Ella Wind­sor

Play­ing Safe

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Ella Wind­sor

Within the pretty pale pink walls of the Adolfo Me­jia the­atre, in the cen­tre of Colom­bia’s Caribbean coastal city of Carta­gena de In­dias, a thin man in jeans and a T-shirt with ‘BACH’ on his back, reveres his he­roes. Chopin ‘sin­gle-hand­edly rev­o­lu­tion­ized piano-play­ing for­ever.’ Beethoven ‘with one hand dragged clas­si­cal mu­sic to the ro­man­tic age. For the first time, it be­came about feeling, and what went on in­side.’ And Rach­mani­noff is ‘my favourite. I love him so much that I had his name tat­tooed on my arm in Rus­sian. Though I don’t speak Rus­sian, so it might say El­ton John.’ Be­tween speak­ing he is of course ad­dress­ing the keys of a piano in a man­ner be­fit­ting such giants.

Carta­gena, with its colos­sal Span­ish colo­nial cathe­drals in candy yel­lows, pinks and blues, is known not only as a hub of great beauty for its His­toric Cen­tre, des­ig­nated a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site. Founded in the six­teenth cen­tury, it was also the head­quar­ters of ex­pan­sion of the Span­ish Em­pire and a place of great wealth. This was due both to the gold found in Sinú tombs, plun­dered early on, and the mil­lions Spain poured into the city for its pro­tec­tion. As such, it was ran­sacked in turn by Span­ish and English ‘pi­rates’—like Fran­cis Drake, say lo­cals—jostling to take it over. Nowa­days its riches are con­fined to the beauty of the His­toric Cen­tre (be­yond whose walls the vast mod­ern city sprawls), from the ca­coph­ony of flow­ers spilling out over every wooden bal­cony to the views out to sea be­yond the fortress.

Bri­tish pi­anist James Rhodes is here for the city’s twelfth Hay Fes­ti­val, a Colom­bian off-shoot of the orig­i­nal in Hay-on-Wye, to per­form con­certs, give talks and pro­mote his book In­stru­men­tal (pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 2016). He was in­vited by Hay Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Peter Florence and Colom­bian in­surance com­pany SURA, one of the fes­ti­val spon­sors. He has ar­rived in Carta­gena af­ter a sim­i­lar pro­gram at the other Colom­bian Hay, in the

city of Medellin. In­te­gral to all of this is his story which he shares, from the se­vere child­hood abuse that led him to find sal­va­tion in the piano aged seven af­ter hear­ing Bach on a found cas­sette tape – ‘overnight, ev­ery­thing changed’, his chal­lenges with his iden­tity, a late start­ing ca­reer as a con­cert pi­anist aged thirty-five and fi­nally, some res­onation in Felix and Su­sana (an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram, cov­er­ing top­ics re­lat­ing to sex­ual health and peace­ful co-ex­is­tence, aimed for chil­dren be­tween the ages of four and twelve) in Colom­bia. This is SURA’s ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram sup­port­ing sim­i­lar vic­tims with a sense and ex­pe­ri­ence of healthy com­mu­nity liv­ing to help strengthen re­la­tion­ships among chil­dren, fam­ily and schools. In­deed the very names Felix and Su­sana were in­spired by the Span­ish words ‘fe­liz’ and ‘sana’ mean­ing happy and well.

‘It’s just an amaz­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion,’ says Rhodes, ‘a pro­gramme go­ing into schools to help pro­tect and get peo­ple talk­ing about the body, and abuse and sex.’

This is my sec­ond visit to the coun­try and the rea­son I am here in Carta­gena again, as well as the first time, is thanks to an­other im­por­tant ini­tia­tive pro­mot­ing peace and phys­i­cal well-be­ing: El Cole­gio del Cuerpo. Now cel­e­brat­ing its twen­ti­eth year, The School of Body is a dance col­lec­tive based here in Carta­gena, pre­sent­ing its young at­ten­dees with a new ‘ethic’ of the body. The school is guided by a body-based phi­los­o­phy, which in­forms its ped­a­gogy. It is not only a dance school for some seeking a ca­reer in dance who may go onto join its pro­fes­sional dance com­pany Cuerpo de In­dias, but also a cen­tre to give all stu­dents a sense of re­spect for their bodies and en­hanced so­cial skills and val­ues through the art of con­tem­po­rary dance.

Many of the orig­i­nal pupils came from some of Carta­gena’s most dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bour­hoods, on the out­skirts of the city, where vi­o­lence was of­ten com­mon­place. Not to men­tion the past five decades plus of Colom­bia’s no­to­ri­ous armed conflict or civil war with its hor­ri­fy­ingly vi­o­lent con­se­quences, which has of course formed the back­drop for chil­dren at both The School of the Body and Felix and Su­sana.

