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.