Julio Monge: What travel has taught me


While performing in Tokyo I would have lunch in a small park near the theatre. There, I met a friendly Japanese World War II veteran who, figuring out I was from the US, spoke of his admiration for what America and its people stood for. He told me that wars don't make us, it's what we do about them and how we solve the conflicts that defines and evolves us. What´s important is that we try as much as we can not to forget so that we don't repeat the same mistakes. After several years of correspondence – he loved to write letters and I still have them – I stopped hearing from him. I hope he just lost my address and he's still around.


I visited Cuba in 1996 during what Cubans called the Special Period which meant a very rough economic time for them. I decided not to stay in a fancy Havana hotel which had strict access only to foreigners and made sure I connected to real folks. I stayed at makeshift hotels that families all around the island created at their homes to make extra money and it was simply life changing. They couldn't have been more hospitable and generous. I was deeply moved to see how they all made do with what they had and how proud they still were of their beloved island. These were not a defeated people. I saw no self pity but instead, hope and strength.


[New York has been my] home for the last 32 years but there was a first time for me and that first encounter was incredible. The energy of the city blew me away instantly. Not only the size and the buzz, but its diversity. Going into a subway car and seeing people from at least five different nations all sitting together, all around you, is the biggest lesson this city offers. Getting used to negotiating with and living among one another makes the city what it is. All these years later I still can't imagine living anywhere else.


In Recife, Brazil, I performed at the oldest theatre in the city as part of a festival and I have seen very few audiences with the kind of warmth and exuberance these folks brought to that house. I have performed, directed and choreographed shows across the world, but I never experienced an audience quite like that. It was the only time in my life that I felt like a rock star. It reminded me that our planet and the people in it can be truly stunning.

Julio Monge is a Puerto Rico-born, New York-based director and choreographer. He was a protegee of Jerome Robbins and is today one of the foremost interpreters of Robbins' original dance moves as well as one of the few entrusted by the West Side Story Estate to stage the musical across the globe. Monge is in Australia working on Opera Australia's West Side Story, which will be performed on Sydney Harbour from March 22 to April 21. See opera.org.au/harbour