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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Entering the theater

We stood in front of the multicolored building that houses the Teatro Trono project. Instead of opening the front door to lead us inside, our friend Tin Tin (pictured above) opened a metal trap door in the street and beckoned us inside. We crawled inside, through a long mine shaft, and into the center of a large chamber underneath the theater. To understand the theater project, Tin Tin told us that we needed to understand the Andean Cosmovision embodied in the building. To say the least, we were surprised. We were in the middle of a city, crawling into a mine shaft on a journey to discover something hidden there.

“Welcome to Supaipacha,” Tin Tin said. We all blinked in the dim light. “This is the heart of Teatro Trono, the uterus of Pachamama from which we are all born. The spirits that live here are what protect us when there is no light in the world.” Standing in the mine, we got a sense of what was to come. These people in El Alto are children of the mines at Potosí, the driver of colonial oppression. We are to visit Potosí in two weeks, to walk in those mines.

Teatro Trono is a theater project in El Alto, the largest indigenous city in the Western Hemisphere. El Alto began as a satellite city of La Paz, which fills the valley below. Now, the population of El Alto is approaching double the size of La Paz. Dividing the twin cities are stark contrasts of wealth, construction, terrain, and even harshness of climate.

Tin Tin led us upwards, following the body of the building through levels representing the four levels of existence in the Andean Cosmovision of the Aymara people. We stood in a circle directly above the mine below. Standing there in the second level, Akapacha, we were in the center of a theater with no stage. Akapacha is the world that we walk on. “This is the space at Teatro Trono where we begin to decolonize our bodies. In order to understand the legacy of colonialism, we must begin to understand ourselves. In order to understand ourselves, we must understand our bodies. So, here we are. We don’t believe in placing people on stages to be worshipped. The theater here is communal: no stage, no director.” It’s black-box theater.

We kept climbing.

Manqhapacha is the space of the world we live in, the origin of what feeds and nourishes us. We stood in a circle in a dance studio whose walls were covered in mirrors. “This is the space where we bring our things to nourish each other. Like the aktapi, the potluck, we all bring what we have produced to place in this space and nourish each other. Manqhapacha is the representation of our shared creativity.”

And finally, we emerged into the airy world of Alaxpacha. The Cordillera Real and the glaciated mass of Huayna Potosí rose from the altiplano around us. El Alto sits at 4,150 meters (13,600 feet) of elevation with a spectacular view of the melting glaciers pouring off the 6,000-meter-tall peaks all around us. Here, at the top of the Teatro Trono building, you can feel the altitude and feel that you’re at the edge of the world, almost able to touch the stars. The breeze is cold, the sky so blue, and the hum of the city feels far, far below. This level is all about our connection with the sky, with the constellations, with the infinite above, with the idea that we are part of a much larger cosmos.

Pinned between the immensity of the sky and the Earth we stand on, the performances of our lives unfold.

Tin Tin reminded us today of the power of incorporating a worldview into life, of letting it permeate through to every part. “We’ve been moving up the body of the building and standing in circles on every level.”

“To the Occidental mind, life is a pyramid. Your brain, your mind exists as a driver for your body. The head is the pinnacle of power, while the ways of knowing through the body are dismissed. The same goes for art: European art which comes from the disembodied idea of art is praised, while grounded art that’s a part of life is dismissed as simple folk crafts or artisanal.

“The communal structure in the post-colonial world has a head and a body too, exalting the ego of the few, benefitting the few. We reject this model here. We reclaim the connection, the interwoven nature of life and art, of young and old, of the sky and the Earth, the audience and the performer. If you cannot have one without the other, both must be in concert, in a beautiful relationship. This is what this building stands for, what we stand for.”