Garment workers in Bangladesh were in the spotlight again on Monday — not on a political stage or on a factory floor this time but in a theater in Mumbai.
The 60-minute long “Made in Bangladesh” show focused on poor working conditions in the mass production garment factories. Created and choreographed by dance director Helena Waldmann, the show premiered in Europe in November and has just completed its run in India — in Thrissur, (Kerala), New Delhi and Mumbai.
It will premiere in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Saturday.
Waldmann, who lives in Berlin, and is known for her strong political-emotional themes, described it “more as a documentary” because it is based on interviews with apparel industry workers.
The docu-dance-drama made a powerful statement about the exploitation of the garment worker in Bangladesh — for which Waldmann told WWD, “The West needs to take responsibility, as we are the ones asking for cheaper prices.”
The show crosses global barriers in multiple ways. Despite her heritage of Western culture, Waldmann has used the medium of Indian classical dance — kathak; contemporarized it; chosen 12 dancers from Bangladesh, and co-choreograped with Vikram Iyengar, a kathak expert based in Kolkata, India.
Iyengar also appeared on stage in the role of the factory manager, who urges the workers to ever-higher productivity, while limiting their lunch or bathroom breaks, when targets are not met.
Meanwhile, as a virtual buyer visits the factory, the garment worker-dancer goes to a microphone to say, “I am happy…. we are happy to be a part of capitalistic society.”
“Although they dislike this system, the women in the factories told me that they are happy to be leading independent lives and be a part of capitalistic society,” said Waldmann, who expects that more than 100 seamstresses, brands and factory owners will attend the show in Dhaka on Saturday.
“At first I was shocked, but then I realized that they are young, want to earn money like everyone else. For them, this life is still better than living in the countryside with no water or basic amenities,” she said.
Using a multi-media format, with background pictures of moving sewing machine needles, dancers used a lot of line-formations similar to those in factories. Photos of the rubble and the dead from Rana Plaza, the eight story building that collapsed in April 2012, taking the lives of 1,133 workers, were used along with sound effects – the honking of cars, grating of steel, and sirens blaring.
Waldmann defended the show’s blunt message, as well as the noise.
“What is theater meant for?” she asked firmly. “To create beautiful things? Or to exactly put the finger in the wounds? People want to see beautiful art — but that is not my thing. I am doing political theater and honestly, it is about the provocation, to make people stop and think.”
A counter on the screen showed the miniscule earnings of a worker in Bangladesh, pitted against those of a retailer.
The second half of the production focused on the exploitation of dancers themselves — dancers in Europe. “It’s very easy to say exploitation is far away, in very poor countries, but not in our country. And since Bangladesh is very far away from Germany, I wanted to say, yes my dears, just open your eyes and look, it’s right here,” Waldmann explained, speaking about dancers’ low wages, strenuous hours and easy dismissal from productions.