Backstage

The soil of The Rite of Spring

A production, a recollection — By Edouard Gouhier

The Rite of Spring is returning to the stage of the Palais Garnier this autumn. In choreographer Pina Bausch's emblematic ballet, the dancers give body and soul on an earth-covered floor. It is a unique set which also offers an unusual insight into the key role played by the Paris Opera’s technical teams... Edouard Gouhier, Technical Director of the Palais Garnier, shares his recollections of the ballet’s creation in 1997 and reveals the manufacturing secrets of this rather special soil.

“When The Rite of Spring entered the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire in 1997, I was head of the research department at Garnier: I have very fond memories of that adventure, from the discovery of this powerful work requiring the total commitment of the dancers and also – and this was Pina Bausch’s intention – a high degree of involvement on the part of the technical crews.

At face value, the set appears very simple, since it is only comprised of a backdrop of black velvet side curtains and a thick cotton ground sheet upon which earth is spread to a depth of 15 centimetres over an area covering 13.5 metres by 18 metres. From the very outset, we purchased the soil – which is actually peat – from the same supplier in Germany: this was so it could be as close as possible to Pina Bausch’s own specifications.

Industrial waste bins on stage
Industrial waste bins on stage © Elena Bauer / OnP

One of the distinctive characteristics of “The Rite” is that we don’t lower the curtain whilst the scenery is being moved into place: members of the audience who choose to remain in the Itheatre during the intermission can watch the twelve stagehands bring nine large industrial waste bins each filled with a little over 600 kilos of earth. This is then spread across the floor and raked to create an even surface. All of this has to be done quickly and in a specific order… So it’s almost a choreographic operation in itself under the direction of the chief stagehand!

Pina Bausch drew a great deal of inspiration from day-to-day life and the things happening on the street… she liked to show things. The fact that the stagehands come out of the shadows is just a logical extension of that desire. Furthermore, those stagehands are often applauded at the end of the intermission. I don’t know if Pina had planned that, but in any case it gives some much-appreciated recognition for the stagehands whose profession rarely finds itself in the limelight. And I think they’re generally proud of that participation. They know what is going to transpire, the uncompromising physical commitment of the dancers and their own unconditional involvement. I can assure you that when you’ve spread and raked over five tons of earth in less than 20 minutes, you come out of there a little tired!

The set becomes a gunuine extension of the dancers' bodies as they run barefoot, tumble and rise, roll on the floor and end up covered in earth. There’s something highly primitive about it. In the same spirit, Pina Bausch’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, dances the ballet on raw peat. Since 1997, for the security of the dancers, we have preferred to sift it to eliminate any foreign materials it might contain. The stagehands become “gardeners” since the soil must be tended and moistened to offer the optimum degree of dampness, so as not to be too muddy, too slippery, too volatile or too dusty… There’s an entire expertise involved in making it perfect for when the curtain rises. Dancers familiar with the production also help us find the right consistency.

Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring often closes a performance of ballets for technical reasons, because it takes a certain amount of time to clear up the earth after the performance, but I also believe that is true for dramaturgical reasons as well: the work is so powerful that it is difficult to follow it up with something else. With each new revival of “The Rite” it’s the same emotion, the same impact. It’s an immense pleasure and a source of great pride to work on a ballet of such strikingly powerful modernity.”

The stagehands preparing the floor
The stagehands preparing the floor 10 images

Interviewed by Juliette Puaux

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