Early in 2014, on NPR I heard the heartbreaking story about a refugee who came from Eretria, paying enormous sums of money, surviving the harshest of conditions, traveling for months across the Atlantic to South America, then up from Brazil into Mexico and across the Rio Grande. Once she finally arrived in the US, she was separated from her husband, then discovered that she was pregnant, only to be placed in detention, to be sent back to Eretria.
The story struck me. I simply wondered about all the other individuals like her—who these people are. I wondered about their determination, their courage and their fear. I had the vague idea that the U.S. receives more refugees than any other country, but as I came to learn more about the complex issues involved in resettlement, assimilation, deportation, and integration, I realized that my sense of what a refugee goes through was superficial.
So how does listening to the radio become the launching pad for a dance? I found myself thinking about refugees, how much courage it must take to face so many unknowns – language, customs, new terrain, new currency – learning who to trust, who not to trust, safety.
In my research for the ballet, I came across a troubling June 2013 report published by Refugee Resettlement Watch. I learned that refugees must show a “well-founded” fear of persecution on account of a political view or membership in a racial, ethnic, religious or social group. They can seek asylum in the U.S. based upon grounds like domestic abuse, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) or lack of services for the disabled. The Obama administration placed a priority on LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees. This has resulted in an upsurge of asylum requests on this basis. I learned that welfare use is staggering among refugees. Welfare usage is not counted by officials as part of the cost of the program. Yet, when included, the total cost of the refugee program is at least $10-20 billion a year. One report stated, “The money the U.S. spends bringing one refugee to the U.S. could have helped 500 individuals overseas in countries where they currently reside.”
In the early days—pre-rehearsal—of the creation of “Dispossessed” my husband and I were at happy hour in our favorite SoHo spot. We were talking about the project with our favorite bartender, a distinctive-looking woman with an accent hard to place. It had turned out she was Eritrean but had grown up in Italy. I told her about the ordeal of the woman on the radio, and how after finally crossing the Rio Grande and reaching Texas, and there being detained, examined, and found to be pregnant by her husband who had accompanied her, she was to be returned to Eritrea. “Oh no!” said Miriam. “Then she will be put to death. You can’t leave and come back.”
I’d also been thinking of the many dancers with whom RKB has had the pleasure of working – dancers from Belarus, the Ukraine, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Switzerland, New Zealand, Hungary. All these dancers make a risky or difficult choice to come to New York to dance. These bright dedicated people chose to come New York City, to express their passion, their intellect, their humanity through the art of dance, and I am the fortunate one, because they found their way to me! For those whose early command of the English language was scant, I always thought they were so brave – and brilliant – to express meaning and purpose through movement. In the cast of “Dispossessed,” two of our dancers came to this country from Italy and Spain, and at first language and customs were big adjustments for them. But I select dancers who can convey emotion – along with their considerable technical skills and athleticism. They are actors who are masters of body language, so meaning is conveyed even though we don’t use words.
In a narrative ballet such as “Dispossessed” I have named the characters and the scenes in the program. There is the slightest suggestion through costume where they might be from: one wears a hijab another wears a hoodie, and two who travel together could be from a troubled place. The audience will know that this is the story of four refugees. I did not want to get too specific in locating the story—in Guatemala, Somalia, Syria, or etc.—I just wanted to focus on what tremendous motivation it must take to leave the familiar for the totally alien. The ballet begins with “The Dilemma,” in which a family pair decides that they must urgently leave their homeland. Abruptly the next scene switches to an entirely different location. In this section, “Flight,” we see a panicked individual fleeing from a city on fire and under dangerous attack. In the next scene, the “Gathering,” four individuals meet up with and place their lives in the hands of El Coyote. The Coyote is the guide, the person who puts himself at risk to get his “clients” where they want to go on what is often a perilous journey, and for this, refugees must pay a lot of money. Their difficult journey commences. Another scene suggests a dangerous river crossing, followed by a scene called “Detention;” on the stage you see a fence of barbed wire separating the travelers, and worse, one of the group is missing…. You get the idea.
The rehearsal process is always one of discovery and deepening. For this ballet, the entire company read about refugees, and deportation and resettlement issues, in thinking through the extreme plight and the response of each character. As the dancers began to take on their characters and provide depth to their roles and define who they were, I adjusted who was who, and who did what, and what happened – all through movement, of course.
