“Our common language was the dance”
dancers in the dark
In the midst of the dark hall, a trail of ghastly stage light falls like powdered snow. It creates a wobbly circle on the platform, and encases the dancers. They sweep their hands in wide desolate arcs; they raise their legs to captivating heights; then in a single fluid motion, they swoop down and lie motionless on the floor. And then suddenly… drumrolls. The lights come on, and a myriad of children storm in. The music reaches its crescendo. The children dance, dance and dance the night away…
This is what I saw. Even then I did not understand. What I learned came after the show. But by then everyone present was crying. After an hour of dancing wearing flamboyant costumes and unbridled spirits, the show came to its astounding end: Rafida, aged 14, opened her mouth and started singing “We Shall Overcome” acapella. The others soon joined in, and literally brought the house down with the sheer emotion in their voices. It was after the show that I came to know that the children, who seemed to be part of a professional troupe of dancers, were actually the underprivileged children of Bangladesh.
The story behind this is long, but it indeed is an inspiring one. It starts with one lady who believed, and it was her belief that brought about a positive change. For some back story, Marjan van Lier is a management consultant in work/life balance projects, and has recently started 'Hands on Microkredit', a microcredit firm in the Netherlands. Currently she dispenses microcredit to people who are unemployed and wants to start off with their own career plans. It was when she first visited Bangladesh (year?) for a microcredit conference, that she fell in love with the country. “I just love Bangladesh, and I love its people- especially the children. They are so warm and friendly,” Marjan said over a cup of coffee and pizza the other day. But soon enough, she bumped head on into the reality. She talked to several street children, and came to realize just how difficult their life was.
In the picture book, “Story of my life, so far…” she mentions the plight of the children: about how they are left to fend for themselves in the streets, how most lost their parents when their age was still a single-digit number, how they were forced to work as domestic help when they should have been in school, and how many turn to the dark path of drug addiction and prostitution. She recounts on getting to know them, and writes: “I got to know them and became intrigued by their curiosity, strength, candour and lust for life. I was surprised to notice how easily they made contact and were prepared to learn.”
Marjan left Bangladesh with the hope of lending a hand to these children, who despite their backgrounds, offered bundles of talent and drive. Back in the Netherlands, she started to formulate a plan- she checked with the choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon of the Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT), to see whether they could propel her dream. The NDT, being a world renowned institution for dance, was at its prime and for Lightfoot/Leon their career highlights include their performance at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. “They were really famous, winning this award and that”, said Marjan, “But so much fame can be boring, as they informed me, and they wanted to step out of their usual frame and do something different. I told them my plans, and they seemed eager to help me out.”
The second time Marjan came to Bangladesh, it was with Lightfoot and Leon and four other dancers of the NDT. They planned to channel their efforts through Padakhep, a non-profit NGO working with underprivileged children. Dhaka Sheraton Hotel and the Dutch Embassy also came forward to make the idea practically workable. What resulted was the members and the associates of the Nederlands Dans Theater working with groups of children over the last two years. Marjan, with the help of Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, the award-winning resident choreographers of the NDT, started organizing, twice a year, a week centred around dancing. However, they did not understand Bangla and the children did not understand English or Dutch. Yet the language barrier was not as great a problem as envisaged by the either party. As Marjan said: “Our common language was the dance.”
When asked to shed light on her experience, Marjan offered a number of amusing anecdotes. “There was this time I came to Bangladesh with Rene van Lier. He is an expert in yoga, and I thought that the children should be introduced to a preliminary session of stretching for their dance routines. What surprised the both of us was they were already very flexible. This was just one of the incidents that made us realize how promising these children really were.”
Marjan continued, “Perhaps the most moving experience for me was when the children and their guardians (many have through much effort reunited with their parents) were invited to Dhaka Sheraton Hotel. They were shy, and you could tell that they have never been to a place as big or as posh before. To add to the fun, we showed them Spiderman the movie on a large screen. They were enraptured, and at that moment felt all this was worth the work.”
One idea paved way for another, and before everyone knew it, a show was planned where the children would perform. This proved to be a challenge- the children loved to dance and were great at it. But they had never performed in public before, let alone on a show. Nonetheless, the date was set- the show was scheduled on January 6, 2008 at the Sheraton Winter Garden. With just less than twenty days in hand, the organizers and the dancers worked around the clock, balancing their day jobs with it all.
“Organising was a completely different ballgame altogether,” Marjan commented, “There was so much do in such short a time. Costumes has to be made, and the children had to be dressed. Most were still shy, and were prone to stage fright. The girls would not wear the uniforms without their dupattas, and the boys refused to change out of their daily wear. Clothes that were ordered did not come in time, and whatever came had to be ironed and labeled.”
Nevertheless, moving from behind the scene to the actual performance, the tears in the audience's eyes would leave no room for further comment. There were amazing dance routines with complicated ballet movements from the NDT members, and they were backed by the children. The children performed their own routines as well, solo or in groups. There were songs, there were dances, there were playing of lights, there were sporadic dialogues, and all these were weaved into one marvelous visual and auditory experience. There was also a short film incorporated into the routine, made by Medhi Bruno, which had clips from the whole rehearsal session.
On an endnote, Marjan van Lier and the Nederlands Dans Theater, along with Dhaka Sheraton Hotel and the Dutch Embassy, has given us a hand on example that bringing about a positive change is not impossible. Who knows how much talent is hidden under the grime of poverty and deprivation? With a little bit of our time and out heart, we too can follow their examples… and this way, each of us could come forward and say, even if it is to a limited extent, that “Yes, I did make my mark on humanity.”
By Shahmuddin Ahmed Siddiky
Photo: Amirul Rajiv