By Maria and Jimena
The city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast is the fifth-largest urban area in Colombia. It has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its colonial architecture, fortress, and historic value. Every year, Cartagena attracts millions of tourists from all over the world although it still has the largest poverty rate among the country’s main cities. The contrast between luxury and glamour in the rich areas, and misery in the poor neighborhoods is shocking.
In 1997, Colombian dancer and choreographer Alvaro Restrepo, together with French dancer Marie France Delieuvin, founded El Colegio del Cuerpo (College of the Body), a dance school for children and youth from Cartagena’s poor neighborhoods that has offered them education and opportunities through contemporary dance. El Colegio del Cuerpo is a nonprofit organization that has positively impacted the lives of over 8.000 marginalized youth who have received artistic education for free. In 15 years, it has developed a philosophy and methodology that uses contemporary dance “…to create consciousness about the joy of living, the pleasure of discipline, the notion that the children are masters of a powerful and unique instrument that is their body, their being, with which they can play, create, enjoy, transform and be transformed”, as Alvaro Restrepo says.
El Colegio del Cuerpo works in two directions: on one hand, it educates professional dancers; on the other, it teaches youth to know and respect their bodies as a territory of peace through dance. As a professional contemporary dance company, internationally recognized for its high standards of artistic performance, El Colegio del Cuerpo has been invited to perform in various international festivals and important venues all over the world.
El Colegio del Cuerpo does not attempt to be a direct political intervention, but to generate a life change for these kids. As Restrepo says, “there is a social commitment that transforms”. This project has positively impacted the life conditions of these kids and their families.
As Augusto Boal has pointed out, knowing the body and making it expressive are stages for transforming the spectator into an actor. Through this process, the oppressed people are liberated and are making theatre (contemporary dance in this case) their own. In the case of El Colegio del Cuerpo, there is in fact a social transformation process, although the transformation is intended to empower first the performer through his body, and therefore the audience. For these young dancers, the body is “the true site for creation and material prima”; it is their main artwork and the center of their symbolic universe, as Gomez-Peña states.
Brecht’s idea of the epic theatre suggests that the spectator as an observer arises his capacity for reflection, action, and decision taking. In opposition, Bell reflects on a key point of art in general: the consequences of any artistic activity are pretty much out of artist’s control. In the case of El Colegio del Cuerpo, although there is not a particular social reflection in the dance performance itself, the project is raising questions and a social and political reflection given its context: being an art school with high artistic standards that becomes a life opportunity for marginalized kids in a city that portraits social and economic inequity.