Listening to the spectrum: Cali Dance Biennial as a laboratory for the body

Pro Helvetia South America, Performing Arts
Juxtaposed images of dance works in a yellow layer
Image created by Oscar Muñoz for the 6th edition of the Cali International Dance Biennial based on archive photographs of the festival

Juan Pablo López, the event’s artistic director, talks about the Colombian biennial, which presented a Swiss focus in its 6th edition

In 2022, when Juan Pablo López joined the South American delegation for the Swiss Dance Days programme, the artistic director of Cali’s Dance Biennial was in search of a diversity of artists who, in their own way, could be relevant to the Colombian context. “I wasn’t only interested in having performances, but also in a dialogue between the artists and the community,” he says.

Following this journey, carried out in partnership with Pro Helvetia, the 6th edition of Cali International Dance Biennial brought together four shows and one exhibition of artists from the contemporary Swiss dance scene – before and after the festival, some works toured other Colombian cities as well as different South American countries. They are representatives of a new generation living and creating in Switzerland, with diverse interests, from multidisciplinary latitudes and connected by contemporary aesthetic visions, movement and the exploration of other corporealities, musics and architectures.

Group of dancers on dark pants and tops
“Flow”, by Cie Linga, in the 6th edition of the Cali International Dance Biennial. Photo by Edward Lora

Dancer and choreographer Ruth Childs presented her solo “Fantasia”, where she explores her physical and emotional memories through musicality. Beaver Dam Company brought Edouard Hue’s choreography “Yumé”, a work for children inspired by Japanese tales and animated films. On an open space, Antipode Danse Tanz company performed “A Journey of Moving Grounds”, a collaboration between choreographer Nicole Morel and architect and set designer Lea Hobson. Linga company showed “Flow”, formed by a series of animal group movements. And visual artist Céline Burnand debuted her video installation “Figuras de la Memoria”, a collaboration with Afro-Colombian dancer Andrea Bonilla and Egyptian dancers Amina Abouelghar, Eman Hussein, and Samar Ezzat.

“Little by little, an identity was developed, as well as a focus with new names, female voices, the children’s subject, the contamination with other disciplines,” recounts Juan Pablo in a conversation granted during the event, in November 2023. “The biennial is like a laboratory for the body, and in reality it is not a contemporary dance biennial, rather a biennial that brings a contemporary vision about dance.”

Portrait of Juan Pablo López, smiling and leaning on the battlement
Juan Pablo López, Cali’s Dance Biennial artistic director

In 2022, you were part of the South American delegation at Swiss Dance Days. How was the experience and how did the trip contribute to the Swiss focus at Cali?

We have been connected to Pro Helvetia almost since the beginning of the Biennale. And there was a great curiosity about what is happening in Switzerland in terms of dance, beyond what is widely known, like the Ballet de Genève. We wanted to discover a new generation. I had gone to Switzerland in 2017, and two years later we presented Kaori Ito with “Je Danse Parce que Je me Méfie des Mots” (I Dance Because I Do Not Trust Words). And we were always eager to bring more Swiss works. Then came the trip to Swiss Dance Days, and I had the opportunity to go to Lausanne, Zurich, to understand what happens in the different spaces and all the potential that Switzerland has in dance. And I started to pick some names, what was relevant for our context, because I wasn’t only interested in having performances, but also in thinking about residencies, workshops, a dialogue between the artists and the community.

After seeing Ruth Childs and “Fantasia”, I talked to Édouard Hue about “Yumé”, because we had never had a work for kids. Then with Linga [“Flow”] and about Céline Burnand’s exhibition, which was also important, because she was coming to Cali and we wanted to do something within the framework of the focus. I didn’t see Nicole Morel at Swiss Dance Days, but afterwards Pro Helvetia recommended her work to me, and I loved it because one of the themes we have at the Licorera dance centre is precisely about architectures of the body. In that sense we found Nicole and Lea Hobson’s project [“A Journey on Moving Grounds”] very interesting. So, little by little, an identity was developed, as well as a focus with new names, female voices, the children’s subject, the contamination with other disciplines.

Dancer on profile with arms open, legs slightly bent, over blue curtain
“Yumé”, by Beaver Dam Company, performed during the festival. Photo by Edward Lora

You mention this diversity, and it seems that the Biennial is also very diverse, with the contemporary and the folkloric. In general, how do you envisage a foreign programme that engages with the local reality?

