Alvaro Restrepo, is founder of El Colegio del Cuerpo or “The School of the Body” in Cartagena, Colombia, South America. The school merges his passions for modern dance and social justice, offering a pathway out of poverty for inner-city, low-income youth.
In recounting his journey with me, Alvaro chronicles a circuitous route from schoolboy at a Benedictine school to working with street kids in Bogota to dancing with renown companies such as Jennifer Muller and the Works and Martha Graham in New York, and returning to Colombia as a successful choreographer of his own work. After a stint as an executive with the Colombian Institute of Culture, Alvaro was inspired to establish a creative sanctuary where kids could have the opportunity to discover their inner spark and have it nurtured.
My conversation with Alvaro reinforced several beliefs that I have developed along my own circuitous path—among them, that as random as life’s route may seem to be, a logical progression does reveal itself. Alvaro’s story also reminded me of the wonders that can come to pass when we heed our own desires and apply energy to fulfilling them and how, in doing so, magical encounters occur or inspiring mentors appear--just when we need them. In fact, Alvaro and I connected through a fortuitous meeting I had with his sister Iliana in a Cartagena bookstore cafe!
I hope you enjoy “meeting” Alvaro—I think you’ll find his transformative experiences reflect the evolution his homeland of Colombia is undergoing.
Meg: What prompted your interest in education?
Alvaro: I always talk about what I’m doing right now as a way of healing my own wounds as a child. My own educational process was really very painful unfortunately. I was in the wrong place and maybe with the wrong people. I had nobody to help me detect my talents, my mission and my vision of the world.
I went to a school in Bogotá run by North American Benedictine priests and nuns. I attended this school from six years old until I was seventeen. It was a very harsh school with very hard discipline and very mathematics- and sports-oriented and a very competitive environment. Since I was very young I knew that I was born for something else.
I think that if education does not help you, to discover who you are and what you’re here for, what’s the whole point of education? Is it more about discipline or domestication than really opening your eyes or giving you wings?
It was thanks to my grandmother’s sister, who lived in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast in Columbia, who opened my eyes to the arts. I would spend my holidays with her in Cartagena and I always speak of her as my oasis. My holidays with her were moments where I could be myself and I was in contact with things that I enjoyed a lot. My great aunt was a pianist and an organist in the cathedrals in Cartagena so it’s thanks to her that I discovered that I had an artist inside of me. It was because of her that I learned I wanted to work with the arts and work with people. These were only very short periods of time I spent with her in comparison to my whole educational process but she was vital.
Meg: It is amazing how if you have an artistic spirit that it can endure with very little nourishment.
Alvaro: My upbringing was very contradictory because even though my father was a very macho kind of man, he was had an artist´s soul. He was very tough on me. My eldest brother is deaf and dumb and autistic and has lived always in hospitals and then I have my three sisters. So I was the only man, and my father had a lot of expectations for this boy. But at the same time that he was giving me this very macho education, I was also in contact always with very fine things. He collected art : pre-Columbian art, contemporary art, colonial art. He was a very strong reader and he loved music, so it was also nourishing. As I said, it was a contradiction.
I was able to leave the Benedictine school after eleven years. I finished in another school where I discovered a very good teacher who helped me get in contact with literature, philosophy, with other disciplines that opened my spirit. I discovered solitude and enjoying being by myself and I started writing. When I graduated from high school I attended the University of Bogotá studying literature and philosophy. After a while I decided I wanted to travel a little bit and I went to Europe for a year just to wander around and work and adventure. I was eighteen or nineteen years old and when I came back I was in a kind of a crisis, very disoriented but still looking for something desperately. I knew that I had to find my language and my way out.
I decided that I wanted to spend some time in nature and I got a job as a school teacher in a very small town in a remote area of Colombia near the border of Panama. While I was there, I met an Italian priest named Javier da Nicolo who was a very interesting man. He did incredible work in Colombia with street kids and he had just arrived in this area with 200 kids from Bogotá who had just left the streets. He had brought them to this jungle to kind of isolate them from the street reality and start the re-education process. He heard that there was a kind of disoriented philosophy student from Bogotá working as a school teacher in the town and he contacted me and asked me if I would like to work with him with these kids. So I worked with them on this farm for about eight months.
