University of Texas at Austin senior Dance major Elissa Marshall decided to become a dancer around age 9 after seeing a friend perform in "The Nutcracker."
"I started dancing really because I wanted to be on a stage in front of an audience," said Marshall. "I kept dancing, though, because of all the inspiring stuff I saw dancers do."
When she gets up every day to come to class, what awaits her would be the envy of many dancers around the world: five well-maintained, air-conditioned studios equipped with special shock-absorbent floors known as Marley, full-length mirrors, ballet barres and more than a half dozen world-class faculty members with wide-ranging expertise.
Outside the studio, Marshall can count on vast resources to aid her studies and artistic development, from libraries to Texas Performing Arts, which brings the world's greatest dance companies, from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Pina Bausch to Grupo Corpo, to her doorstep.
After completing her degree, numerous options will lay before Elissa: to further her studies at the graduate level, to work as a dancer, a choreographer, educator or even something completely unrelated to dance if she chooses.
For Lobadys Pérez, the situation is markedly different.
He's a dancer with El Colegio del Cuerpo, Colombia's first contemporary dance center, school for disadvantaged young people and professional touring company. His choice is simple: dance or risk slipping into a life of delinquency or worse in the city of Cartagena where unemployment and poverty are the norm and guerrilla groups, paramilitary forces and drug gangs are eager to recruit the young, displaced or directionless.
The studios at El Colegio, where Pérez works and studies, boast none of the aforementioned luxuries. The floor is bare, with no Marley or other mechanism to soften the constant and heavy impact on a dancer's feet and joints. The principal studio is open-air and without air-conditioning in a city with an average year-round temperature of 88 degrees and 90 percent average relative humidity. There are fans, but they are noisy and often must be turned off during rehearsal so students can hear the instructor.
Because international dance companies seldom tour Colombia, photos of Pina Bausch on the wall of the studio are as close as most students will get to seeing such world-class artists perform. These are the conditions that await the dancers of El Colegio each day in the studio, but outside things are much worse.
El Colegio is in Cartagena, a city where 49 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Not long ago, The United Nations declared Colombia "the biggest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere" and reported that more than 2.9 million people are registered as internally displaced persons in a country of about 44 million inhabitants. Despite all of this, Pérez has chosen to dance, and his unwavering determination, passion, dignity and sense of purpose are clear from the look in his eyes.
Marshall is a dancer of privilege and Pérez is a dancer of necessity. Yet when the two meet in a studio their differences dissolve, along with those of language and culture. As dance partners, their commonalities are what matter. Their bodies speak the shared, universal language of movement, tell stories, and express the full range of emotions, from joy to pain.
This blurring of borders is the result of collaboration between the Department of Theatre and Dance, Texas Performing Arts and El Colegio del Cuerpo, part of a project called "Canción del Cuerpo" ("Song of the Body"). Five dancers from The University of Texas at Austin and five Colombian dancers from El Colegio are working together as part of the annual spring concert of the department's Dance Repertory Theatre.
The project also involves collaboration among students in the department's Costume Design, Scenic Design and Stage Management programs and the technical staff at El Colegio. Leading the effort are Professor Lyn Wiltshire of the Department of Theatre and Dance and El Colegio's Co-Director Álvaro Restrepo.
Restrepo first visited Austin in 2008 at the invitation of the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at The University of Texas at Austin and its director, School of Law Professor Karen Engle.
"I stumbled upon a performance by El Colegio del Cuerpo while on sabbatical in Bogotá in 2007," said Engle. "The Rapoport Center had recently begun to collaborate with Texas Performing Arts to consider how we might use the performing arts as a means to open new spaces for reflection about human rights at the university and in our broader community. It was clear to me before the performance had ended that Álvaro Restrepo and El Colegio del Cuerpo could and should play an important role in that collaboration."
It was during that visit that Joe Randel, director of ArtesAméricas at Texas Performing Arts, first met Restrepo.