I read somewhere that in 2012, in order of numbers of refugees sent to the U.S., the list reads Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Eritrea, and Sudan. We learned that funding is based on the number of refugees served, so affiliates (private contractors) have an incentive to maintain or increase the number of refugees they resettle each year rather than allowing the number to decrease. When was assimilation dropped as a goal for any agency involved in refugee resettlement – government or private contractor? The private contractors’ engagement with the refugee is usually less than 4 months, so the process of assimilation couldn’t possibly even be considered. But the sinister bottom line is that refugee resettlement is profitable to the organizations involved in it. Money is received from the federal government for each refugee private contractors bring over. They have almost no real responsibilities for these refugees. After 4 months the “sponsoring” organization is not even required to know where the refugee lives. My realization that in certain sectors refugee resettlement had become just another profitable ‘big business’ in the United States informed my decision to focus on human, emotional stories of courage and struggle within my ballet.
I had commissioned a spoken word and music score by Adrian Carr, originally used two decades ago for my ballet “Boundaries,” dedicated to those struggling to preserve their homelands. 1993 was a year in which many anticipated a new sense of direction from our government. With a delicate but great hope, we thought it could be a year of crucial decision, one in which we would have to recognize and take responsibility for wasteful and hurtful behavior of our past. The composer and I shared discussions about deforestation and the Yanomami Indians of Brazil, the Native Americans of this country, those who were most acutely concerned with demarcation rights, water rights, the quality of the air they breathe, the life they envision for their children.
Adapted it still rings true some 20 years later. “Dispossessed” continues the story begun in “Boundaries.” People are still on the move because of wars and economic shifts and development. Adrian’s recordings of Tonya Gonnella Frichner, President of The American Indian Law Alliance, Anna Holmer, L.A. poet recording "Too Much White", and me, at the time a young and concerned mother, are still relevant. And somewhere along the way in the creation of “Dispossessed” during the spring of 2014, we all began to hear about the issue involving thousands of children and young mothers fleeing from murderous climates in Central America, walking the length of Mexico, and crossing the border into the U.S., being housed in overcrowded facilities, where controversy has erupted over their status as asylum-seeking refugees.
I pay attention to the world - as we are all here in it together. Surely my childhood growing up outside of America, in the Sudan where I was the outsider, makes me take notice of certain parts of the world and particularly Africa. Have you ever found yourself living in a place where you do not understand what is going on, where you do not understand the language? In the process of making this ballet I thought about my childhood in the Sudan and how, at first, it was beyond bewildering to be in a culture so different from my own. I was there between the ages of 8-12 years as my father was a foreign service officer in the 1960’s. This was already the second country to which my family had moved, and so we children were familiar with dislocation. I experienced a huge dread of not understanding what was going on. School became the worst ordeal imaginable; the language and cultural differences made me frightened and it was hard to make friends. At first I pretended or even felt ill so I could stay home and hide.
Today I make dances about people and what affects them – and what affects me. I give shape to emotions, or questions, but not necessarily answers. If, through dance, we inspire the audience to get caught up for a moment, it is something. Sometimes the arts enable us to confront unexamined assumptions. They challenge us and make us less sure of our virtue, maybe by evoking our empathy. Sometimes, just sometimes, dance that portrays the human condition or human plight that audience members may not have personally experienced has the power to bring the audience into the mindset of another. And if we make that imaginative jump, maybe, just maybe will we be able to care more about a person we may encounter who might be in that plight. In a dance like “Dispossessed,” and with an issue like immigration and resettlement, to question and ponder and imagine is important.
Rebecca Kelly Ballet is classical and contemporary. Our dancers are all classically trained, and they are adept and versatile, but my choreographic sensibility is purely contemporary. Puzzling out how to convey meaning in movement is endlessly intriguing, reading bodies, determining what a gesture means…trying to find the most honest or universal expression so that it can be felt and understood, that kind of thing; it never ends…
Dance has taught us that tenacity and risk-taking are the substance of creativity, to dare to try our hardest to achieve, never to fear hard labor, and to strive always for excellence. It has never been easy, or secure, but it continues to be a privilege.