Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Resistance and Memory

These are words I heard over and over from Colombian artists. The idea that one of the main functions of theatre, of culture in general in a time of extremity, upheaval, persecution or violence, is to remember who you are, what is possible, and to resist the loss of identity, the loss of possibility.

Carlos Vives - opening act for ISPA Bogota

AMAZING accordionist

The conference (ISPA Bogota) began with a speaker stating that “the performing arts have a political meaning”. I doubt a Canadian theatre conference would begin with this sentiment. She then went on to say that art generates collective memory, and that it is in the environment of art where we understand one another. And that - along with a rocking musical tribute to Colombia from Carlos Vives - began the ISPA 2014 Bogota congress.

ISPA Bogota begins

Over the next week, there is much to be inspired by.

With respect to memory and resitance, I hear an artist/speaker from the Palenke people (descendents of escaped slaves in southern Colombia) speak of their dances and songs as cultural resistance. I hear a rapper from the streets of Medallin speak of the crew and then the school he started to teach kids streetdance and rap, to give them an alternative to drugs and death. “Shed the skin that makes us fearful to become warriors, warriors in art”, he said. His crew, Crew Peligrosos, is famous and ultra-cool.

One of the founders of Crew Peigrosos, Medallin


I hear a founder of the most famous political theatre in Bogota – La Candelaria – speak of the most effective resistance being like bamboo, moveable and rooted. I hear another rapper - El Poeta - whose catalogue of loss was enormous – speak of bamboo, as well. But this time he used the metaphor to express the idea of perseverance despite loss: “A bamboo plant takes 80 years to develop deep roots, but once rooted, it takes only 2 years to grow as high as a building”. He was simply called “The Poet”. He free-styled at his panel, and the audience went wild. 

Rapper "El Poeta"

Some of musicians at the opening ceremony

Transformation through Art

ISPA hosted some speakers who are transforming lives through art around the world.

Panel on Transformation

Feeling Through Music

I listen to a violinist who is a product of classical music schools embedded in poor neighbourhoods throughout Colombia. He said he never smiled before music (his childhood was horrific), but thanks to music, “I learned to experience my feelings”. This awakened a desire in him to bring happiness to others with the music he now plays. He played for us, and smiled.

The Youth Orchestra of Afghanistan

I listen to a man from Afghanistan who founded a youth orchestra in Kabul. This orchestra teaches listening, he said, and the importance of working together. Beyond this teaching, in Kabul, 50% of enrolment in the youth orchestra is reserved for orphans. Girls are enrolled. The student association is chosen through elections – so democracy-training is part of the process. And this orchestra was the first to play music (which was banned by the Taliban), in the presidential palace in 30 years.

Felicity, from Circocolombia 

Circuses, Orchestras and Theatres: Reconstructing Life

I listen to a woman who co-founded a circus school in Colombia - Circolombia. I listen to a woman who turned an old bordello into an arts centre in Medellin. I listen to a man in Sao Paolo, Brazil, who founded a series of classical music schools which now has over 15,000 students, and that partners with institutions like Juilliard, the Sage Gateshead and others in Paris and Berlin. I hear about a company in Rome that works with refugees and vicitms of torture – that uses theatre to help them reconstruct meaningful lives. “Theatre is an efficient direct instrument for pscho-social reintegration”, she said.

The Circus Doesn't Give, it Demands...

Felicity, the woman from Circolombia, says that circus doesn’t give, it demands – and therein lies its value. Students learn the importance of solidarity and collaboration. As evidence, I hear from an acrobat who found a life in the circus and an astonishing set of skills (we watched a video of his acrobatics on an elastic tightrope - impressive).

The Right to Exist

Why does art work to rescue? To reintegrate? How do the downtrodden find their way into Art? This question is asked by a German moderator. “The stage is a very special place,” says one artist. “There is power in the autonomous voice one finds on the stage”. “Belonging,” says another. “The moment when a person feels the right to exist,” says the woman who works with torture victims, “The moment they feel the pleasure of doing things, this is powerful”

Powerful. Inspiring. Enormous. Art as the necessary angel of fractured societies (to borrow from Wallace Stephens, and a renowned Toronto theatre company!).


So I went to Bogota. April 2014. I was there for two reasons: to attend a meeting of the International Society of the Performing Arts (ISPA), and to see shows at the largest curated theatre festival on earth: The Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogota.

What I came away with was an entirely new way of looking at Colombia, and at the possibilities of theatre. It was a good trip. Here are some of the highlights:

Simon Bolivar Plaza, Bogota

La Candelaria District

Near the Colsubsidio Theatre

Soldiers at the Monestary above Bogota

The City

Around 8 million people live in Bogota. In the 80s and 90s it was a shockingly violent and extremely dangerous place. Now it is one of the safest, most functional cities in South America. It is high up – almost 3 thousand metres above sea level (I had altitude sickness for the first two days). It is bordered on its eastern edge by green mountains visible from everywhere in the city. Its city centre is full of beguiling narrow streets, lush smells and Spanish colonial architecture. The city sprawls south and west into poorer districts, and north into wealth. There are a plethora of tiny cafes and restos and astonishing food in the centre. The city is full of theatres – large and small. It is the capital of a diverse country with two coasts (Pacific and Caribbean), and many peoples who trace roots to many places: European, African and Indigenous, the latter cohort containing 64 different Native languages. The famous violence and the famous drug trade are not gone, but certainly now less-obvious to the tourist. Much of the art-making I heard about contends with these issues of diversity, history and violence. Art makers are very aware of memory, and how art plays a role in constructing and interpreting memory.

Traffic in North Bogota

A Giving of Thanks at the Monseratte Monestary above Bogota

Teatro Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, downtown Bogota

Monseratte Monestary