"With Texas Performing Arts' commitment to the role of the artist as an agent of change and ArtesAméricas desire to promote cultural dialogue in the Americas through the performing arts, I saw numerous possibilities for collaborations with El Colegio across a wide range of disciplines," Randel said.
Wiltshire, who had hosted a dance master class by Restrepo during his first campus visit and later spent a week in Cartagena as a guest instructor, was asked to lead the project and craft a framework for the exchange.
"That week-long experience provoked questions," said Wiltshire. "What occurs when the integrity of dancers from the socially and economically deprived neighborhoods of Cartagena and socially and economically privileged dancers from Austin work in a combined creative atmosphere of theatre and dance? What cultural conflicts arise when dancers trained to experience movement as therapy and dancers who use movement as a hobby adjust their perception to include dance as a combined cultural experience?"
Wiltshire and Restrepo devised a plan that called for three, two-week residencies--two in Austin and one in Cartagena--over the course of the academic year. The final residency will culminate in the world premiere of a new dance piece, jointly choreographed by Wiltshire and Restrepo, as part of the Dance Repertory Theatre Spring Concert on March 5.
When they arrived in Austin, members of El Colegio were overwhelmed by nearly everything they saw: the campus, the studio and theater facilities, the course offerings, the student body and faculty. While the dancers have traveled the world performing with El Colegio, they've had limited access to see and be influenced by other dancers.
The opportunity to benefit from the resources available to University of Texas at Austin students has helped them grow as dancers and artists. At the same time, the five Colombians made an instant impression on students across the Dance Department due to the depth of their dancing. It was clear from their movements the Colombians had a story to tell.
When the group from The University of Texas at Austin arrived at El Colegio's studio in Cartagena to start their December residency, several students commented on the lack of mirrors along the studio walls, a standard element in most studios that allows dancers to see themselves and monitor their technique. Senior Dance major Lisa Kobdish recalls Restrepo's explanation for their absence.
"Initially," she said, "there were no mirrors at the school because they could not afford nice ones, and they wouldn't settle for the hazy, warped mirrors they were offered. The school soon enough realized that mirrors were not needed after all. Instead, the walls are filled with inspirational images for the dancers to aspire to. One wall is full of [images of] Pina Bausch, the other, Kazuo Ohno. The photographs exude lusciousness, sensation, pain, grief, joy, things we can all connect with and filter into our own classroom rehearsal experience."
The students also visited several public schools where the Colombian dancers teach as part of El Colegio's extensive outreach program. In the sprawling shantytowns that surround Cartagena, these schools embody the realities El Colegio's dancers confront daily. Of this experience, Marshall wrote on the department's blog, "It has made me recognize the privilege I have been born into and has made me more motivated to help those in need. To whom much is given, much is expected and I truly understand that right now."
Sharing these realities with the students from The University of Texas at Austin has also been a revelatory action for Pérez, who has gained a new lens through which to see himself.
"As a result of this experience, the world is open to me now," he said as the group from The University of Texas at Austin prepared to return to Austin.
For all that separates this group of American and Colombian artists, there is just as much that unites them, and that reality became one of the creative sparks for the new piece the group will perform in March.
Rather than focus on the differences, Restrepo and Wiltshire chose "The Tightrope Walker," text by French writer Jean Genet, as a creative point of departure for the work that has since been titled "The Rope: Tres Momentos." "The Tightrope Walker" is a complicated work that focuses on the character of the tightrope walker, who struggles to understand his daily walking of the line between life and performance, a challenge faced by all performers, regardless of art form, status or nationality.
The choice of such a difficult text challenges the dancers to look deep inside themselves and examine their role as artists and their commitment to their work.
"In the dance studio, you are valued for who you are and not what you have," Restrepo said.
Performances of "Canción del Cuerpo" will take place March 5 at 8 p.m., March 6 at 8 p.m. and March 7 at 2 p.m. at the B. Iden Payne Theatre. Learn more about "Canción del Cuerpo" and buy tickets ($20/$17/$15) for the performances on the Texas Performing Arts Web site or by calling 477-6060.