What good are the arts? None at all, argue some (in both attack and defence). It is indeed a perpetually vexing question. Who is art for? Does it have instrinsic aesthetic value? Is it therapeutic? Does it create wealth? Publicity? Understanding? Fundamental though these questions are, there are few shows that make them leap to my mind. But recent performances at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre by Colombian dance group El Colegio del Cuerpo brought them sharply into focus.
That’s partly because of the company’s exceptional circumstances. Based in Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, El Colegio is a social project for disadvantaged children and adolescents founded in 1997 by Colombian dancer Álvaro Restrepo, together with French director Marie-France Delieuvin from the Centre Chorégraphique Nationale in Nantes. One of the most violent countries in the world, Colombia has been riven by decades of ongoing civil war and scarred by a large drugs trade and frequent kidnappings. Among its large population of poor and displaced people, children are vulnerable to falling into warfare, drug trafficking and prostitution. Against such odds, what good is arts education? Well, by providing a safe and engaging environment, it can quite simply increase chances of survival.
That bottom line is worth remembering, but there’s more to it than that. “We have discovered,” says Restrepo, “that contemporary dance is an extraordinary tool to convey ethical values: self-respect, respect for others, recognition of the body as a sacred territory where life takes place.” Workshops and creative classes at El Colegio provide a participatory forum for a holistic approach to sex education, drug prevention, and to addressing the environmental, social and political issues that impact directly upon the students’ lives. Restrepo sums up simply: “We stress the concept of life itself as a real and meaningful piece of art.”
Is there a conflict between these aims, between professional and a social education?
Many socially-based dance projects have performance platforms, just as many professional performance groups do community work. El Colegio is unusual in focusing equally on both. Alongside its general educational programme it runs professional training for aspiring teachers and performers, and supports a 15-strong performing company (now called El Puente) that has toured to theatres throughout Latin America as well as in Germany, France, Spain, Belgium and the UK. Is there a conflict between these aims, between professional and a social education? “Just as in the social project,” explains Restrepo, “in training for professional work we emphasise the creative individual. We are not looking for an ideal body… I think that does not exist, or at least it doesn’t interest us. I think what makes us new or different,” he continues, “is that the social and the artistic dimensions have the same importance for us. We try to impact on the social/human aspect through artistic excellence.”
It can be a tricky balance, at the very least in how to pitch the shows to theatre-goers. Are we going to see a project or a piece? The Bloomsbury Theatre performances were presented by London-based NGO Children of the Andes, which has worked in partnership with El Colegio since 2000, and the event rightly provided an opportunity for highlighting the work’s humanitarian profile and for fundraising. Indeed the first item on the programme was the short film Viridiana’s Dream, a first-person story of one girl’s experience of joining El Colegio. So far, so project.
Next came Homilia, the first work by young Afro-Colombian choreographer Wilfrán Barrios. The racial mix of the dancers – Latin, indigenous and African – is reflected in its references to Catholicism, African rituals, and to daily life, as well as in the unforced blend of folk, contemporary and African dance styles. But ultimately Homilia feels like a student work; the project again outweighs the piece.
But Restrepo’s own Quartet for the End of the Body is a revelation – a stark, unflinching piece, with live music, that is as demanding on its audience as on its performers. It was influenced most directly by its score, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and it invokes, without direct portrayal, the circumstances in which it was written – in a German concentration camp. This ‘difficult’ music was, Restrepo acknowledges, “very different from the music the kids know about. But here, with all our own violence, our own madness, it was not hard for them to relate to it.” In fact, the dancers came up with so much material themselves that Restrepo refers to them as ‘co-creators’.
The moving finale is a series of difficult lifts that suggest both the desire for transcendence and the struggle to achieve it.
Against a blackened stage, spotlights capture numerals written on the dancers’ backs. Dates form – 1492, 1914, 9/11 – as if the performers were numbered prisoners of history. As the lights go up, they turn to reveal blank, masked faces, angled so that their heads seem askew from their bodies. The stage is marked with concentric squares that hem them in, a cell-like design within which they wriggle and judder their limbs in dense, android articulations. They marshal themselves into stamping regiments, splinter into demonic, schizoid solos, or coalesce into edgily uneasy partnerships. The moving finale is a series of complex and technically difficult lifts that suggest both the desire for transcendence and the struggle to achieve it.
A metronome at stage front clocks the impersonal passage of time. Most strikingly, a robed figure with large wooden calipers paces the stage perimeter, ceremoniously handing on cloak and compasses to the next waiting figure to take up the patrol, a process that continues throughout the piece. The ominous presence of these deathly figures measures the stage as inexorably as the metronome marks time.
This powerfully unsettling work is not just a remarkable achievement – it’s a remarkable piece. Created, like Messiaen’s music, in extreme circumstances, it shows that there need be no compromise between social and artistic values; in other words, between doing good and being good.
This article was also published in Animated magazine, spring 2006