Vigour and verve from a unique new Rite of Spring: Dancing at Dusk reviewed

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

Dancing at Dusk

Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage

Blues Suite

Ailey All Access, via YouTube, until 30 August

Dancing at Dusk captures the final rehearsal of a new version of Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. It’s only the third time a company other than Bausch’s own has been handed the reins to this piece, and it’s a treat to see its raw, convulsive rhythms reinterpreted by a new generation of performers.

Filmed on a beach in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, it features a cast of 38 dancers from 14 African countries, assembled to bring a fresh lens to Bausch’s 1975 cult classic, itself a modern reckoning of a decades-old ballet. (Bausch’s original famously underscores the misogyny of the sacrificial virgin, doomed to dance herself to death.) This collaboration with the Senegalese L’école des Sables was meant to tour but this run-through unwittingly became the performance the world would see.

When English National Ballet tackled Ritein 2017, the test was whether this classical troupe could shake off their codified lines to inhabit Bausch’s stark, cantilevered choreography. The École des Sables dancers must also find their way into unfamiliar territory, but with the added challenge of coalescing as a green company with a range of backgrounds, including traditional and contemporary African dance.

The familiar beats are all there — Stravinsky’s baleful bassoon, the fateful crimson dress, the ritual assemblies of violence and lust — but there’s a lot to discover too. Where ENB brought an energising consistency to their performance, sneaking balletic precision into Bausch’s pulsing arrangements, the vigour here is powered by deviations in the dancers’ artistic choices, the moments when they aren’t moving like a watertight pack but individuals hellbent on survival.

Some rocket their jumps; some skim the ground. Some rove the landscape; some stride with conviction. Chins jut, eyes dart, especially among the women of the cast. Someone has to die, but it doesn’t have to be me.

The coastal setting brings a verve all of its own. Three dozen bodies sprinting in the sand, the sunset-streaked Atlantic stretched behind them — it’s a bracing sight. On stage, Bausch’s Riteis performed amid heaps of dirt, the earth striping the dancers as they dodge its clutch.

Here, though, nature is oblivious to their plight, a quiet backdrop to their mortal mess. This dynamic comes to a head when the Chosen One is manhandled into martyrdom. There are no natural forces at play here, no primal summonings. The pressure to surrender is dreadfully human, embodied in the peers who stand before her, insisting this is her fate.

There’s another historical work making the rounds this summer: Alvin Ailey’s Blues Suite, the production that launched the American dancemaker’s company in 1958. The troupe, founded as an all-black modern dance cohort, had planned to tour a revival this year, but audiences will have to make do with this 1985 recording for now, which catalogues the antics of late-night carousers in a Depression-era juke joint.

Ailey made his name dramatising imagery of the black American South. Where Revelations, his magnum opus, captures the ecstasy of the Christian church, Blues Suite heralds rapture of a different magnitude. There’s brawling, sleazing, slinking, high-kicking. It’s a festoon of feather boas and unbuttoned vests, fans waved in righteous elation, Lord have mercy. Some of the scenes border on camp — behold the moustachioed cad, sporting erect nipples and a jaunty neckerchief — though the heavy-handed filming is responsible for much of this cheesy sensibility (think flashy fades and lingering crotch shots). When the camera relaxes, we get a better look at Ailey’s sultry vision. Women leap around the boudoir, hands raised to the sky; a cocky patron strikes out with a belle in fuchsia. One of the sunniest passages is a technicolour swing dance, the cast brought to their knees in jubilation.

While there’s pizzazz in these early-hours exploits, I’m partial to the heady reckoning that comes when church bells start tolling, snapping the revellers out of their stupor. Lyrics from Laura Marling spring to mind: ‘You’re not sad/You live for the blues.’ Wild nights are a scream, but there’s something uniquely rousing about the bittersweet tang of the morning after.

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