36 dancers from African visit Toronto to perform Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”

Scene from The Rite of Spring credit Maarten Vanden-Abeele

By Stephen Weir

African dancer Shelly Tetely Ohene-Nyako and 35 other dancers from 14 African countries are in the middle of an around-the-world tour which brings them all to Toronto this weekend. She told the Caribbean Camera yesterday that European and North American audiences who have already caught their Rite of Spring performance were so amazed seeing so much blackness on stage.

The Rite of Spring will be performed Saturday and Sunday at the Meridian Hall, Front Street, by this specially assembled company of dancers. “The choreography is very powerful,” said Ohene-Nyako. “Instead of the body type people are used to seeing in dance – tall thin women – Toronto will be seeing a wide range – we have small girls, tall girls, women with girls’ curves and (buff) men. While the language of this choreography is the same as a visceral 1975 version of this historic dance, there is a (flavour) of both urban and African dance.”

The famous Rite of Spring is a ballet and orchestral concert work written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. He created it for a Russian dance troupe who performed it for the first time on stage in Paris in 1913.  The choreography was by equally famous Vaslav Nijinsky who had the dancers stomping on stage. Many found both the music and the dance offensive so much so that a riot broke out between the wealthy audience in the loges, who hated the break with tradition, and the supportive students and Bohemians cheering in the cheap

Shelly Tetely Ohene-Nyako


In 1975 Pina Bausch, one of the world’s most important contemporary dance choreographers decided to have a go at restaging The Rite of Spring. Her vision proved to be electrifying, disturbing and soulful.

Bausch’s 1975 The Rite of Spring version is danced by a newly assembled company of dancers from African countries. In this pioneering work, with music by Stravinsky, a ‘chosen one’ is sacrificed, changing the season from winter to spring. In her version, a young woman is chosen as the victim who must dance herself to death. The ballet is also seen as a battle of the sexes. Men and women have a dance-off, staying on their feet until the one to be sacrificed is chosen.

Faithful to Stravinsky’s composition and Bausch’s 47-year-old version, widely regarded as the finest ever staged, this Saturday’s new production examines unyielding ritual, with the sacrifice of a ‘chosen one’ needed to bring the rebirth of the season

“It is very much about ritual. For we Africans, ritual in Africa is very much the thing

“Our production is true to Bausch’s vision,” explained Shelly Tetely Ohene-Nyako. “It is all there. The way she listened to the music. It interprets the power of the score, she really catches your

Scene from The Rite of Spring credit Maarten Vanden-Abeele

attention. The choreography is so very powerful people often break into tears.”

The costumes, long white robes are the same style as was worn in the 1975 production except that this time the dancers wear toned tights under their robes to match the colour of their skin.

The dance troupe came together two years ago when a total of 9 try-outs were held in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Senegal.  Out of the 140 people who auditioned, 19 females and 19 males speaking a mash-up of English, French and Portuguese remained. The finalists stayed in Senegal to rehearse the show that is now on stage.

For the past year they have toured through Europe and America. They performed in Paris for two weeks and just finished a series of shows in Montreal. After Toronto they are off to Chicago, Detroit and then Australia.

Rite of Spring is 30-minutes in length and is just one part of a double bill evening. 

The opening dance, common ground(s) is a new work created, performed, and inspired by the lives of two women of dance – Germaine Acogny, the founder of École des Sables in Senegal and the ‘mother of Contemporary African Dance’ and Malou Airaudo, who began as a soloist for Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo before becoming a dancer with Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble.

This two-part program marks the first collaboration between the Pina Bausch Foundation (Germany), École des Sables (Senegal) and Sadler’s Wells (UK),