The Biennial was created by merging two festivals in Cali (Festival de Arte de Cali and Festival de Danza Contemporánea Caliendanza) and had its first edition in 2013. At the beginning we wanted a contemporary dance biennial, but in reality, that would have been a mistake, because Colombia is not a country of contemporary dance, rather of folklore. However it wasn’t our aim to make a folklore event either. So we thought, what can we do to bring audiences together? Because Cali is a city with salsa, ballet and is almost divided between popular and classical. But not contemporary. At the time the Biennial was created, it didn’t have so much space in the city. Then we decided to put together an event in which the transversal axis is the body, but with a curatorial committee looking for that quality of work.

This is how we shaped a process with four main pillars: Afro-contemporaneity (because Cali is the second largest city, after Salvador, with a majority Afro-descendant population); the ritual theme; tradition and contemporaneity; and the dialogue between dance and other disciplines. So, it is like a laboratory for the body, and in reality it is not a contemporary dance biennial, rather a biennial that brings a contemporary vision about dance.

Video installation “Figuras de la Memoria”, by Céline Burnand

You also mentioned this focus on an educational programme. How is the dialogue with artists to think about other activities, such as workshops?

We always have three or four artists that we connect from one biennial to the next. In other words, we try to bring them before the event so that they can work with the community, then they spend between five and ten days here, in workshops, resulting in a final work or not. The purpose is not to have a piece, but a dialogue beforehand. Listening to the spectrum is a subject that motivates and moves us from a philosophical point of view; this other dimension where the other becomes part of the conception itself, of the choreographies and the different layers we each have. This has been a general interest of the curatorial committee for this edition and that’s why the Biennial’ visual identity is a spectral image, something that is a bit like what is happening with dance in Colombia.

Was that image taken from the biennial’s archives?

Yes, it’s an image that [Colombian visual artist] Oscar Muñoz made from the archives of 4,000 photos taken at the Biennial. And that image was created as a tribute to the body, dance, and memory. Besides, this year we were dealing with the issue of what is invisible. Many of the processes that we present are invisible for this country’s public and cultural policies.

Juxtaposed images of dance works in a purple layer
Image created by Oscar Muñoz for the Biennial

In this respect, we always talk about cultural differences and the imbalance of resources between different regions. How do you see the space for exchange in an international festival?

At the Biennial, we are enemies of imposition. Whenever we work with embassies, with international institutions, we always approach them based on what we want for our community. We don’t want them to tell us: this is what you want. In the case of Switzerland, the process has been very respectful, a process of going, seeing, choosing, building together. And in that sense also regarding the relationship with the community. It is not a mainstream biennial. We have already brought big companies, but we don’t feel this is an obligation. The Biennial’s slogan is “Other worlds, other dances”. It’s about opening up to other dimensions.

How do you plan international tours nowadays and what do you think about slow touring? How do you see this in South America and what is the Biennial’s relationship with other spaces and events?

From the start of the Biennial we considered that we could share the entire programme with other cities. There is always an ego, an issue of saving the programme, but in Colombia that is impossible. You can’t work that way, resources are scarce and there is a lot of ecological impact in travelling. So we make the most of touring, we stablish a minimum number of performances. We have an excellent relationship in Colombia, with venues, some with more budget, others not so much. Together we work to compare dates, define the programming. And clearly collaborating with other theatres is vital for the circulation of foreign companies.

Dancer Ruth Childs wearing white shirt and wig, sitting down on stage with hands holding her cheeks
“Fantasia”, by Ruth Childs, in Cali. Photo by Edward Lora

How is the Biennial currently funded?

Out of the total, 30% comes from the public sector: Cali’s Secretariat of Culture, the Valle del Cauca Government, and the Ministry of Culture. The other 70% is from the private sector, and of that, there is about 10% from international funding, such as Pro Helvetia. In total, the Biennial costs around COP 7 billion [CHF 1.66 million].

Based on these years’ experience, how do you plan to approach the next international focuses?

We have already had focuses like France and China, for example. This Swiss focus has worked out very well for us. The next one, in 2025, will be Catalonia. We are already well advanced. The idea is to present the programme in October 2024.

Group of dancers over with blocks dancing on an open area in a city
“A Journey of Moving Grounds” presented at the Tertulia Museum in Cali


Juan Pablo López Otero is a journalist with a master’s degree in Cultural Development and International Project Management from the University of Lyon in France. He began his professional career as an advisor to the Cultural Direction of Cali, later he worked as Cultural Director of the French Alliance of Cali for 10 years and recently worked as an advisor to the Office of the Minister of Culture between 2011 and 2018. Since 2012 he is the Artistic Director of the Cali International Dance Biennial, and since 2020 he is also advisor of programming in the new Danse and Choregraphic Center “La Licorera” in Cali.