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Culture

When Pain Becomes Dance

By staging dance performances in countries that hardly have any, or where they are forbidden, Berlin choreographer Helena Waldmann is trying to break taboos and open new perspectives on the ubiquity of human suffering.

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Helena Waldmann: Exploring human pain through dance

Berlin choreographer Helena Waldmann presented her most recent work in a refugee camp in Ramallah on Sept. 17. The film, made in cooperation with the well-known Palestinian dance company El Funoun, deals with the everyday life of dancers in a country whose inhabitants seem sentenced to motionlessness.

Borders, checkpoints, helicopters: in Palestine, people run into walls all the time and are under constant surveillance. A woman in a straightjacket meandering through a barren landscape finds herself in front of the Qulandia Checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. An ambulance comes to help her, but eventually leaves her behind, alone.

Waldmann, 43, filmed what she saw in Palestine, from children dancing in a refugee camp to a woman behind a window shattered by bullets. "When your mother dies in a moment shorter than the time it takes an Israeli soldier to shoot 14 bullets, you feel your soul, the woman told her.

Emotional rescue

"I asked everyone to tell me a story that either changed their life or that they found important enough to tell the world about it," Waldmann said of the project with Palestinian dancers that the Goethe Institute's Ramallah director proposed to her. Seven or eight dancers decided to tell stories and came to the studio, where Waldmann filmed them. The film's leitmotif is an ambulance in which two men drive around, offering "emotional rescue" -- which is also the film's title -- to wounded souls in the occupied territories.

After Waldmann came to Gaza City and Ramallah, she couldn't sleep for two nights. "What's happening there is really so terrible that people are just killing themselves. They're totally worn out, because the situation in the Gaza Strip is so unbearable. It is a prison without a ceiling," she said.

Gaza Stadt Schule brennt

Palestinians inspect the damage of the Akram School after it was hit in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on Sept, 25, 2005

Location of pain

Still, Waldmann tried to avoid a one-sided representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "If I were invited by the Goethe Institute to go to Israel to make a film with the Israelis, I would listen to their stories in the same way and make the film about them," Waldmann said.

The choreographer often works in crisis regions or politically volatile places. In her work, she tries to nurture productive irritations, which can be quite provocative. Her piece "Letters from Tentland" premiered in Teheran in January 2005 after a series of difficulties, including the issue of women not being allowed to dance in Iran.

To get around the ban, Waldmann put the women in real tents. It was a reference to the chador, the veil that woman in Iran are obliged to wear. The audience was thus unable to watch the dancers move on the stage and could only listen to them.

After the performance, only the women from the audience were allowed to go backstage to speak with the dancers. Although gender segregation is part of everyday life in Iran, this particular instance of it was nearly banned by the Iranian authorities. It was a controversial piece that raised quite a few eyebrows in Teheran and left many Iranians feeling offended by the German choreographer. Nowadays, "Tentland" can no longer be performed in Iran, though it tours the rest of the world instead.

And Waldmann continues to stage dance performances in crisis regions. "It cannot make the world a better place for sure. But I believe that it can broaden our perspectives," she said.

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