We arrived in Lima five days after a powerful earthquake devastated the south of Peru. We were an ambitious group of Public Dance Theater artists lead by Amelia Uzategui Bonilla: three dancers (Amelia, Troy Macklin, and Lucie Baker), a musician (Varinia Oyola-Rebaza), a composer (Anton Glamb), a photographer (Michael Hart), an administrator (Jessica Bonilla), and a clown (Andy Amable Garcia). We were ready to share our knowledge with the artists we were to work with. But the shock of the earthquake left fear and doubt in our hearts. The utility of art in such desperate times seemed miniscule. We had planned on collaborating with Peruvian artists to create original music and dance, but within the context of the earthquake making art seemed frivolous. In spite of our doubts, we carried on.
In our first meeting with the dancers from Andanzas, the dance group based out of La Catolica University, we asked them what inspires them. Their responses not only addressed the question, but our insecurities as well. They spoke about the power of art to change people, to start revolutions and bring hope and joy into the darkest of situations. Their inspirations became ours, and the three weeks that followed proved time and time again how vital art is, especially in a city torn by racial, political, and economic tension.
In addition to creating a new work with 14 dancers of Andanzas and collaborating with local musicians, we taught workshops and gave performances all over the city in various facilities, ranging from preschools to juvenile detention centers. We worked with Casa Infantil Juvenil de Arte y Cultura (CIJAC)—a cultural center committed to the promotion of non-violence through art in Villa El Salvador, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima—as well as Escuela Nacional Superior de Arte Dramatico, the only public drama school in Lima. Through this work we were able to see all sides of the city, from the poorest neighborhoods to the cultural elite. These experiences enriched the collaborative process and in the end, the piece we created, The Beginning After, was a powerful statement of human integration. We gave the dancers a form in which their raw, visceral movement quality was on display. Under our direction, they were able to expand on their passion and talent for movement. Our knowledge of dance technique supported what they felt instinctually. The result was a distinct multicultural exchange—and the same fusion occurred in the music. Composer Anton Glamb’s electronic New York style blended with the traditional sounds of the cajon and quena, played by Javier Ponte, as well as the classical influence represented by violist Varinia Oyola-Rebaza. Through this experience, a member of Andanzas felt “entrega” (literally meaning transfer or delivery)—that we were giving our entire selves as artists and people, which encouraged her to do the same and commit to the work on a whole new level.
While our experiences in Lima were satisfying, the desire to help with the relief work in the south became increasingly significant. The danger of the situation was made clear to us both by our Limenan friends and our loved ones back home, but we were committed to sharing our art with these communities in need. We began collecting money and discussing the possibility of traveling to the south with our friends of Villa El Salvador, CIJAC, to perform and help. Our proposal was received enthusiastically and a few days later we found ourselves crammed into a van heading toward the earthquake zone. The trip included performances in Ica, Pisco, and Dos Palmas. When we arrived, we found aid efforts taking shape amidst dust and rubble by collaborating organizations that we began learning from. Many buildings were completely destroyed, while others remained intact.
The place that struck us the most was Dos Palmas, a small town that hadn’t received the same amount of aid as larger cities, due to its remote location. People were living in tents set up in the rubble that was once their home. We decided to use the $1,500 we raised to purchase food for the system of 11 soup kitchens that had been formed there. Our donations as well as our art were warmly welcomed. Most of the residents had never heard or seen concert music or dance, and our performance gave them the opportunity to forget their troubles and laugh with us. Despite their stripped-down living situations, the community showed us incredible hospitality. Afterward, families invited us into their homes and offered us corn and cheese—precious commodities—as we listened to stories of survival. As we hugged them goodbye, they said, “Por favor, no nos olviden.” Please don’t forget us. We haven’t.
The passion and strength displayed in the people we encountered were overwhelming. Javier, one of the Peruvian musicians, said “¡Hay que segir cambiando!”—meaning that we as people need to keep changing. He felt that our exchange—on an artistic, cultural, and emotional level—helped him to realize that interdisciplinary work is a great response to the situation in Peru. We started out with the intention of inspiring others, but we couldn’t predict how much we would gain. The energy we gave was returned to us many times over. Our journey has reinvigorated our connection to art and changed how we interact with our world. In reflection, Varinia commented, “Every time I return to my country I realize that, despite all the problems, there are also beautiful things. It is a place where individualism is replaced by a sense of community and a strong faith we'll get through it together—we will eat tomorrow.”