Illuminating Thoughts: Alvaro Restrepo on Kazuo Ohno, Cohen & García Lorca

Álvaro Restrepo, director of Compañía del Cuerpo de Indias, Colombia's most avant garde dance company, is a leading figure in Latin American contemporary dance. He shares with us his creative connections between legendary Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno, Canadian artist Leonard Cohen, and Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

May 21, 2019 | BY: Alvaro Restrepo

Tell us about the journey from your original concept of Flowers for Kazuo Ohno to what will be performed at Luminato in June.

AR: In 2008 we were invited to perform in Japan to celebrate 100 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Colombia. We performed for members of the imperial family and special guests our piece QUARTET FOR THE END OF THE BODY based on Olivier Messiaen’s music Quartet for the End of Time. We received an unexpected gift in our dressing room: flowers from mythic/iconic butoh pioneer, dancer and choreographer Kazuo Ohno and his son Yoshito.

They could not attend our performance but somebody had spoken very highly of our work so they decided to honor us with flowers. I had never met Kazuo Ohno though I had seen several of his performances in different parts of the world. The next day I called to the number that appeared on the card and we were invited to visit Ohno’s home in Yokohama. We spent an unforgettable day with them. Kazuo Ohno was 102 years old and was laying on his bed connected to life with a very delicate silk thread…. Their hospitality and generosity moved us deeply.

When we left I proposed my colleague Marie France Delieuvin and our company’s subdirector Ricardo Bustamante to create a collective piece so we could give back to them the flowers they had sent us. That is how Flowers for Kazuo was born…. During the creative process, when I was looking for the music to go with the piece, I rediscovered the poetry and universe of Leonard Cohen whose track I had lost for many years. I was thrilled to encounter a man in his 80`s creating vigorous/beautiful work. I proposed to the cocreators of the work to use only Cohen’s music, sung by him and by some other great artists.

Can you tell us how long has Flowers for Kazuo Ohno been in development?

AR: The piece was premiered the 9th of December 2014 in Bogotá and from the moment it was conceived and born our dream was to take it to Japan and Canada… Luminato is part of a dream come true.

For those that don’t know, what is the connection between Kazuo Ohno and Leonard Cohen’s work?

AR: There is an invisible thread that connects these two great artists and two of them to me: Spanish poet and playwright FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA. Kazuo Ohno started dancing after seeing a performance of one of Lorca’s best and most admired friends: flamenco dancer Antonia Mercé called “La Argentina”.

Federico wrote a beautiful text in her honor. Leonard Cohen was a declared Lorca fan: he always stated that the Andalusian had helped him to discover his own poetic voice. He even named his only daughter Lorca as a tribute to his beloved Federico. 

García Lorca is also one of my favorite poets: in 1986 I created in NYC two pieces to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his murder: From the Orchard of the Mutes and REBIS (this last piece I performed in Montreal’s Festival des Amériques in 1991.) 

Can you explain a little bit about the style of Butoh dancing, how does it differ from other forms of dance?

: Butoh dance was born in Japan as an artistic/spiritual reaction to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is often referred to as “the dance of darkness”. Kazuo Ohno was one of his founders together with Tatsumi Hijikata. 

What can viewers expect when they go see Flowers for Kazuo Ohno? Who do you think will be the most interested in this work?

: Viewers must not expect to see Butoh dance in our choreography since we are not Butoh dancers. The piece is a tribute, in our own dance and poetic language, to two great artists who taught us how to make of old age – time - a piece of art. 

If you had to summarize the story of Flowers for Kazuo Ohno in 5 words, what would they be? 

: There is no story: “dance flowers for two giants”.

The history of Colegio del Cuerpo (and Compañía del Cuerpo de Indias) is fascinating. Tell us about it and about the challenges they currently face.

AR: EL COLEGIO DEL CUERPO- eCdC (The School of the Body) is a sort of "social sculpture" in the way Joseph Beuys understood the power of the Arts and arts education as a way of empowering and revealing the hidden artistic nature of all human beings. We co founded it with Marie France Delieuvin in 1997 in my family hometown, Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. A beautiful UNESCO world heritage city full of enormous social, ethnic, racial contradictions: I often refer to it  as the city of "silent apartheid", having been the main port of entrance of African slaves during colonial times and still carrying the burden of infamy and segregation.
eCdC is our answer to this very complex reality. Colombia is trying to overcome 52 years of a non-declared civil war that produced more than 200 thousand deaths, 150 thousand missing persons and more than 8 million victims of internal displacement and all sorts of horrors. Our school was born during the most violent years of our conflict. We educate FOR dance and WITH dance: Education for Peace through the Arts...that is what we do. I also speak of our center as a four legged animal, being the legs:
- Arts (contemporary dance and other related artistic languages)
- Education (integral body education/education for peace)
- Society (inclusion/innovation)
- Politics (high level artistic action has an impact on the  political life of a society)
We try to make no compromises between social and artistic values, for example,...."in other words between doing good and being good", (as British The Guardian's dance critic Sanjoy Roy wrote about our work).
The professional Company of eCdC (Compañía Cuerpo de Indias) is the visible top of the iceberg: the same as the body is the visible part of the soul, as poet William Blake defined it. Today, its 11 members are an example of the power talent and discipline have to reveal the prodigy of human diversity. We celebrate thorough our work and through the artistic personalities and backgrounds of our dancers the wealth and beauty of human heritage. 

What are some of the biggest challenges or setbacks you've faced while creating Flowers for Kazuo Ohno

AR: The biggest challenge was how to avoid/escape from the temptation of imitatingButoh aesthetics and movement and remain faithful to our own universes.  

Do you have a favourite  section from the piece?

AR: The very last scene, with music by Phillip Glass, set to Cohen’s Puppet Time from his Book of Longings is one of my favorites sections, since it shows Cohen`s dark sense of humor and is also a reference to a strange Japanese dream……  

Which other Luminato 2019 shows are you excited to see?

AR: I am excited about the Festival as a whole…and grateful to life to be able come to Cohen’s home country with our Flowers

Listen to Illuminating Sounds #4, a Luminato Spotify playlist, and immerse yourself in the poetry of García Lorca, Leonard Cohen and Kazo Ohno. Luminato 2019 presents Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen) on June 19 - 22, 2019 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, Canada.


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