BELGRADE (Reuters) - Belgrade teenager Danijel Rasitovic has performed in Montreal and London, but the message of his dance group is rooted firmly at home in the prejudice and discrimination facing the Roma of the Balkans.
“We, the Roma, want to battle prejudices about being beggars and petty thieves and to demonstrate we can produce something meaningful, something that can have an impact,” the 19-year-old said this week.
He spoke in an abandoned Communist-era printing house in the Serbian capital Belgrade, where the dance and music group GRUBB — Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats — is putting a contemporary spin on the rich musical heritage of the persecuted Roma, infusing traditional melodies with hip-hop beats.
The journey will take them to the United States this year, where they will perform at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.
“It sounds like a Disney movie...an American dream,” said Canadian actor and director Serge Denoncourt.
It began three years ago, when GRUBB and the British charity RPoint convinced Denoncourt to help them out.
“When this began I didn’t believe it, they didn’t believe me and I didn’t believe myself,” Denoncourt said. “I fell in love with them, with the project, with their sense of dignity and pride and their culture.”
Since 2009, GRUBB have performed at Belgrade’s BITEF international theatre festival, at the Montreal Jazz Festival and London’s 02. They return to Montreal this year, and make their U.S. debut.
It’s a long way from the poverty and squalor facing most of their at least 100,000 fellow Roma in Serbia.
Denigrated as gypsies, Roma across the Balkans live on the margins of society, often unregistered and unemployed, branded beggars and thieves.
The Roma were caught up in the great waves of refugees during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and have often been the target of ultranationalist attacks in Serbia.
Part of their musical, called the Cardboard Child, tells the story of Belgrade’s Roma slums constructed from cardboard collected on the streets.
The audience is asked whether they have ever stolen, and the troupe sings back at them, “So don’t say only Gypsies are stealing,” and, “No more segregation. We do not want much, only to be in touch.”
While as many as 86 percent of Roma children in Serbia now finish elementary school, few progress further and only a fraction go on to university. Roma rights are slowly improving as Serbia edges closer to membership of the European Union.
“Our attitude, our posture changed since we started, people are no longer calling us names, they are no longer calling us gypsies,” said 15-year-old dancer Emina Duda.
The dancing, however, comes with a catch.
Under RPoint rules, members must attend school regularly and produce good grades, said RPoint spokeswoman Sasa Radetic.
“No school, no dancing. That’s the rule.”
Editing by Matt Robinson and Paul Casciato