I came to know the for­mer six years ago, for six weeks’ re­search in So­cial An­thro­pol­ogy; exploring the body’s place in ed­u­ca­tion and learn­ing. I am here again now to process Carta­gena’s Hay Fes­ti­val through this lens in the con­text of the (re­vised) peace deal that was signed by Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos in Novem­ber 2016, to call an end to the vi­o­lence and usher in a new era of peace and sta­bil­ity. This starts with the dis­ar­ma­ment of the FARC guerilla force, be­fore the grad­ual in­te­gra­tion of its fight­ers back into so­ci­ety.

Need­less-to-say this mo­ment and its mean­ing are in every­body’s minds, which makes Rhodes’s pres­ence in Colom­bia all the more poignant. And just af­ter Carta­gena he will play in Bo­gota, in the Teatro Colon, the same venue where one day later Cuerpo de In­dias will open 2017’s No­bel Peace Sum­mit, with their show Ne­gra/Anger for an in­ter­na­tional del­e­ga­tion of some thirty No­bel Peace Prize Lau­re­ates in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent San­tos him­self.

The show is ded­i­cated to Nina Si­mone and Aimé Cé­saire, two peace­build­ing icons and civil rights ac­tivists. And the pro­duc­tion is both a protest and de­nun­ci­a­tion of the so­cial divi­sions that have gone be­fore in Colom­bia, par­tic­u­larly along racial lines. Carta­gena it­self sadly still shows these kinds of re­al­i­ties; its beauty can be be­guil­ing.

The work is also a cel­e­bra­tion of the diver­sity of Colom­bia, whose in­dige­nous, African and Euro­pean her­itage is clear through the mix of races, re­li­gions and cul­ture of its pop­u­la­tion. Af­ter all, the fa­mous tales of Colom­bia’s leg­endary writer Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez were of­ten in­spired by the dreamy syn­cretism and char­ac­ter of the peo­ple, so in­flu­enced by such a mix.

Felix and Su­sana also takes care to em­pha­sise the pos­i­tive. While the sex­ual abuse sta­tis­tics in Colom­bia are hor­ri­fy­ing (every hour two boys or girls are vic­tims of abuse and only 10% of com­plaints re­sult in a ‘guilty’ ver­dict) the cen­tre’s fo­cus is on the well­be­ing and hap­pi­ness of its chil­dren. As pa­tron Paula Jaramillo ex­plains, ‘there is no sense in draw­ing out the neg­a­tive.

You have to fo­cus on the pos­i­tive.’ And the pos­i­tive in both pro­grammes speaks for it­self.

The School of the Body reveres the body as a tem­ple or a sa­cred space, to be protected and re­spected, and which places it at the cen­tre of ed­u­ca­tion, as op­posed to the pe­riph­ery where it plays sec­ond fid­dle to the mind. Di­rec­tor and co-founder Al­varo Restrepo ques­tions the use of bodies held static at desks through­out for­mal ed­u­ca­tion (other than the odd Phys­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion class) and won­ders as to the ex­tent of so­cial ben­e­fit such an ed­u­ca­tion can af­ford. Whereas, his body-based method means con­stant so­cial in­ter­ac­tion with other pupils and, as in the case of dance, the mu­tual trust and re­spect re­quired and adopted within safely ex­e­cuted dance moves such as lifts, for in­stance. As one stu­dent ex­plains, ‘If I lift my dance part­ner, we must re­spect and trust each other.’

The or­ga­ni­za­tion has de­vel­oped a com­pre­hen­sive plan in­clud­ing not only the arts in ed­u­ca­tion (a tough call in Colom­bia where arts fund­ing is now se­verely re­stricted due to the costs of the peace im­ple­men­ta­tion) but even ad­vo­cates for a more holis­tic ed­u­ca­tion in­clud­ing both mind and body in the general cur­ric­ula around the globe. It chal­lenges head on the Carte­sian mind/body di­vide in most schools in the West, pri­or­i­tiz­ing an ac­tive mind and still body and in­stead merges the two as an in­tractable whole, which must de­velop as one in any suc­cess­ful ed­u­ca­tion.

Rhodes re­calls Pres­i­dent Trump’s claim (made to il­lus­trate his skills of as­ser­tion, opin­ion and ag­gres­sion in his busi­ness bible The Art of the Deal) that as a child he punched his ele­men­tary school mu­sic teacher in the face, for ‘not know­ing enough about mu­sic’, giv­ing him a black eye.

‘My feeling is: Well, if that’s true, you’re in a rather unique po­si­tion to make sure that every other ele­men­tary school mu­sic teacher has the tools they need so they do know what they’re talk­ing about. You know that story about Churchill be­ing asked to take money from the arts to fund the war and he said, “then why are we fight­ing the war..?” I mean that’s re­ally true—sad but true. Where would be with­out it? Well, look where we are

with­out it. It’s taken a huge dive.’

Restrepo’s ap­proach to teach­ing is that a good teacher ‘helps you find your wings so you can fly. If not, what the hell is ed­u­ca­tion for?’ Need­less to say, this did not hap­pen for him in school. Mean­while, dance was out of the ques­tion in his machista fam­ily who ex­pected him to pur­sue a more con­ven­tional ca­reer for a man and it was only aged twenty-four that he started danc­ing and soon trained in New York with the leg­endary dancer and chore­og­ra­pher, Martha Gra­ham.

