Edinburgh International Festival preview: The Rite of Spring / common ground(s)

Pina Bausch’s son Salomon tells Kelly Apter why the acclaimed choreographer would have loved both the new, all-African reinterpretation of her iconic The Rite of Spring and the mixing of styles behind the duet that accompanies it

When Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo met for the first time, they quickly realised they had something in common. Yes, they were both women in their 70s who had devoted their entire lives to dance. And yes, on subsequent meetings they also discovered they were both mothers, grandmothers and had been greatly influenced by their grandfathers during childhood. But on that first meeting in Paris in 2019 it was something else that caught their eye – their footwear.

“We were actually wearing the same pair of shoes,” says Acogny with a laugh. “And we found out we loved some of the same foods. We really felt there was a big connection between us, as professionals but also as women. After that, Malou came to stay with me at my house in Senegal and we started to tell each other the stories of our lives, which brought us even closer.”

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Acogny and Airaudo had been introduced by staff at the Pina Bausch Foundation, who felt they would get on and perhaps work on a new piece together. It was an astute move, leading to the creation of common ground[s], a duet created and performed by the duo which will sit alongside Bausch’s The Rite of Spring at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Initially, Acogny and Airaudo were “a bit nervous” in the rehearsal studio, wondering how their individual movement styles would co-exist. Airaudo was a key member of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal for many years, while Acogny is the co-founder of École des Sables, an international centre for traditional and contemporary African dance near Dakar.

“It wasn’t always easy to work together, it didn’t just happen,” recalls Acogny. “But we appreciated each other and there was a femininity and a shared force. I showed Malou the warm-up from my technique and she showed me things, and we slowly got used to each other.” Joining Acogny on her morning beach walks, Airaudo became enamoured with the stones she found there and these, along with Acogny’s love for trees and water, found their way into the duet.

Collaborations such as these have long been a fundamental part of Acogny’s vision for École des Sables. Since 1998, the centre has attracted dancers from across Africa and beyond to explore different movement styles. Partnering with the Pina Bausch Foundation on their latest project, The Rite of Spring has been a challenging but rewarding experience for everyone.

“What doesn’t evolve, dies,” says Acogny. “So it’s important for the dancers at École des Sables to learn the dance and culture of where they come from, but also learn ways to incorporate that into more contemporary work. The traditional dance they have all practised during their lives is an ideal base to learn and interpret other styles like Pina Bausch’s. Her style has a lot to do with ballet, and although these dancers have never done ballet, their education in traditional dance and my technique means they managed to perfectly integrate her choreography into their bodies.”

The Rite of Spring PIC: Maarten Vanden AbeeleThe Rite of Spring PIC: Maarten Vanden Abeele
The Rite of Spring PIC: Maarten Vanden Abeele

It’s almost 50 years since Pina Bausch premiered this iconic work set to Stravinsky’s score, but interest in it has far from waned. To ensure Bausch’s choreography lived on after her death in 2009, her son Salomon Bausch established the Pina Bausch Foundation to oversee requests from companies wishing to perform her work.

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“We’re interested in the quality of the company but probably the most important thing is that we feel there is a real hunger to do my mother’s work,” he says. “It’s a big part of how we envision the future, that Pina’s work is danced by companies worldwide. It’s important that dancers are able to get in touch with choreography that is, I think, very different from most other works they perform.” Each project the Foundation works on is followed by a debrief, and it was during one such meeting that this new production of The Rite of Spring was first mooted.

“A member of our re-staging team, Jorge Puerta Armenta, suggested we take a completely different approach,” explains Bausch. “He said rather than work with an existing company, why not bring a group of people together specifically for this production. It would mean each dancer is chosen for their individual qualities and personality, and that everybody wants to do it 100 per cent. Because, of course, in every dance company there are people who really dive in but not everybody is attached to Pina’s work in the same way.

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“We also thought it could be interesting to stage The Rite of Spring with people from very different backgrounds, where not everyone has more or less the same training and experience, which is usually the case in a ballet company.” Serendipity played a part in what happened next. The Foundation needed a partner organisation, and around this time Bausch kept hearing the same name being mentioned from dancers keen to collaborate or train there.

common ground[s] PIC: Maarten Vanden Abeelecommon ground[s] PIC: Maarten Vanden Abeele
common ground[s] PIC: Maarten Vanden Abeele

“École des Sables just kept popping up,” he says, “and I realised this must be a really important place for dance, not only in Senegal but worldwide. And I thought I’d like to meet Germaine Acogny and learn more about it.” Several workshops and auditions later, 34 dancers from 14 different African nations were chosen to perform in the piece. The original choreography remains intact but École des Sables’ unique training has led to something new and special. Does Bausch think his mother would have approved?

“I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have loved it,” he says. “I feel it’s a really great achievement, because although they didn’t change the choreography at all, somehow it’s really different. It’s not just a case of reproducing what was there before or simply doing it with new people, I feel it’s something very strong. Also, on a human level, it’s had a big effect on all the people dancing it and working on it. It’s something very special and warm, and a big gift for all of us. So that’s why I can feel Pina smiling.”

The Rite of Spring / common ground[s], Edinburgh Playhouse, 17-19 August