A Pirouette around Poverty

Article excerpt

Two enthusiastic and seasoned choreographers open new horizons for underprivileged children in Cartagena by introducing them to modern dance

Alvaro Restrepo, a Colombian dancer and choreographer, could have pursued his career anywhere in the world--in New York, where he was trained, or in Europe, where he first made his mark. But in 1993, he decided to sacrifice all this to introduce modern dance to Colombia--where the discipline was barely known--and to teach it to disadvantaged children between 10 and 15 years old. He teamed up with Marie-France Delieuvin, programme director at the National Centre for Modern Dance in Angers, France, and their joint endeavour has produced astonishing results.

In 1997, four years after sowing the seeds of the new art form in Bogota and Cali, they launched Project El Puente ("The Bridge"), which reached Cartagena a few months later. The city where Restrepo was born 42 years ago is a historic tourist centre featured on UNESCO'S World Heritage List, but it cannot hide a darker side: two-thirds of its 700,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Restrepo and Delieuvin's bridge is two-way. It has led a pair of dedicated performers to the outskirts of one of Cartagena's most wretched slums, while also linking the project to professionals in Europe and Latin America through festivals and exchanges.

In 1997 and 1998, Restrepo began a programme of "awareness training" that reached 480 children at Inem College in Cartagena. He eventually ended up with a smaller group of 90 young dancers striving to hone their skills in a discipline that touched the very roots of their cultural and personal identity. After a few months, through a kind of natural selection that left only those determined to take part in a creative project, 22 of the children qualified for membership in the Experimental Troupe of the Academy of the Body. They were crossing the bridge, travelling from one side of the river to the other.

From outcasts to performers

Driven on by their poverty sticken backgrounds, the chosen boys and girls--now more mature, with deeper voices and changed bodies--are often tempted to shirk off school to rehearse their new dance projects everyday in the beautiful colonial-era cloisters of the 16th-century San Francisco convent, leant especially to the troupe by a religious foundation. Its wide, empty courtyard is flanked by the Centennial Park and the city's modern convention centre, while the old neighbourhood of Getsemani lies just behind. …