Disappearing cast haunts Danish asylum ballet

A performance at Copenhagen's Royal Theatre faces an unusual problem: the stars of the show -- sold out in advance -- could face deportation before the final curtain falls.

Disappearing cast haunts Danish asylum ballet
'Uropa -- An asylum-seekers' ballet' pairs asylum seekers with Danish dancers. Photo: Royal Theatre
In “Uropa — An asylum-seekers' ballet”, six migrants tell their stories with the help of dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet, hoping to change perceptions of refugees in a country that has recently rolled out some of
Europe's strictest asylum rules.
“The hardest part is, during the rehearsals, to speak about your own issues… without showing any feelings,” said Salam Susu, a 32-year-old PhD student in musicology from the Syrian city of Homs.
Disco funk music and ballet moves are mixed with harrowing tales of persecution and rape in the performance, which opened just days after Danish lawmakers voted to allow police to confiscate valuables from refugees and
delay family reunifications by three years.
With few props on stage, dialogue and dance are at the centre of the English-language play, which opened on Friday and runs for three weeks.
Although the script involves Susu and her partner, a music teacher, describing how their lives descended into chaos as Syria's civil war escalated, they say rehearsals helped take their minds off the nagging uncertainty that permeates life in an asylum centre.
Three days before the opening of “Uropa” — the title being a play on the Danish words for unrest, “uro”, and Europe — they were finally told that their applications for asylum had been accepted.
“It's crazy, I cannot believe that before the premiere we had our asylum,” Susu laughed.
Others have been less fortunate since an original lineup of 10 were recruited last year: Two cast members have had their asylum applications rejected and one person has gone into hiding.
A fourth asylum seeker, Mahyar Pourhesabi from Iran, was sent to France under the Dublin Convention, which requires asylum seekers to have their requests processed in the first EU country where they arrive.
In a segment of the play he appears to be sitting in an Internet cafe, speaking to the audience via a video link about living on the streets of Paris and sleeping in airports and train stations.
“The asylum system here is not working well at all,” he says.
Director Christian Lollike said there was no guarantee the remaining cast of six wouldn't be decimated further, but maintained that using real migrants on stage was an essential part of the show.
“The meeting of their 'real' presence and the dancers, these two languages, when they meet that's when something new is happening,” he said.
Lollike has previously cast maimed Danish war veterans in a “war ballet”, and he courted controversy in 2012 by staging a play based on the manifesto of Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik.
“I'm hoping that people will have another view on what is an asylum seeker… And I (would) like the refugees to speak for themselves and to tell them how they have experienced coming to Denmark and meeting the Danish system,” he said.
In one scene the actors echo some of the main arguments used by Danes who want to curb immigration.
“How much tolerance can we afford?” asks Ali Ishaq, a 45-year-old gay man from Pakistan. “Shall we tolerate these migrants who prevent their children from going to state schools? Or who force their women to dress or behave in a certain way?” he says.
The dilemma of socially liberal Denmark admitting migrants with homophobic or misogynist views is all too familiar to Ishaq, who also gives a chilling monologue about being gang-raped in Pakistan following an argument about male chauvinism and Islam.
On stage he talks about a worsening climate for gay people in Pakistan. Off stage, he says he has encountered similarly negative attitudes from the Pakistani community in Denmark.
“I decided to come to Scandinavia for the human rights' sake,” he said before a rehearsal, wearing a “Copenhagen Pride” t-shirt.  
But the socially conservative attitudes of some migrants should not be enough to bar them from coming to Denmark, he said.
“They might have a political problem that might kill them in Pakistan,” he said.
The play could be one of several small steps to change a widespread Danish perception of refugees as “parasites”, he hoped.
“Politically I think they are tightening up this noose around the whole asylum system,” he said of the recent moves to deter migrants from coming to the Scandinavian country.
But both Susu and Ishaq said their encounters with Danes had been positive.
“Everybody we've met until now has been friendly,” said Susu.


Drug and harassment allegations plunge Bejart Ballet into turmoil

Switzerland's prestigious Bejart Ballet Lausanne company faces a probe as allegations of drug use, harassment and abuse of power raise the question why nothing apparently changed after an earlier investigation raised similar issues.

Drug and harassment allegations plunge Bejart Ballet into turmoil
Bejart Ballet dancers perform at Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, on April 3, 2013. credit: YURI KADOBNOV / AFP

The company, founded by the late legendary French choreographer Maurice Bejart, was placed under audit on June 4 over allegations touching on its “working environment and inappropriate behaviour”.

The Maurice Bejart Foundation announced the audit just a week after revealing that the affiliated Rudra Bejart ballet school had fired its
director and stage manager and suspended all classes for a year due to “serious shortcomings” in management.

While the foundation has revealed few details of the allegations facing the two institutions, anonymous testimonies gathered by trade union
representatives and the media paint a bleak picture.

Swiss public broadcaster RTS reported that a number of unidentified former members of the Bejart Ballet Lausanne (BBL) company had written to the foundation, describing the “omnipresence of drugs, nepotism, as well as psychological and sexual harassment”.

Many of the accusations allegedly focus on Gil Roman, who took the helm of BBL when its founder died in 2007.

Roman did not respond to AFP requests to the foundation or BBL seeking comment.

‘Denigration, humiliation’

The French choreographer faced similar allegations during a secret audit a year later, but was permitted to stay on and continue as before, according to RTS and the union representing the dancers.

“We cannot understand what might have been in that audit that would have allowed them to clear him completely,” Anne Papilloud, head of the SSRS union that represents stage performers in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, told AFP.

“The accusations back then were word-for-word the same as today: harassment, denigration, humiliation, insults, temper tantrums, drugs,” she said, citing former company members who had contacted the union in recent weeks and had said they were around during the 2008 audit.

One dancer told RTS on condition of anonymity that it was common for Roman to publicly humiliate dancers who made a misstep, while another said he often asked dancers to bring him marijuana.

“Drugs were part of everyday life at Bejart Ballet,” the broadcaster reported her saying.

Papilloud meanwhile told AFP that the “vast majority of the testimonies I have heard have been about psychological harassment”.

Drug-use had been mentioned, mainly linked to how the drugs “provoked outbursts of anger”, she said.

She said she had also heard a small number of complaints about sexual harassment, although not involving Roman.


But what stood out most in the dozens of accounts she had heard in recent weeks was the sheer “terror” people described.

Their reaction to what they had been through was “extremely strong”, she said, “almost at the level of post-traumatic stress”.

Papilloud said that as a union representative she had long been aware that BBL was considered a difficult place to work, with low pay compared to the industry standard and little respect for working hours.

But the recent revelations of “an extremely toxic working environment” had come as a shock, she said.

Over 30 current and former BBL members had contacted the union following the upheaval at the Rudra Bejart ballet school, she said.

The school, which halted classes and fired its long-time director Michel Gascard and stage manager Valerie Lacaze, his wife, was reportedly fraught with psychological abuse and tyrannical over-training.

One student described how she had found herself surrounded by teachers and other students who “humiliated and belittled” her, the president of the foundation’s board, Solange Peters, told RTS.

One teacher present at the time reportedly compared the scene to a “lynching”.

The revelations about the school appeared to have “opened a Pandora’s Box”, spurring alleged victims of similar abuse at BBL to come forward, according to Papilloud.

“We have really been inundated,” she said, adding that many hope that “this time, things can change”.

Following close communication with the foundation, the union too is hopeful that the current audit will be handled differently than the last one, with more openness and independence, Papilloud said.

“I think this will not be an audit where things are swept under the carpet.”