It began with an unexpected gift.
Two large boxes arrived at the studio door of El Colegio del Cuerpo — or “The School of the Body,” a dance company and artistic education center founded by Álvaro Restrepo and Marie France Delieuvin in Cartagena — packed with costumes from a Colombian fashion designer.
A third was full of papier-mâché Mexican masks — bold, colorful depictions of animals, strange creatures and beings from another realm of the imagination, a place that inspired Restrepo.
He immediately began working with his dancers.
“Little by little, a story came to appear,” he said during a telephone interview from Mexico City, taking a break from the company’s performance schedule. “The spirit of the piece is a little bit playful, it can feel like a children’s play. But little by little, it starts to become a little more cruel and dark and strange.”
The choreographer calls it “Animal Family,” which will make its world premiere on December 13 in Colombia after the East End gets a taste of the production over the next three weeks — through a residency at The Watermill Center from Wednesday, October 24, to Monday, November 19, and a performance at the Southampton Arts Center on Sunday, October 28, as well as activities at the Parrish Art Museum, the Ross School, the Shinnecock Reservation and Peconic Landing.
“What I want people to feel is the power of what the arts can do — especially dance, especially the body — because the body is our common territory,” Restrepo said. “We all are our bodies. We don’t have a body; we areour body. And we are individual bodies, but we belong to a collective body, as well. So this is a notion that we love to convey with our work.”
It wouldn’t be until age 24 that Restrepo discovered his own body. With it came movement, dance and a total language. It was the moment his “resurrection” began, he said.
“I decided to create the company and the school as a way of healing my own wounds as a student,” he said. “I was a late beginner in dance because I had no opportunities to discover my talent and to discover my body.”
Raised under the strict authority of a Benedictine Catholic school, his education was violent, both physically and mentally, he said. It was not a place for artists, he said, and his body suffered.
“I had this need to create something, my own version for education — an education based on pleasure and on commitment, and how could I relate discipline and happiness in my proposal. So that’s what I did,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for 21 years now. More than 8,500 kids have gone through the school — not to become dancers, of course, all of them. Just a few become professional dancers. The rest have the opportunity to know what we call the new ethics of the body and how to live with dignity and conscience in their bodies in such a country like Colombia that has treated the body with such violence.
“To give these kids, who are coming from the most deprived areas of the city, the opportunity to discover their body as a territory of peace and dignity is something that’s very important,” he said.
His dancers — whom, even today, Restrepo affectionately calls his “kids” though many have been with the company for at least a decade — are co-creators, he explained.
He proposes sequences, relationships and atmospheres according to the music, and they answer his questions in their language, informed by varied, vibrant backgrounds in dance — from classical ballet and contemporary to hip-hop and traditional folk dance — and in ethnicity.
Then, Restrepo weaves the piece together.
“I always hope people can feel the power of the arts, how the arts can bring people together,” he said. “What I have discovered is that the arts, when they are of high quality, they can erase differences but, at the same time, celebrate differences. I think humanity has to be proud of what we are, as a diverse rainbow species.”
The avant-premiere of “Animal Family,” by El Colegio del Cuerpo Dance Company, will stage on Sunday, October 28, at 4 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center, located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. Tickets are $15 and $10 for Friends of SAC. For more information, call (631) 283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.