We had to colonize this place…open paths, bring wood from the forests to build the cabins and ‘domesticate’ this jungle. Isolating the kids in nature from the daily misfortune of their urban abandon, was a kind of therapy. Suddenly no one to steal from and no cops to run away from…for them it was also an oasis.
I decided to come back to Bogotá to see the origin of their tragedy. I wanted to see the context of where the street kids were coming from. I worked for this program called Bosconia in Bogota for about two years, which was very enlightening because I was able to understand how capable a young boy is of making very important decisions for his life when he’s obliged to do so. I knew kids had left their homes when they were four or five years old because they were beaten or they were tired of hunger and violence in their homes and they preferred to make a living in the streets, begging or robbing or whatever.
My job in Bogotá was in the streets. I had to detect the gangs, approach them in their hiding or sleeping places and begin to convince them about entering the project. I remember we would arrive in the middle of the night with hot chocolate and bread--the strategy was that we would wake them up in the middle of the cold night, offer them some friendship and kindness, to start ‘seducing’ them to try out the program. They could start attending a day-care-center where they could spend their day, take a shower, eat, see a dentist, doctor, psychologist. Later I started working in one of the many houses and dorms the project had for the kids who decided to be part of Bosconia. We would teach them how to live in community, wash their teeth, eat properly and begin to attend school.
So this contact with this very harsh reality was a very eye-opening situation and that’s how I came to think that I need to have some kind of pedagogical tool to work with them--not just my big heart and good intentions but some kind of real effective tool to help these kids heal from their suffering and be able to tell their stories. I decided maybe theater could be a good tool because I realized that these kids were very good actors. They had to be like young warrior children with many masks to survive. So I decided to go to drama school and while I was there I discovered for the first time that I had a body. Until then I was just a head. I had been living in my head completely and my body was only used to carry my head from one place to the other.
Meg: [Laughter] I so get that.
Alvaro: Suddenly I discovered with the different training that I had at the drama school that I had a body that was very expressive and available. I was always afraid of sports and of physical confrontation and I was kind of fragile. There was this fellow student at the school who was an ex-dancer and she started telling me ‘Look at your feet, you have feet of a dancer, look at your flexibility.’ She started to talk to me for the first time about dance, which was for me a completely strange subject. I never thought of the possibility of dance in my life. So that’s how it all began.
I started discovering my body and enjoying my body. I started not only having a body but being a body. By chance there was a company from New York performing in Bogotá, Jennifer Muller and the Works. They came to the theater school looking for extras for a piece they were presenting and they chose five guys and I was chosen by chance. This was the first time that I ever saw professional modern dance--and danced by one of the best companies in the world. I think Jennifer Muller was at the top of New York dance at that moment, and it was a real revelation because I really felt that I had found the total language that I had been looking for. I felt that music was there, poetry was there, visual arts, philosophy, theater. Everything was there so that was a real moment of revelation, a resurrection in many ways.
Meg: I’m sure it was like finding yourself.
Alvaro: Right. I saw these beautiful dancers, ‘athletes of God’ as Martha Graham used to call them, and I said ‘My God, this is possible and I want to do this.’ I knew it. I was 24 years old, which is quite late for a dancer to begin, I was too old. But sometimes for men it’s easier because there are less men than women in dance, so we have more opportunities if we have some talent.
The next day I started taking my first dance classes in the Martha Graham Technique with an Argentinean teacher in Bogotá and very soon I decided that I was giving everything up just to dance. I quit everything I was doing and I started to concentrate on the process of rescuing my body. It was a real obsession. Everyone thought I had gone completely nuts because I was all day long stretching and exercising and jumping and bending and pulling and it was really like a big obsession.
Meg: It’s a beautiful description of coming alive.
Alvaro: Right, I was really coming alive. Before that I was half dead and I was very unhappy and very anguished. I didn’t know where to go or what to do or who I was. A year later my Graham technique teacher left and went to Germany so I was left with no teacher in Bogotá. I started taking some classical ballet and a Russian teacher in this school asked me “Have you ever thought of going to New York?”
