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16th December 2001

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Deadly dance

Swinging Times with Butterflies

'Swinging Times' by the Butterflies' Theatre Group of the Sunera Foundation goes on the boards at the Bishop's College auditorium on December 18 and 19 at 7 p.m.

It is directed by Wolfgang Stange, Julian Crouch and Rohana Deva, with part of the music being composed by Sena Weerasekera. 

Flitting from themes of peace and unity, the Butterflies raise a battle cry against arms and corruption

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
A catchy tune and the woman in the centre swings to the rhythm. The youth around her tap their toes, keeping perfect time. A crescendo and one by one the youth fall in a heap and the woman smiles triumphantly, one foot atop the vanquished bunch on the floor.

Welcome to a peek at a drama rehearsal. Want to make a guess what this scene is all about a dance performance or a disco clip? No, it's Miss Pistol and Her Targets at work just before the Tank Dance.

We are at the open-air theatre of the Centre for Professional Development and Education Management in Meepe, an oasis of peace with the only "disturbance" being the twittering of birds and the rustle of the wind through the trees.

And the actors on stage are none other than Sunera Foundation's Butterflies' Theatre Group, practising at hectic pace for their performance this week. What a soothing sight for sore eyes, after being assailed by footage of violence and bloodletting leading up to the December 5 election. Here was a different scene - a disabled Sinhala soldier sharing a joke with a displaced Tamil girl, a Down's Syndrome victim playing a key role, cheered on by those on wheelchairs and others leaning on crutches. All are one and one all, sans communal, caste, status and creed differences, the passionate aim of Sunera Foundation's co-founders, Sunethra Bandaranaike and Wolfgang Stange.

As we watch the Butterflies hard at work for their next 'venture' Swinging Times, a fairytale for adults we also see a maturity which only experience can bring. The experience and exposure they've had not only in Sri Lanka, but also in London and the more recent foray in Brisbane, Australia in October, where they performed at the Commonwealth People's Festival.

They have also graduated from the theme of the devastation caused by war and the need for peace and unity (their earlier productions include 'Butterflies Will Always Fly' and 'Flowers Will Always Bloom'), to take on a more complex subject. Arms and the common man. The unseen hands, the deeper threads which practically make it impossible to bring about a peaceful solution to any conflict. 

Yes, arms sales, corruption, commissions, the bogus lifestyles of the rich and famous, among whom are arms dealers with their black money are all thrown in. Even a tender interlude where the weapons themselves, some of whom had been under the misconception that they were going into retirement, talk to each other when they find that they are on the opposing sides of the divide.

"We want to show the world how innocent people are the victims of such weapons sales and deals," says Ajith Kulatunga (29). He should know for he lost a leg to a "batta" while on a foot patrol in Batticaloa in 1996.

Adds 33-year-old I.M. Wijebandara, another amputee who had stepped on a mine, "We are trying to make the normal people aware of the crimes committed by arms dealers who also pretend to be great philanthropists. How they earn their money and continue to lead a high life, while people of all races suffer."

As always, the group's props and equipment are made of easily available, inexpensive stuff. In an airy room close to the stage, Julian Crouch from England is making masks with cardboard, muslin, glue and foam. The weapons are plastic cans cut in quarter with pipe-shaped cardboard tubes representing the barrels. The actors in rough, black plastic overalls double as Julian's assistants, during their breaks.

Why this particular theme? "We went on the Internet and found out amazing things about the sales of arms. It is a phenomenon all over the world," says Wolfgang. "Did you know that in most arms deals, the commission to the middleman is 20%? Just imagine, if the sale was $20 million, what the takings of the agent would be."

All the ingredients are there to keep the audience holding its breath, with the drama opening with soldiers changing guard. One weary soldier takes the audience on an imaginary tour, in those hours between midnight and 5 o'clock when dreams and fairytales are possible. Weapons talk, the arms dealer throws a party, with guests in masks dancing merrily, not one daring to denounce the man for his ill-gotten gains. The dealer's wife loves him very much would that be the only redeeming factor which saves him from the fires of hell? 

"He takes everyone for a ride, but people just don't see the truth," says Yogarajah Kavita, 17. For her, the scenes evoke memories of a father and mother whom she never got the opportunity to love. They both died in a bomb blast, when fleeing their village of Kanchikudiaru. She was just a baby then. Now she falls under the "displaced" tag and has been living in a camp all her life.

Money changes hands and weapons of destruction are around in plenty. For what? To spill more and more blood. Who gains? Only the arms dealers who live on "blood money", as Wolfgang aptly puts it.

Everyone else, the men, women and children, whatever side they are on are the losers. Is this the substance of dreams - it's left to you to decide, after seeing the drama.



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