4. El Sistema Venezuela

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‘Socially, inclusion is the basic principle. Our motto is the disadvantaged first and for the disadvantaged the best tools, the best teachers, the best infrastructure. Culture for the disadvantaged cannot be disadvantaged culture. It should be large, ambitious, refined, advanced; not scraps’

Maestro José Antonio Abreu Founder of El Sistema

The story of the El Sistema revolution in Venezuela is one of the most powerful proofs that art can change the lives of individuals, communities and even nations. On 25th June last year I attended a ‘Festival of the World Summit’ at the South Bank Centre in London entitled ‘Art Will Change The World”. In Britain today such a statement generally brings guffaws of laughter from the rich and privileged and from the people that currently run our country. However much we explain, prove with statistics, give examples of people whose lives have changed through the arts and prove that money spent on the arts saves millions of pounds on other budgets and services the establishment doesn’t believe it.  Recently there have been 100% cuts to arts budgets from local authorities across the country in the mistaken belief that the arts don’t give value for money. But it is wrong – deeply and depressingly wrong.

On that day in June I was in the company of people that believed in the power of the arts to change lives and as I heard the orchestra play,  any doubts of the possibility that Art Will Change The World  were washed away in a tidal wave of passion and friendship and community and love and music

Jude Kelly at the South Bank had brought Jose Antonio Abreu founder of El Sistema (“the system”) to London, with the now world famous, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They played 4 sold out concerts with live relays in the Clore Ballroom played to thousands more people free of charge

In 1975 José Antonio Abreu set out to help poor Venezuelan kids learn to play a musical instrument and be part of an orchestra. nearly 40 years on, El Sistema has seeded 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centers — and over 250,000 young musicians. Jose Abreu’s  visionary philosophy has, since 1975, been based on the notion that a free, immersive classical music education for the poorest of the poor might positively influence the social problems plaguing the country. His hypothesis has been overwhelmingly vindicated, with more than 380,000 children engaged in national music programmes, more than 80% of whom come from low- or middle-income areas. Of the two million graduates of the programme since its inception, many have gone on to become not just musicians, but lawyers, teachers, doctors and civil servants.

“Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”  José Antonio Abreu

Listen to the TED Talk  HERE

Many music education projects have been modeled after the Venezuelan program in more than 25 countries. Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile,Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, England, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Jamaica, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Scotland, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, and Uruguay are among them.

There is a documentary film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier called “El Sistema”


1. Kontakthof, Piña Bausch, Wuppertal, Germany

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Pina Bausch first made the dance piece Kontakthof  at the Tanztheater Wuppertal with her company in 1978. The piece was revived  in 2000 with dancers over 65 years old and in 2008 with teenagers. It has been described as ‘Chorus line of  awkward seductions, unease and discomfort’

I saw the piece at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with the company of performers aged 65 years and older. It had a profound effect on me and images still stay with me many years later. I saw the young company years later on film and in the Wim Wenders’ film ‘Pina’ I saw the three different versions intercut from young, old and professional company and then back again in a different order.

One of the crucial elements of the piece was my fascination with the people who were the performers.

Who were they? What was their life like? Why were they performing this piece? How had they got involved? They were performers performing intense choreography but at the same time they we not performing, they were being themselves.

As an audience I am interested in two things as I watch the performers 1. Who they are and 2. What they do.

In her review in the Guardian, Judith Mackrell wrote:

“Unsurprisingly, the teenage dancers inhabited a different physical universe, one of thick, glossy hair, peachy-smooth skin and limber joints. And unsurprisingly, the effect on Bausch’s choreography was galvanic – the shapes of the movement looked much sharper on these younger bodies, the rhythms accelerated. But the sense of time and place was less focused than in the seniors’ performance. Were these teenagers, dressed in formal evening dress and dancing to 1930s tunes, the grandchildren of the senior cast, or the ghosts of their youthful selves?

These differences were intriguing and touching, but for me the teens’ performance fell far short of the seniors’, which was rich in surreal comedy and human interest. Kontakthof is about the games people play in order to communicate; the older cast were able to bring a more knowing, cussed, tender, disruptive life to the material. Next to them, the teens appeared almost generic.

As a choreographer, Bausch had nothing to do with political correctness, but in this one brilliantly inventive act of casting she exposed the poverty of our ageist culture – particularly when applied to dance. The 65-plus men and women who performed Kontakthof not only gave the lie to the notion that we become invisible as we age; they demonstrated that we can look significantly more vital and alive.”

So who were the performers?  In the two later versions a team of teenagers aged between 14 and 18 years old and a group of pensioners aged over 65.

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things and being themselves at the same time. I glimpsed a reflection of  human beings at different stages of their lives and it filled me with wonder and amazement at the beauty, the vulnerability and the love that people can share with each other across generations.