is set to Fabrice Bouillon LaForest’s nature-based score?

She came to Senegal, to L’École, and into my home. We spent time talking about experiences in common—being mothers, grandmothers. We talked about work, and found other things in common: We both ice our legs for arthritis in our knees! 

We decided to bring all these themes into the piece and also the way we were responding to the environment. We found common ground there. Going on walks, Malou was drawn to stones and would collect rocks; I was drawn to trees, and I would collect sticks and branches. 

I understand that this is the first time you’ve worked with a woman?

Yes, it’s the first time I’ve worked with a woman—to dance like this. It’s interesting, because it’s a white woman and a Black woman, but things [we have] in common are the problems, the joys, the issues that have to do with being a woman.

What has your attraction been to the “Rite of Spring” over the years—and, specifically, your having performed, in essence, a one-woman “Rite” choreographed by Olivier Dubois?

It’s a beautiful history. When I was the head of Mudra Afrique, there was an interest at that time of doing it. Béjart had done his version of “The Rite,” and we had these conversations about my doing the piece. I suggested a younger dancer—I was 35 at the time - to do the role of the Chosen One. He said, “No, you should do it.” We talked about it, but the piece never happened. 

At the age of 70, when Olivier Dubois was 45, he said, “Do you want to do the “Rite,” and I said, “Yes.” It really was a big risk for both of us. I had to do it, because we talked about colonization, and in order to do this work, we were also very connected. There was an osmosis between us. I had to find such strength to do this piece because of the themes, but also because of the intensity of Stravinsky’s music. I had to bring so much of myself, my personality, and my strength and force into the work. It’s demanding. 

I first saw “The Rite” danced by the Paris Opera Ballet, and I noticed and sensed in the work that it was deeply African. Now that I’ve seen the [African] company do it, I’m really seeing them appropriate for themselves the music, and execute it with such precision and strength. I’m seeing that dance is so universal through this experience.

I understand that Pina’s point of departure for her “Rite,” was asking the question, “How would you dance, if you knew you were going to die?” What are your thoughts on that?

Death is not death. My piece with Malou, for me, Pina is there. For me, when people die, they’re not gone. They don’t go away. They’re in the wind, the water, in our flowers. They whisper to us. Pina and Stravinsky aren’t gone. They’re here. They’re so happy with what has come of this work, and they would be so satisfied, as am I, with the incredible physical and musical perfection that this company of dancers is performing. It’s truly different with this company, how it’s being performed. It’s truly sublime.

“The Rite of Spring” by Germaine Acogny. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Indeed! Can you please tell me a little about your technique?

It’s difficult to talk about technique. It’s always better to see it in person. The body really reflects nature. Look at a snail. I observe and embody how a snail emerges from its shell; how it moves back into its shell. So many movements like that come from the spine. The [movements] live in the spine of my body. 

I dance nature; I embody trees—the baobab and the [kapok] tree. Different parts of the body become different parts of the trees. The head is the flower. The arms are like the leaves that have fallen onto the water. And the body is [also like] the roots that are under the water. 

Germaine, you’ve been called the “mother of contemporary African dance,” and your work in the 1970s and 1980s spread those dance practices around the globe. I’m wondering if you can see what your impact may have had on dance today?

That’s not a name I chose for myself; others chose it for me. My work reflects the body and nature, and the technique I created—that perspective, that focus on the body and nature—has struck a chord with people, not just in Africa, but around the world.

It’s really this joy and pleasure in the body—the virtuosity of the body, and exploring that. That was something in addition to the work that existed by people like Limón, Graham. The beauty of the body is [that it’s] in a relationship. It’s like a cosmos: The chest is the sun, the spine is the tree of the body, the pubis is the stars, and the behind is the moon. 

There’s a miniature cosmos in the body. The awareness is part of that; we have contact with the cosmos through that. 

Wow! That said, is there any advice you might have for aspiring dancers and choreographers.

I believe three things: Don’t ever give up, believe, and have humility.

That sounds like great advice for anyone. Do you find that your work is received differently depending on where you perform?

It depends on education and culture, or lived experience. More than differences, I find there are similar emotions that people express. Similar questions arise for people, and I find it very reassuring about the human race—that we’re not all that different. We might look different, have different skin color, but we perceive so many things similarly, and live so many things similarly. 

But not many people are still dancing at age 79. What’s your secret, Germaine?

My secret? People ask, “Don’t you want to retire?” And be like a car that’s parked and rusts? No. I stretch. I do less than when I was young, but I stretch every morning. In Senegal, when I’m home, I walk a lot, near the water. In Europe, I walk in nature. Even if I’m sick, dancing keeps me healthy. It restores my health, and is a huge source of well-being. 

Is it possible for you to look ahead to the next five years?

I can’t envision it. I don’t have time planned out. One of the nice things at this point in my life is [that] things come to me. I say, “Yes,” or I say, “No.” I’m healthy, especially in my mind, and I hope to stay that way. When it’s time to die, I want to die at the exact time as my husband Helmut. That’s the plan we’ve made.  

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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