I decided to write a letter to Jennifer Muller and send her some pictures of me in the most incredible positions so that she would see that I was flexible and that I was capable of learning. She wrote back and said she was very touched by my letter and that she would take me as a trainee. I was able to get a grant from the Colombian government and a few months later I arrived in Jennifer Muller’s studio in New York City.
Meg: Wow, I’m really just struck by the serendipity in your life and how when you were in a moment of need, people appeared or opportunities presented themselves. I’ve had very similar experiences—although it has seemed sometimes like I’m in the anguished phase longer than I want. Nonetheless I have had remarkable people kind of fall out of the trees, too.
Alvaro: I think in a way you create your destiny. It’s something that you’re looking for and in such a strong way that you make things happen. I do believe that you are capable of transforming reality with your imagination and with your commitment and your desire. I experienced that with my own body, I started to imagine what kind of body I wanted to have and what kind of body I wanted to be, and I realized that with hard work and with commitment and with passion I could do it.
I really started to open my senses, to be very aware of the signals that life kind of gives you and being able to take those opportunities and to dare. For example, I’ve always written letters that have been very important in my life. When I feel that I have to tell somebody something, I write a letter, and I really like to open my heart and reveal my inner self. I think there are things that happen by chance but most things you make happen.
Meg: What manifested next for you?
Alvaro: After one year with Jennifer Muller I decided that I wanted to continue my Graham technique training. I started taking the fundamentals courses and very soon I got a scholarship at the Graham School, which was very encouraging and very stimulating. I started working very hard. I thought that the Graham technique was more for my body which is unusual. It is more suited for women than for men because it’s so demanding and you have to have a really very flexible, strong body to enjoy the Graham technique and I have this kind of a body. Even though I’m 55 I still have it!!
Martha Graham was 89 when I arrived at the school and it was very striking to see this living myth. She wasn’t there every day of course. She was very old. I had the fortune to be a kind of a demonstrator for the beginning levels in some classes taught by Martha Graham herself, so it was very powerful just to be in contact with this volcano. There was a celebration for her 90th birthday and I was chosen to dance a solo, my first.
I stayed at the Martha Graham School for about four years but soon I understood that I did not want to belong to her company nor to any other company and that I wanted to start doing my own personal work. At the Graham School I met a very important person, a South Korean Cho Kyoo-Hyun. He was a dancer, choreographer and actor who had also a scholarship at the Graham School and we started working and living together. He really gave me a complete different vision of what dance is and what life is and art and everything. He really was a turning point in my life. Cho was a wing- maker, a master. He opened my eyes, he was such a beautiful human being: talented, sensitive, creative, handsome--a jewel. Living with him, being his partner in life, love and work was a powerful school, a privilege that transformed my vision of everything.
Meg: It’s amazing how those people appear.
Alvaro: People keep appearing which is always very important. After five years working with him I decided to create my first piece at the La MaMa Theater in New York. I did a tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca on the 50th anniversary of his murder. It was the beginning of my career as a choreographer and as a performer of my own work.
Meg: That’s a whole other side of the creativity, not just expressing it with your body but creating the piece itself.
Alvaro: Right and everything came together in a way. Federico Garcia Lorca had been one of my favorite poets so this was literature coming together with theatre and music and my own voice as a creator. So this was a very important moment for me.
Meg: What do you think it takes to find your own voice?
Alvaro: You must have a story to tell, of course. You must have an inner world and things to express. Since for me dance was such a resurrection and such a moment of revelation and of coming together, and my need for healing and expression was so strong, I just could not dance somebody else’s work. There are a lot of dancers who work as interpreters, as performers, living in other people’s worlds. But when you have the need to express your own world and you have so many things stuck inside that you need to bring out then I think it happens in a more natural way, no?
Meg: Yes, that’s been my experience too. Tell me about returning to Colombia.