Rhodes too, though lov­ing piano from the age of five when he was so abused, re­peat­edly, that he needed three back oper­a­tions, did not set­tle into his ca­reer un­til much later. Diverted into heavy drugs as one route to solv­ing his prob­lems (an­other was un­der­tak­ing a psy­chol­ogy de­gree to fig­ure him­self out—to no avail) he stopped play­ing aged eigh­teen. For the next ten years he un­der­took a se­ries of jobs from work­ing in fi­nance in the City to serv­ing Whop­pers at Burger King. It wasn’t un­til he at­tempted to be­come a mu­sic agent that the agent he sought out as a men­tor de­clared he was not set to be an agent but a con­cert pi­anist. Only now did he re­turn to the piano, ten years later, aged twenty-eight, not hav­ing played a note in-be­tween.

In this sec­ond com­ing, he cer­tainly delved into the lives of loner com­posers and mu­si­cians like him, finding so­lace in the sto­ries and au­to­bi­ogra­phies of greats from Bach to Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and Rach­mani­noff.

He de­lights in retelling an anec­dote about Mozart writ­ing the big show piece aria for a lead in Così fan tutte who he hap­pened to hate. ‘He re­al­izes that every time she sings a high note this woman lifts her head and every time she sings a low note, she low­ers her head. So Mozart fills her aria with jumps from high to low to high, so that, in his words, “her head will bob up and down like a chicken on stage”.’ All the same, says Rhodes, the aria he wrote to mock this woman ‘is one of the most beau­ti­ful op­er­atic arias ever com­posed.’ ‘So these guys are very bril­liant. They would have been amaz­ing to hang

out with. They aren’t just these un­touch­able ge­niuses. They’re funny and hu­man and crazy and dam­aged and they’re like all of us.’

He also re­minds us of the ages of his ‘rock-star’ he­roes when they achieved what they did, awe-struck by the idea that by the time of Beethoven’s early death he was re­ally sick, iso­lated, heart­bro­ken and com­pletely deaf, and yet had writ­ten thirty-two piano sonatas.

For Rhodes too the path has been long and filled with pain and dilemma. Even af­ter be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful con­cert pi­anist per­form­ing, and speak­ing, all over the world and writ­ing his mem­oir In­stru­men­tal about his ex­pe­ri­ences, the chal­lenges con­tin­ued.

Rhodes’s book, praised by Stephen Fry for ex­plain­ing ‘why and how mu­sic has the po­ten­tial to trans­form all of our lives’ was ini­tially banned from be­ing sold, due to its highly sen­si­tive con­tent, al­most re­in­forc­ing the threat Rhodes claims every pae­dophile makes to his vic­tims when the abuse is go­ing on: ‘If you ever talk about this ter­ri­ble things will hap­pen, cat­a­strophic things. You can­not imag­ine the ter­ri­ble things that will hap­pen if you tell any­one.’ Only af­ter a year­long bat­tle in the Supreme Court, and two mil­lion pounds in le­gal fees did Rhodes win his case and be al­lowed to tell his story once more.

His anx­i­ety how­ever is con­stant and he says he feels he has been run­ning away his whole life. All the more re­mark­able then his achieve­ment, in spite of all. And yet for him, be­ing a con­cert pi­anist is ‘just a job like any other job. You just show up and play the best you can. When I worked in Burger King I was just as ner­vous be­fore go­ing to work as I am be­fore play­ing to two thou­sand peo­ple. Re­ally. I mean I might fuck up a Whop­per.’

And so Rhodes is as hu­man as the he­roes he reveres. In fact, watch­ing him, his thin frame, his modest quar­ter-bow, which he makes, you sense, as a mere nod to­ward that clas­si­cal con­cert con­ven­tion, while buck­ing the oth­ers (jeans and T-shirt in­stead of black tie or tail coats, score or no score and when score no des­ig­nated hu­man page turner). Not un­like the School

of the Body’s com­pany fea­tur­ing dancers of all races and shapes in con­trast to what went be­fore on the stage of Carta­gena’s main the­atre and in­deed, in dance tra­di­tions them­selves; not to men­tion plac­ing the body in the cen­tre of ed­u­ca­tion, plucked from its tra­di­tional place on the pe­riph­ery.

I am par­tic­u­larly in­trigued by Rhodes’s in­sis­tence on turn­ing the pages of his own score, not least be­cause amidst play­ing Rach­mani­noff in con­cert in Carta­gena he whips one with such fer­vour that he un­set­tles the score which tilts to­ward him like a tsunami, and be­gins to fall…

Yet he catches it, mid-air, with­out los­ing a sec­ond of his fo­cus, in spite of the gasps of the au­di­ence. Such is his pas­sion, and re­solve, his com­mit­ment to the craft that saved him.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.