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Armed Conflict

Dancing with the wounds of war

A unique ballet performance is opening in Copenhagen this week. Danish soldiers who lost limbs to mines in Afghanistan are performing with ballerinas in an anti-war production called "Contact."

Martin Aaholm is bitter. He believes the Danish Army wants him to hide away so as not to discourage would be recruits from signing up.

Aaholm, 27, a combat veteran of Afghanistan, paid a heavy price for his patriotism.

He stepped on an improvised explosive device after clearing out a Taliban compound.

"One minute my legs were there. The next minute, my legs were gone," he says dispassionately. He also lost the three middle fingers of his right hand.

 A picture showing Martin's hands after he lost fingers after stepping on an IED

Martin Aaholm believes the Danish Army want to hide him away.

Refusing to disappear

But now Aaholm is the centerpiece of a remarkable production beginning in Copenhagen on May 22nd, that sends the perfect message to those who would prefer that Aaholm and fellow amputees would disappear from public view.

He is dancing on stage with able bodied ballerinas in a beautiful and emotional performance called "Contact."

The anti-war composition combines dance, video, the music of Beethoven, and the personal stories of Aaholm, Private Henrik Morgen, who also lost a leg to a hidden mine, and Jesper Noeddelund,42 who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Henrik in his soldier's uniform showing his stump once he has taken his boot off.

Private Henrik Morgen lost a leg to a hidden mine.

Unlike Aaholm and Morgen, whose injuries are clear to see, Jesper is also a long term casualty of the American led invasion of Afghanistan to avenge the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Hidden wounds

He believes his condition was triggered by a Taliban attack on a police station in Kabul on the anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2003, when he and fellow soldiers were trapped in the building.

Jesper suffers from PTSD, in the ballet he tells the audience about the hidden wounds of war.

Jesper Noeddelund suffers from PTSD, one of the hidden wounds of war.

He tells the audience how he lost his job, his family, as well as his home and was on the verge of committing suicide before he finally sought help from fellow Danish veterans.

But it is the performances of Aaholm and Morgen that capture the imagination.

"We wanted to show the beauty that still exists within," says Tim Matiakis, the artistic leader of Corpus, the experimental dance troupe of the Royal Ballet.

A photo showing two of the veterans in the ballet crawling off stage.

Martin and Henrik's performance take center-stage

"This is a unique performance. I haven't heard of any other ballet companies dancing with wounded soldiers. I can say I have a much bigger sympathy for the people that go out to war than I ever had before."

"I was almost moved to tears," says Christian Lollike, the performance director and co-writer.

Understanding war

Lollike masterminded this project in order to help the Danes understand that they had been at war for thirteen years.

One of the strongest visual components involves dancers in blue burkas coming through the mist, who pray, wash and dance.

It is a scene that would infuriate the Taliban which believes that music, and thus dance, is "haram" or forbidden.

The ballet portrays the alien landscape that the soldiers find themselves in and also the beauty, suddenly being confronted by so many women in Burkhas all washing and cleaning and not knowing if one of them is a suicide bomber.

The scene with women dressed in burkas was meant to convey the disconnect between the culture of the soldiers and what they are confronted with in Afghanistan.

"This is an important scene because this is the culture that our soldiers encounter when they get there and they have not seen this culture in that mass at least," Tim Matiakis told DW.

"We try not to be sacrilegious in any way [but] we found extreme beauty in the washing and the praying."

Alien cultures

Aaholm agrees, remembering his time there. "The scene is scary because in Afghanistan when anyone came in a dish-dash or a burka, we had to search them in case they wore a suicide belt. I can feel the tension building up inside me. But also I found the scene fascinating and very beautiful."

 A picture of Henrik and Martin taking center stage with the two ballerinas behind them.

"We wanted to show the beauty that still exists within" said one of the directors.

Morgen is relishing his stage debut. "This performance helps me to realize that I am more or less as everybody else. I can do things I never thought I would get into otherwise. So in some ways my injury has opened up doors for me, because if I wasn't an injured soldier I would never have been invited to do this." When asked what he hopes people take away from the performance, he replies: "I hope that whoever watches this gets a deeper understanding of what war is. It's not just either heroes saving children or madmen killing children. It's normal people."

Aaholm dreams of a better future, but recognizes his hopes may not be realized as he expresses them forlornly.

"I dream of a world where there's no need for war. But I also know that's an illusion. Because as long as there are two religions, two kinds of people, rich, poor, black, white, whatever, there will be a reason for war."

Aaholm is currently employed by the Army providing ear plugs for soldiers in a depot in a Copenhagen suburb. After this powerful performance, he deserves greater public recognition.

Martin, one of the veterans crawls along the stage once both his prosthetic limbs have been removed, he follows one of the ballerinas in the project.

"I dream of a world where there's no need for war" But that, Martin realizes, is a folorn hope.

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