Alvaro: In 1986 after I premiered this piece in New York I decided that I wanted to come back to my country to show my work. We staged this piece with Colombian performers and I ended up staying for three years. It was a very important time because it was the introduction of my work to Colombian artists, audiences and critics. It was quite successful and people were interested in discovering my work.
My first solo was part of my tribute to Garcia Lorca. The piece was called Rebis which is a word that comes from alchemy which means ‘the double thing.’ I was dealing with aspects of androgyny and I was trying to go to the very deep essence of what the creative impulse of an artist is. I created this very weird solo, which I danced alone with my naked body painted red and black. The stage was earth-covered and I danced with a vase where red powder would come out and I was drawing on the floor this alchemical symbol.
It was very primitive and a very raw sort of piece, and it was a big shock here in Colombia for the audiences. I think it was like bursting, crying, it was like an explosion, a real eruption of the creative volcano. Very soon with this piece I started to travel a lot. I was invited to many festivals all over the world with this work and I settled in Barcelona in 1988. From there I started creating other pieces and I started teaching and performing and traveling all over until I finally decided that I wanted to come back to Colombia again in 1991 and I wanted to start my school. That was like the real turning point and returning point.
In ’91 I came back to Bogotá and I looked for help for funding at the Colombian Institute of Culture. A very good friend was the director at that time and he said, ‘No, I will not help you because I want you first to help me. I want you to work with me as sub-director of the Colombian Institute of Culture for a while.’ It was quite flattering because it was the first time that a dancer was offered such an important position. It was all the arts for the whole country. It was a big responsibility.
I decided to accept because I thought it was a good opportunity to learn and be able to create the basis for what I wanted to do later. So I stayed for about a year and a half and I worked with him designing what would eventually become the Ministry of Culture. And also working on some of the educational policies for the arts which we had none at that time.
Meg: Can you describe what was going on in the country at that time?
Alvaro: What is important about this period is that it was a time of drug violence in Colombia. This was the moment of Pablo Escobar and this terrible nightmare Colombia was living, and so it was a little bit strange that somebody would want to create art education and policies.
It is very hard to describe Colombia’s very complex situation and history. What I can say is that my country has been struggling for the past 50 years in this sort of non- declared civil war. Paradise transformed into hell--we have been given the most amazing and beautiful garden on Earth, nevertheless we refuse to see it, to cherish it, to love it. I am optimistic--or as Gramsci used to say “you must be pessimistic in thought but optimistic in action.” That is exactly what/how I am.
I was very lucky that again, the right person at the right time, this man who was the director of the Colombian Institute of Culture, he respected my work a lot and he was very sensitive to what I was saying. It was a very good time for me, to learn and to be able to see things from the government side.
Then I was appointed director of a multi-disciplinary school for the arts, the Superior Arts Academy of Bogotá. I stayed there for two years as general director of the school. There was a visual arts and theater program when I arrived and I was able to create the music program and the first professional dance program in Colombia at the university level.
I went to France to find partners and alliances to start the school. That’s when I met my colleague and partner Marie France Delieuvin who is the co-founder and co-director of the School of the Body. This was 1993 and at that time she was the director of the most important school of contemporary dance in the city of Angers in France. That’s how this all started, this collaboration with France, which has been very important for the whole project of the School of the Body. In my case, at that time I was more interested in the French sophisticated, poetic vision of dance and its relations to other arts forms and languages more than the physical, acrobatic dance I would see in the U.S., for example.
In 1994, I decided that I wanted to move to Cartagena, which is the city my family comes from. I was born in Medellín, raised up in Bogotá but Cartagena had been always my dream from childhood, that’s why I ended up here.
Meg: So returning to the city your family’s roots was kind of coming full circle.
Alvaro: Yes, although my poetic, romantic vision of Cartagena has changed a lot during these years. I arrived here to live 18 years ago, so now I see and know deeply the ‘real’ Cartagena, not the ‘postcard Cartagena.’ It is a melting pot of Africa, indigenous cultures, European influence. Being the major port of entrance of slaves during colonial times it carries the burden of a tragic history of injustice, racist discrimination and exclusion. I always say that Cartagena´s ‘silent Apartheid’ is more difficult to overcome than South Africa´s, for example because it is silent, non-declared. It is, in spite of an extremely complicated social situation, a beautiful place, the old city, the ocean, its culture and most important its people.
