What binds dance and sweatshops

Jan 20, 2015, 07:47 IST | Suprita Mitter

German choreographer Helena Waldmann's latest dance production is an interpretation of the concept of exploitation that juxtaposes the worlds of dance studios, and textile mills in Bangladesh

Of late, Bangladesh has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. One of these include the catastrophic working conditions of the workers in its textile factories that’s received international attention.

Dancers ready for a performance on stage
Dancers ready for a performance on stage

How it happened?
When world-renowned choreographer Helena Waldmann, travelled to Dhaka in December 2010, she saw a few old dilapidated buildings. She was told that they were garment factories. In a chance meeting with acclaimed Bangladeshi dance pioneer Lubna Mariam, who is also a director of Shadhona — a centre to promote South Asian performing arts, Waldmann was keen to create a piece that would highlight the troubles of women working in Bangladesh’s textile industry.

Dancers representing textile workers
Dancers representing textile workers

In 2013, she returned to Dhaka, and together with Kathak expert Vikram Iyengar and 12 experienced Kathak dancers from Shadhona, she developed a new dance production called Made in Bangladesh.

Waldmann invited Nazma Akter, an activist against exploitation in the textile industry, to support the production team, and organised several meetings between the performers and workers, even arranging a visit to their actual workplace in a factory operated by the Rishal Group of Industries. The results of the research work and encounters between the two separate worlds were to be incorporated into the multimedia production.

Dancers from Shadhona at a rehearsal
Dancers from Shadhona at a rehearsal

Same difference
The dance project highlights the fact that dancers and textile workers alike, lead precarious lives in terms of pay, safety, employment contracts and job security, and are constantly in danger of losing their job to younger, more flexible competitors. “We had 12 workers from the textile industry to mentor each of our 12 dancers from Shadhona. When Helena began to direct the piece and explore the conditions that the textile workers were working under, one of our dancers pointed out that they too work at a minimum wage. This is when we re-looked at the subject of the piece,” says Mariam.

“Dancers and seamstresses have more in common than our cultural establishment would care to believe. In the case of sweatshops of both the textile industry and the dance studios, an 18-hour workday causes burnouts and the slightest protest leads to replacements. In Europe, when we reveal that it’s happening in their city and country, they are in denial and refuse to accept the truth. Everyone likes to live in their beautiful living rooms and appreciate art, but none think of the hard work and the people responsible for creating it,” rues Waldmann.

“Clothes made in Bangladesh are sold across the globe. These workers and dancers love their work. A solution needs to be found to better their conditions,” she hopes.

The physical demands of the production are dauntingly high as  Waldmann uses the complicated staccato dynamics of Kathak as a choreographic reflection of piecework sewing. “We are not using Kathak in its pure form; it’s marginalised. The footwork got me interested; the stomping is used for effect in the project,” shares Waldmann. Music director, Daniel Dorsch who created original music for the Made in Bangladesh Project, studied North Indian Classical music with Debashish Sanyal. He is the founder of the electronic music bands Tronthaim and Recorder.

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At: Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
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About Shadhona 

A Centre for Advancement of South Asian Dance and Music, this trust was initially founded to revitalise and expand the horizons of Classical dance and music in Bangladesh. It has, through the years, expanded to include all performing arts in South Asia–indigenous and urban, including Classical and Contemporary arts. The Centre has been working for two decades to promote the rich cultural heritage of South Asia among young Bangladeshis through various events, workshops and training programmes. It has also helped revive near-extinct dance/martial arts forms like Lathi Khela and Charya dance.

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