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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: CAL Performances presents common ground[s] & The Rite of Spring, February 16-18, 2024 Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

It’s Sunday, February 18, 2024, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall (2,000 seats) is packed to the gills for the final of three performances. Usually, I try to control my high-expectations, but not today. Never before have I so anticipated a performance.  (Spoiler alert: it far surpasses all hopes!)

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the world, everyone, everywhere was affected.  In Senegal, a group of 38 dancers from 14 different African nations were days away from their first performances of Pina Bausch’s iconic The Rite of Spring (1975). Before disbanding due to contagion risks, they dance together one last time. On a beach in waning afternoon light a final dress rehearsal, which might turn out to be the only proof of their months’-long effort, is captured by a fortuitously-present documentary film crew. Entitled Dancing at Dusk, the video soon travels the world via the internet, providing sustenance and hope to individuals like myself, longing to return to the communal and transporting experiences live performances provide.

Cal Performances presents the Bay Area premiere of Pina Bausch's The Rite of Spring performed by dancers from 14 African countries, February 16-18, 2024, at Zellerbach Hall. (credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele)

Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, set to Stravinsky’s driving score, has always been powerful beyond measure, surging with urgency as it moves toward the certain death of one of its beloved. The raw desperate emotion churning through these African dancers’ bodies is visceral. In the Spring of 2020, as we imagined death outside our doors, it was haunting and richly affecting to watch the embodiment of our collective fears play out in this primal dance film. Bausch’s often quoted prompt to her dancers while preparing the original version, “How would you dance if you knew you were going to die?”, takes on new meaning as one observes artists continents away, dancing as if this performative offering might deliver us from global viral destruction.

Fast forward to the present, where courtesy of CAL Performances, Germany’s Pina Bausch Foundation, Senegal’s Ecole des Sables and the UK’s Sadler’s Wells production, featuring the African dancers from the beach video, has arrived on our shores.

But first the opening act. common ground[s] is a cross-cultural duet created and performed by seasoned dance makers Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo. Acogny, known as the “mother of African contemporary dance,” and Malou Airaudo, a longtime dancer with the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. The piece is a conversation between two female artists from different creative and cultural lineages who hold each other in high esteem.   They speak mostly in shared dance sequences, though a brief verbal interchange in English and French, which ends with their singing ‘Que Sera, Sera’ (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) adds a delightful buoyancy to the otherwise low-key proceedings. 

Assured in their identities, inquisitive but unhurried, their erect postures, elegant lines, and specificity of gesture, speak to many years of performing and teaching dance.  Kinesthetic learners, they teach each other not by watching, but by standing, touching, front to back, shadowing the other.

Cal Performances presents the Bay Area premiere of common ground[s] by Germaine Acogny & Malou Airaudo, February 16-18, 2024, at Zellerbach Hall. (credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele)

Facing upstage, Acogny offers us her exquisite back. Lifting her fists from shoulder tops to forward diagonals, her shoulder blades pivot visibly with each pull and release. Posing, each dancer leans her torso way from a canting hip, creating graceful curvilinear silhouettes. 

A pair of stools centerstage suggest a home. It is here that Airaudo stands, scrubbing Acogny’s naked back, taking time to properly care for her seated friend, one of many tender moments between the duo.

While the piece began with the women looking outward toward an auburn sunrise, it ends with them facing inward toward one another stomping out a shared rhythm, slowing as darkness encroaches.

common ground[s]’s intimate subject and luxurious pace stand in contrast to the monumental scale and fervor which will follow in the second act.  Its post-modern simplicity is not well served by such a large venue.

During the thirty-minute intermission, much of the audience lingers in the auditorium, fascinated, as stagehands hand-tack a giant ground-cloth over the stage and spread several inches of chocolate-brown peat atop it.

Watching The Rite of Spring is emotional and exhausting. Death, though as of yet unassigned, is present from the start, in the form of a diaphanous red dress, which lies hauntingly on the ground, is passed fearfully from person to person, and finally isolates the selected one.

Girls blossoming into womanhood, in delicate ivory chemises are tremulous as they wrench their garments or knead their budding bodies. A vulnerable fragility plays against an unforgiving harshness toward themselves as the women repeatedly draw fists into waists, contracting around their sacred centers. Drawing strength from their sisterhood, they face off against the raw power of the shirtless men, whose muscles intimidate even when they pause to take inventory of the women.

Women dash, exposed and quaking, unsure of how death selects its victim.  The stage is chaotic, as each respond to their own inner-turmoil. Suddenly a moment of perfect unison occurs as altogether they jump vertically, hands at sides, their heads turned apprehensively over their shoulders.. Unified group stillness is also used to great effect, as in the moment when having created a full-stage circle, the men and women fall as one, resting for a breath on the floor, before rising and collapsing anew.  The rich brown dirt clings to their bodies, smearing across cheekbones and clavicles, soiling the virginal dresses.