I quit the school in Bogotá and I decided to start my own school from scratch. I wanted to do a private not-for-profit organization that I could really design from the beginning and not have to deal so much with bureaucracy and government. I moved here in ’94 with my partner, who is an architect and painter. It took me three years to get the support and the funding and the space to begin the School of the Body which I was able to do in 1997.
Meg:What was the inspiration for the school?
Alvaro: Three important influences drove me to create the school. The first was the influence and inspiration of my great aunt, her love for art and music and its relation to a spiritual--not necessarily religious—life and her love for Cartagena and its people. Second, the discovery of the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s novel “The Rite of Spring,” which tell the story of a Russian classical ballerina who ends up creating a dance school in the historic center of Havana with Afro-Cuban dancers. Third, Cho`s advice and vision of the enormous talent he found in Cartagena when he came to visit.
Meg: Can you explain the school’s name?
Alvaro: In Spanish the name has even a stronger impact. At that time I was living in the historic colonial center of Cartagena, living on a street called Calle del Colegio. In front of my apartment was this abandoned school from colonial times and from my window I could see this beautiful empty spaces in an old decadent building. I was dreaming that this space could become the school and it’s perfect because the street is called The School Street.
I started to like the word colegio which in Spanish means school, from the Latin colligere which means “reunite,” like the sense of community of people who are united by a kind of same dignity. So I like a sense of college, of union. Then I read in the newspaper about a tennis player from Colombia who said ‘My body speaks the language of sports’ and I thought, ‘My body speaks the language of dance.’ The body can speak many languages. I thought it was much more universal, thinking of the body rather than speaking just of dance.
So I came out with El Colegio del Cuerpo, “The School of the Body,” which is more poetic and more universal and more abstract and at the same time more concrete. So it’s not just individual bodies, but it’s also a collective body. I went to see Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I told him about the project and he said ‘It’s a great name, it’s like the title of a book of poems.’ So I said ‘I think we’re on the right track, if Garcia Marquez gives me his blessing, I think it’s okay.’
At that point I had the name but I had no funds. It was really very difficult to convince institutions--contemporary dance is something that is still very new in Colombia. The Ministry of Culture said we will support your idea but first you should begin with a professional company and then little by little you can start doing the school.
So Marie France and I started a company with European and Colombian dancers that we called The Bridge and we started working, creating a repertoire. It was an eleven-member company (European and Colombian) and we started working in Cali. After seven months there we started touring and then moved to Cartagena in August ’97. We got support from the mayor of Cartagena and some funds from the Ministry of Culture and then we got a space in a very beautiful 16th century Spanish cloister, a space with history, magic and soul…very inspiring for our kids and for ourselves.
Meg: How did you find your students?
Alvaro: I decided to start working with a very big low-income public high school, it’s a huge, 5,000 students. The first thing we did was a lecture demonstration for all of the 480 6th graders. We did an open rehearsal. We told them what contemporary dance was about and then we made an agreement with the school that the kids would come twice a week for a month in groups of sixty. We would divide them in groups of twenty and our company members we would share our discipline and work.
After one month we did a survey asking them if they were interested, if they wanted to continue. I was expecting thirty girls and four boys, like the Billy Elliott syndrome. To our incredible surprise we had 450 kids, more boys than girls, say that they wanted to continue, that they had been touched by the experience and so…. we were in trouble!!
Meg: [Laughter] But good trouble.
Alvaro: 450 was a huge surprise. So we had to choose. I’m sure we were very unfair with some of them but we chose those that we saw as more interested. We did not choose them because of their technical talent or body, but we chose them for the fire in their eyes.
Edward Martinez was one of those not chosen. We did not notice him. He knocked at the door six months after we had started. He was eleven years old and he came and told us ‘I’ve come to see you guys because you made a mistake. I want you to read my survey.’ He had written ‘I want to continue because contemporary dance was invented for me.’ So we said ‘Yeah, it sure is a very clear answer. We will give you another chance.’
