Casting New Perspectives: Dance in Denmark Challenges Perception

During the last week of January, art and policy engaged in a particularly salient dance in Denmark. Last Tuesday, the Danish Parliament passed a law allowing authorities to seize assets from refugees in an effort to curb rising migration pressures. Three days later, Corpus, an experimental wing of the Danish Royal Ballet, debuted a piece called Uropa, starring six asylum seekers in a deeply moving representation of their experiences. Named after a hybrid of the Danish word for instability (uro), and Europe, the multimedia work explores the diverse stories of the ballet’s asylum seeking artists, who come from Syria, Pakistan, Eritrea, Myanmar, and Uganda, and their hopes for the future.

“I dream to have a life again, to experience my humanity,” says music professor Salam Susu. Susu left Homs, Syria last August and received news that she’d been granted asylum in Denmark during a dress rehearsal for Uropa. “It’s incredible. I start to experience my skills in the real world among people who really start to know who I am. It’s like stepping on stairs to [a]dream.”

Four other dancers were less fortunate.  Uropa was originally to cast ten asylum seekers, but four were expelled or rejected from the country during the preparation period leading up to Uropa’s premiere.

“We speak a lot about refugees. If we’re from the left, we often see them as victims. If we’re from the right, we see them as people who are coming to take our property,” says director Christian Lollike. “It’s interesting to see how they themselves see their situation.” 

Muhammad Ali Ishaq, who left Lahore, Pakistan fleeing persecution against homosexuality, hopes the ballet will help shift perception of refugees as a threat or drain to countries that receive them. “This will help people in thinking differently for refugees if they look at us as human beings the way we are, not just a parasite,” he says.  “It’s very self-therapeutic for me, speaking about my own life. When I tell people my story, people respond in a way that is not a condemnation. I’m not scared that they’re going to punish me.”

For more on Uropa, including video footage of the ballet, rehearsals, and interviews, see this PBS story.