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"Made in Bangladesh" explores sweatshops through dance

By Simone Preuss


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In a novel way, German choreographer Helena Waldmann explores the subject matter of sweatshops and worker exploitation in the apparel industry through a 70-minute dance performance called "Made in Bangladesh", using the Indian classical dance form of Kathak. The piece even draws parallels to the "sweat shop" that a regular dance studio can be. Co-choreographed by Kolkata-based Kathak expert Vikram Iyengar, the piece has already had 11 performances in Zurich, Germany and Luxembourg and is currently being performed in India.

Waldmann got inspired to choreograph a piece on garment workers when she passed garment factories on a bus ride from Dhaka to Sylhet. Shocked by their run-down appearance, Waldmann vowed to take a look inside soon. She did indeed and visited a few garment factories in Dhaka with the help of Bangladeshi dance pioneer Lubna Marium, who is the director of Shadhona, a dance school and center dedicated to the advancement of Southasian culture in Dhaka.

Bangladesh could be anywhere

From the sense of order and harmony that Waldmann gathered through her visits and working under a strict time schedule and penalising workers if the factory outputs are not met on time, Waldmann had enough material to conceptualize "Made in Bangladesh". The location is not country-specific though; Bangladesh could be anywhere. "It is not just a piece about Bangladesh. It is about us and our unending demands," explains Waldmann.

The choreographer is also quick to emphasize that she is not out to criticize the garment industry. "The girls that I met at the factory are happy working there instead of going back to their villages where they will be controlled by their families and made to do household chores. Here, they feel ‘independent’ even though they have to work 10-14 hours daily for low wages, with hardly any free time," says Waldmann.

The 12 Bangladeshi dancers performing the piece are experienced Kathak dancers, all members of Shadona. To give them as authentic an experience as possible, Waldmann invited Nazma Akter, an activist tracking the exploitation in the textile industry, who worked with the dancers and the production team. Several meetings were organized between the performers and 12 workers as their mentors, who even invited them to their actual workplace.

Thus, the first part of the piece, which is 35 minutes long, is a representation of the factory floor, with the sewing machines' rhythmic patterns setting the tone, mirrored by the rudimentary foot and handwork of Kathak.

The second part (of 20 minutes duration) draws parallels between the members of the artistic community and the garment factory workers, who are exploited in the name of creativity and performance. "Dancers suffer the same problem. It is about more output, not about money. When I met some dancers, I was shocked to see that they have longer working hours and lower wages. That is especially the case for ballet dancers, when they always need to be disciplined and have to follow instructions," says Waldmann.

The third part, which is 15 minutes long, focuses on "optimizing performance of humans". Rather than pointing fingers or intending to change the face of the garment industry through her production, Waldmann rather hopes to show her audience a mirror of introspection useful for keeping a check on their demands in an aesthetic and artistic way. "We need to stop fulfilling this desire for more output and wants," says Waldmann. And this is where the fashion industry should take note too and reflect on the usefulness and humanity of its current practices and demands.

made in bangladesh