One week later we realized that we had really made a big mistake. Edward’s still with us and he has been with us for the past fifteen years. I’m sure he will one day be the person who will succeed us in directing of El Colegio.
Meg: That is amazing! You earlier said that we create our own destiny by our desire and by our willingness. What do you think the lesson is that Edward personifies?
Alvaro: The most important lesson is that education has to help kids discover what they already know. We think we are creating something but I don’t think we are creating something--we are discovering something. The main goal is to be like a kind of midwife as educators, to help give birth to this truth that is born with us. There is a quote by a South African Nobel prize J.M.Coetzee that expresses very beautifully what I mean. It’s about this fire that is already there and how in this dialogue of fire the real pedagogical miracle occurs.
I call my philosophy of teaching is in fact a philosophy of learning. It comes out of Plato, modified. Before true learning can occur, I believe, there must be in the student's heart a certain yearning for the truth, a certain fire. The true student burns to know. In the teacher she recognizes, or apprehends, the one who has come closer than herself to the truth. So much does she desire the truth embodied in the teacher that she is prepared to burn her old self up to attain it. For his part, the teacher recognizes and encourages the fire in the student, and responds to it by burning with a more intense light. Thus together the two of them rise to a higher realm.
Meg: What are you focusing on now?
Alvaro: Right now the School of the Body is in a very interesting period. Two months ago we moved from our premises in the historic center to the campus of a very important private university on the outskirts of Cartagena and we are building our new studios and we have a new administrative academic space. It’s in the middle of nature and in a very beautiful place.
Six years ago, we received a piece of land from the city of Cartagena, a five-acre piece of land to build our school someday. We want to be able to create a school there so that kids can really do the whole process--from very early childhood to the professional level.
I want to create an institution that can be at least partially self-sustainable, that can work with kids who can pay for their studies and that can also subsidize those kids that have the talent but that cannot pay. We can really create a sort of laboratory of social innovation and social inclusion. This very affluent Colombian city, is also a very racist city. It’s very segregated. People live apart and I think art has this power of bringing people together and of making people recognize talent and the beauty of diversity so this is like our main goal right now.
Meg: Can you share a specific experience that you feel really makes a statement?
Alvaro: There are many. Recently we were visited by a woman from the British Royal Family, Lady Gabriella Windsor. She’s a social anthropology student at Oxford University and she decided to do her Master’s thesis on El Colegio. I just read it and I liked very much the title of her thesis--she called it “The School of the Body: Discipline and Happiness.” I think she felt that what we have been trying to convey with our work is that with passion and the desire, you can achieve whatever you want. Garcia Marquez expresses this beautifully--he says that the secret of a long and happy life is to be able to work in what you like and only that. And if you are able to help somebody discover this, I think it’s a big achievement.
Meg: I understand the connection between discipline and happiness. We are responsible for our choices and we can choose to engage in activities or go in directions that will make us happy. Life is short.
Alvaro: Yes. There is another very strong episode in my life, one that is still very painful: the death of my beloved sister Monica in a car accident in the year 2000. Monica is a constant inspiration to what I do and who I am. She was an incredible human being. She was a sociologist and fighter and was responsible for the most important piece of legislation for the Afro-Colombian people since the abolition of slavery: Law 70 1993 which gives collective property of the land to communities. She was also responsible for organizing the shelters during the devastating earthquake in Armenia, Colombia. At the time of her death she was the National Director of the Internal Refugees Program. As you know Colombia has the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere with more than five million people displaced, all victims of our ongoing internal conflict.
Meg: While the circumstances are very different, I too lost a sibling in a car accident; my brother’s death was a pivotal experience for me. It gave me a strong desire to live as fully as possible and be grateful for the opportunities I have been given.
Alvaro: One day two of our kids, teenage boys, were speaking without knowing I was listening. One said to the other “If we had not found El Colegio what do you think we would be doing right now?” The other guy answered “I was about to become a mugger.” The other one said “My family wanted me to be a cop, because they said I had the right body for it.” They concluded “Maybe today I would be chasing you or maybe we would be killing each other.”