Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Highest Point.

It's a slightly later start this morning which gives me a chance to slip out for an hour and take a long walk around the near deserted city centre. I skirt Cerro Santa Lucia and pick up the Alameda down to La Moneda, gleaming in the early light. I can't ever pass the Palace without my thoughts going to the coup. I picture the jets flying in low to bomb, the soldiers storming the side entrances and Allende in an old tin helmet, using the AK47 that Che Guevara had given him as a gift to take pot shots out of a window. I wanted to wander through the two courtyards, but the guards were only allowing certain people in and I clearly wasn't on the list. Instead I did a lap and then took a lift down from the Plaza de la Ciudadania to a new cultural centre built underground. A quarter of a century into democracy there is still a feeling that this is a country finding its voice. Everywhere old haunts are being reclaimed as new galleries, arts centres and theatres. In this Chile feels an upbeat and exhilarating place to work. There's still many problems to solve and many stories to tell, but at 9am on a Saturday morning it's just me a cleaner and the owner of the coffee shop. Patience, I suspect, is a Chilean  virtue. The day lies ahead, so I walk back to La Cascona.

The groups wish each other luck and the minibuses set off to the Senames for the last time. It's a glorious morning and spirits are up.

The children are very excited to see us. Jonathan has been waiting by reception for half an hour, keen for us to get at least one run through in before the showing. Some face paints have been bought and a small team of the children appoint themselves make up artists. It doesn't take long to get ready.

The show itself takes place in the sun baked playground and all the residents and teachers have been invited. The space is huge and their is little shelter for the audience, who end up a fair distance away from the action in the only shade available. A mic is produced and the children take turns introducing the work.

We start with Gilverto's story and then move into a dance routine and onto Jonathan's narration. I'm struggling to see how this eclectic mix is working for the audience, who look a little bemused.

Jose though is delighted, Gilverto has never completed a project before. He's either always walked out or been taken out of class before the end. This we're assured is a breakthrough moment for him. The moment where both the teachers and, more importantly, he himself finished something. Jose hopes he'll be given more opportunities and more credibility, as a result.

Other students are wanting to contribute and the session breaks its formal arrangement and evolves into an impromptu Karaoke and dance.

One ten year old lad, who we're told comes from a rural community in the North of Chile, formally invites a girl to dance and whilst many of the others jump and whoop and joyfully enjoy the freedom of the music. The two of them hold each other and with great poise, dignity and composure, dance together. Nobody mocks, in fact nobody really notices. They are left alone and it's rather beautiful.

The grand finale is a mass game of musical statues.

Back in the classroom I thank Jonathan and ask him whether he'd consider me for future projects? He agrees. I asked if there are any tips he has for me as an actor. Any thing I could do to improve?

'The trouble with you Mark,' he says after a moment of thought 'is that you think too much with your head. You need to trust your heart more.'

We have a small celebratory party with the children who've been here all week, but soon it's time to go. It's been a terrific week. The children present us with friendship bands and bid us a safe flight. It's a sad parting, but it's Saturday there's and there's football to play. We head for the exit and they run out into the playground demanding to be on one team or the other.

We're back at base by 2pm, the work is done and we're free until the evening. Half the group want to chill, but half come decide to come with me for a final walk round Santiago.

We head first for the Emporio La Rosa, the city's most famous ice cream shop and according to The Daily Mail (so it must be right!) one of the world's top 25 parlours. We've been promising to try and get to it all week. The choice is impossible: chocolate and chilli, raspberries and mint, grapefruit and lime etc. and so we pick something each and share them round.

We cross the river at Plaza Italia and wander through the street markets of trendy Bellavista, until we arrive at the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal where we take the rickety funicular railway pass the zoo up to the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the summit.

The statue is Santiago's version of Rio's Christ the Redeemer, but pre-dates that more famous icon by nearly twenty years. Both stand at the highest point of their respective cities, protective symbols for the millions of people who live in their shadows; but whereas the redeemer tilts his head downwards towards the millions who live in his shadow, Mary's gaze is heavenward, up and over the Andes, that stand even prouder than her on the horizon.

It's breathtaking and we spend an hour wandering the site. Like most tourists, we've taken the easy way up, but  we're joined by the many Santiguans who daily take the challenge of mountain biking their way up. Sleek and sweaty, they've really earnt the view and the chance to free wheel back to town.

In 1987, the fag end days of the dictatorship, Pope Jean Paul II blessed the city from this spot and a third group of visitors make their own steady pilgrimage up the mountain to pray, light candles and leave messages and offerings at Mary's feet.

Back at street level we wander round the corner to La Chascona. Pablo Neruda's town house, where he hid his lover Matilde, before eventually the affair broke and the couple married. Matilde had a wild mane of bright red curls and this inspired the name of the house, which literally translates as messy hair.

The house is closed by the time we arrive, but a little amphitheatre has been constructed facing the property and several musicians and poets sit, jamming lightly in the warm evening air. The mood is relaxed and so we sit for a while and enjoy the moment with them.

We get back to La Cascona in time to change and hit the town. Carolina and Consuela are taking the group clubbing Chilean style. Julie and I are out to dinner with Antonia, Jose, Allie, who's been working as a translator at the Pudahuel sename and her boyfriend, with plans to join them later.

It's great to have a chance to reflect informally on the week. Both Antonia and Jose are very pleased with the work, and already we're talking about how we can improve the experience for next year. We talk, drink and eat far to much to make dancing sensible, but promises are promises and so we set off into the night to find the students. Allie locates half the group in a small 'picada' not far from Quinta Normal, where traditional Cueca is being played by a gang of poncho wearing huasos.

'This area was very badly hit during the dictatorship,' says Antonia as we drive through the deserted streets, 'even now this quiet is how I imagine Santiago was during those years.'

The bar itself is a little beacon of light in still of the night, a hang out for actors, artists and students. Allie orders a couple of jugs of borgona (chilled red wine and strawberries) whilst Antonia goes through the basics of the dance.

'You have to be the rooster,' she explains ' and use your handkerchief to lure your hen. Watch carefully and you'll pick it up.'

I delay getting up for as long as possible and enjoy watching, but the men are hopelessly outnumbered on the floor and it becomes clear that I'm not going to get out before I've at least had one go.

One older man in particular seems especially dignified. He walks side by side with his partner and then when the music starts begins to twirl his handkerchief joyfully above his head, occasionally running it seductively across the back of his neck or over his shoulder. At certain moments he becomes slightly more assertive and proudly stamps his feet to ensure he can't be ignored! Meanwhile his partner responds slightly defensively, twirling and flirting gently with the handkerchief, but refusing to enter into the same extravagant show. The only contact is with the eyes, until the final moment when partners link arms and thank each other for the pleasure.

Finally it can be avoided no longer. I try my hardest, but it's much subtler than it looks and I'm grateful for our host's politeness when the music stops.

'Well!' says Julie as I return to the table 'you can certainly dance like a cock!'