2020 is a year as clearly banded as a hornet. There is the time ‘before’, its ending delineated by international lockdowns; there is ‘now’, through which we uncertainly venture, tweeting guesswork visions of the future at one another; and there is that ‘future’, the shape of which remains difficult to visualise. How the dance community will shift into its new, post-viral future remains uncertain, as we continue to grapple with the question of how to keep sharing, making and supporting work in the ‘now’.
Companies and venues have turned to video platforms to keep connecting with audiences. London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre have been running their Digital Stage since 27 March, offering performances and workshops to the locked down. Their next instalment in the series, Dancing at Dusk – A moment with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, is a filmed outdoor rehearsal of a performance of The Rite of Spring that never was.
A co-production between École des Sables in Senegal (spearheaded by director Germaine Acogny), the Pina Bausch Foundation and Sadler’s Wells, its 38 dancers from 14 African countries had planned to premiere their performance in March 2020 in Dakar, before embarking on an international tour. This was, of course, the month that governments worldwide banned large-scale gatherings and performances, and lockdowns of varying stringency came in and ended the ‘before’ time. The company had time to film one last rehearsal, on a beach in Toubab Dialaw.
It is also the first release on the Digital Stage for which audiences will pay, an acknowledgement that the free access model is not sustainable. Proceeds will support the artists, Sadler’s Wells and the future life of this production. For the price of a London pint (£5), audiences all over the world – many of whom would not have been able to see the live performances – can see something that could only have happened in that flash of a moment between ‘before’ and ‘now’, as well as a rehearsal of a great work of art.
A raw, visceral piece about the sacrifice of a maiden – chosen in a writhing, heaving ritual that sees her handed a symbolism-drenched red dress – Bausch’s 1975 Rite of Spring, is a searing work even on a stage. Earth is specially laid, giving the impression of a wild outdoors space, spraying into the air where it is kicked, soiling the bodies and faces of dancers collapsing down into it. In Dancing at Dusk, the carefully raked sand demarcates the ‘stage’ yet still blends seamlessly with the rest of the beach. The world of The Rite of Spring bleeds into our own; performance is indistinguishable from living experience. This production was, like every other production of The Rite of Spring, intended to be performed in theatres. Brought in to the open air – into the world – the bladed edge of the ritual feels real and dangerous.
The sky is huge, a murky antique pink fading into livid violet. Director and editor Florian Heinzen-Ziob often uses long horizontal pans, as if following the progress of a slowly, nervously scanning single spectator who has stumbled on to a genuine ritual. The dancer’s diaphanous dresses blow in the wind; the sun slowly goes down on the world as the sacrifice dances to death. Unexpectedly, this rehearsal has an emotional veracity that simply cannot be captured in a theatre.
Dancing at Dusk was filmed before social distancing measures were put in place, so it is terribly poignant, even nostalgic to see bodies not just touching but colliding, grappling and entwining. These dancers would soon have to go in separate directions, unsure of when they would even be able to go to class again, let alone rehearse or perform. Spring, the season of renewal, was folded back, trapped at home, until it turned into a similarly unmoving summer; the setting sun of the film sets on ‘before’ and ‘now’ begins. At home, as we ease into ‘future’, the primordial physical energy of the performances are a throwback to what bodies could once do – but when will they be able to again, and on this scale?
Dancing at Dusk is a striking and moving offering, not just because it is a filmed rehearsal of a version of The Rite of Spring that never was, but because it sits exactly on the liminal space between the ‘before’ and the ‘now’. The weird magic of its happening feels like intrinsic proof, in and of itself, that art is vital in a way that goes beyond reason and lands in instinct, need, magnetism. ●