Is artistic excellence really incompatible with social purpose? It’s an argument I’ve heard throughout my working life but it has never seemed coherent—unless art is defined in such malnourished terms as to be all but lifeless. That artificial debate came to mind when Álvaro Restrepo sent me a short film of extracts from the latest creation of the dance company he leads,with Marie-France Delieuvin in the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias.
Álvaro and Marie-France began working with young people in the city in 1997. It was the kind of adventure that only two visionary artists would even think of starting—to establish a contemporary dance training programme, of the highest standards, open to all, without funding, in a city with great social challenges and a country fractured by conflict. Over the years, the company has expanded, contracted and mutated, moved from home to home, stepped sideways and back, always allowing its character to evolve naturally through the creative explorations of the people who are El Colegio del Cuerpo.
Many of the teenagers who began as the ‘pilot group’ nearly twenty years ago are still with the company, dancing, teaching and in other roles. They are giving a new generation of vulnerable children the same opportunities for education, personal growth and creative expression they once had. They are also the nucleus of the performers who carry forward the company’s artistic vision in creations like this tribute to Kazuo Ohno and Leonard Cohen.
I have probably seen more work by Álvaro and Marie-France than by any other choreographer, from early site-specific pieces in Cartagena during my first visit in 1998, to a performance at Sadler’s Wells in 2012. Dance is an art form that I came to appreciate slowly, and these intense performances played a large part in my education. Their stories are powerful, evocative and original, with a distinctive beauty in both the movements of the performers and the haunting, colourful imagery. But most of all, for me, there is a triumphant humanism, a will to honour what is best in us, whatever our origin, culture or status, and to place it as a bulwark against the forces of cruelty and violence that everywhere press against them. This work is profoundly brave, so I was not surprised but very happy when Àlvaro told me that it had Leonard Cohen’s blessing.
El Colegio del Cuerpo (The School of the Body) is the essence of cultural democracy. It is art with a vision of itself as a force for education and growth, for healing, for love. It is not just untroubled by its social mission: it wouldn’t be itself without that purpose. But nor would its social mission be much good without its unwavering commitment to being the best art it can possibly be. Artistic excellence and social commitment unite in humanism. This is an important story and I hope one day to have the chance to tell it. But for now, you can hear Álvaro tell it himself, which is undoubtedly better.