Cal Performances presents the Bay Area premiere of Pina Bausch's The Rite of Spring performed by dancers from 14 African countries, February 16-18, 2024, at Zellerbach Hall. (credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele)

As if sexual congress will spare their sacrificial selection, the women jump spread legged onto the men’s laps. This sequence builds toward a climax as the girls run and leap onto their partner, landing astride his waiting shoulder, to ride above the fray.

Anique Ayibo is magnetic as the chosen victim. Newly clothed in the red shift, a primordial pulse possesses her.  Searching and desperate, she pleads with and accosts the transfixed witnesses.  Finding no amnesty, she resumes the grasping gut-punches which opened the piece, contracting violently with each impact until in death she falls face first into the earth. 

The Rite of Spring presentation caps a month of excitement in the Bay Area’s dance eco-system.  In January, the San Francisco Ballet (SFB) premiered Azsure Barton’s Mere Mortals, which shares some attributes with Bausch’s The Rite of Spring.  While not destined to be similarly iconic, Mere Mortals’s hunch-shouldered confrontational swagger challenges balletic norms, expanding the possible. Both dances include a large cast (here 42) traveling in dramatic ritualistic scrums and boasting musical scores which would dwarf less energetic work. Rumor has it that the acclaim Mere Mortals engendered, from audiences and critics alike, led an anonymous donor to contribute $60M to the SFB last week, funds that will underwrite future SFB premieres, and one hopes support, the exhibition of large-scale touring dance in San Francisco.

With audiences still stubbornly small, some presenters have embraced a timidity that doesn’t serve the present moment. Bold initiatives are required to break spectator complacency.  The overlapping presence of ambitious and unusual productions this winter has enlivened the local dance community ushering in a much-needed post-pandemic rebirth of our dynamic dance scene across the Bay Area.

The resumption of touring dance presentations is something for which to be grateful and seeing those performances with full houses is heartening.  CAL Performances dance presentation series continues this spring with: Joffrey Ballet’s Anna Karenina, (March 15–17) with the Berkeley Symphony in the pit, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (April 2-7), and Mark Morris Dance Group (April 19-21).

Review by Jen Norris, published February 19, 2024.


Production Credits:

Friday, and Saturday, February 16–17, 2024, 8pm Sunday, February 18, 2024, 3pm

Zellerbach Hall

common ground[s] • The Rite of Spring

PROGRAM common ground[s] by Germaine Acogny & Malou Airaudo


The Rite of Spring by Pina Bausch A Pina Bausch Foundation, École des Sables, and Sadler’s Wells production

common ground[s]

Co-choreographers and Dancers Germaine Acogny, Malou Airaudo

Composer Fabrice Bouillon LaForest*

Costume Designer Petra Leidner

Lighting Designer Zeynep Kepekli Dramaturg Sophiatou Kossoko

* Music recorded by Nicolas Lopez, Ana Maria Sandu, and Alexandru-Adrian Semeniuc, violins; Wei-Chueh Chen and Alejandro Vega Sierra, violas; Ana Catarina Pimentel Rodrigues and Mariana Silva Taipa, cellos; Adam Davis and Carlota Margarida Ramos, bass; Fabrice Bouillon LaForest, keyboard. Prof. Werner Dickel, conductor. Christoph Sapp, sound engineer


The Rite of Spring Choreography Pina Bausch

Music Igor Stravinsky**

Original Set and Costume Design Rolf Borzik Collaboration Hans Pop

World Premiere: December 3, 1975, Opera House Wuppertal

Artistic Directors Jo Ann Endicott, Jorge Puerta Armenta, Clémentine Deluy

Rehearsal Directors Çağdaş Ermiş, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi, Barbara Kaufmann, Julie Shanahan, Kenji Takagil

Dancers:  Rodolphe Allui, Sahadatou Ami Touré, Anique Ayiboe, Gloria Ugwarelojo Biachi, Khadija Cisse, Sonia Zandile Constable, Rokhaya Coulibaly, Inas Dasylva, Astou Diop, Serge Arthur Dodo, Franne Christie Dossou, Estelle Foli, Aoufice Junior Gouri, Zadi Landry Kipre, Bazoumana Kouyaté, Profit Lucky, Babacar Mané, Vasco Pedro Mirine, Stéphanie Mwamba, Florent Nikiéma, Shelly Ohene-Nyako, Brian Otieno Oloo, Harivola Rakotondrasoa, Oliva Randrianasolo (Nanie), Tom Jules Samie, Amy Collé Seck, Pacôme Landry Seka, Gueassa Eva Sibi, Carmelita Siwa, Amadou Lamine Sow, Didja Kady Tiemanta, Aziz Zoundi

** The Rite of Spring recorded by the Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor [Sony Classical SMK 64109]

With thanks to Korotimi Barro, D’Aquin Evrard Élisée Bekoin, Luciény Kaabral,

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