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JESSICA ZAFRA | Master Pieces: Dancing to find ourselves

The curtain call for "Master Pieces."
The online news portal of TV5

When Master Pieces—a sort of greatest hits compilation of works by Ballet Philippines—began, I settled in my seat for two hours of dutiful art appreciation. “Dutiful” in this sense can mean

A. Good for you, the way leafy green and yellow vegetables are good for you.

B. The responsibility of every cultured citizen.

C. Showing support for Filipino artists, who are acclaimed in other countries but are unrecognized at home.

D. All of the above.

The first piece, Farandole, set to music by Georges Bizet, confirmed my expectations. It was a showcase of grace and technical prowess, impressive, but largely indistinguishable from a performance by a good ballet company anywhere in the world. Which is probably where the dancers will end up, given the limited opportunities for professional ballet dancers in the Philippines. (Well, maybe not in Britain, where the result of the Brexit referendum backs up my suspicion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Couldn’t the Queen do something, along the lines of, “We are taking back this country because you clearly don’t know what to do with it”? Excuse the digression.)

As far as I could tell the most Filipino thing about the opening piece, apart from the dancers’ nationality, was the set design: None. The dancers performed valiantly on a stage that announced the lack of a budget for set design. Granted, there was nothing to distract us from the beauty of human movement. The fact that Dance MNL the Philippine Dance Festival exists at all is the brave organizers’ declaration of faith in art over general indifference.

When the piece ended, I joined in the polite applause. “Polite applause” being

A. A tribute to the talent and discipline of the dancers.

B. A way of showing the other viewers that we are not philistines, or asleep.

C. “That’s nice, what else have you got?”

D. All of the above.

The next piece, Halik, choreographed by Paul Morales, was an excerpt from the ballet Crisostomo Ibarra. I did not know this at the time because I didn’t buy the programme. However, I could tell from the very expressive performers that it was an emotionally charged scene between two lovers saying goodbye. There was a sadness about the piece, a sense of wistfulness and regret. Maybe the evening was not going to be as dutiful as I thought.

It wasn’t. My sense of duty rapidly changed into relief that I was there to witness something that reached for greatness. Bungkos Suite featured dancers in traditional Filipino costume interpreting the folk songs Dahil Sa ‘Yo, Chitchiritchit, Dandansoy, Manang Biday, and Telebong. This suite was by turns sentimental, exhilarating and comical, and the choreography by Alice Reyes displayed the athleticism and elegance of the performers.

Bungkos embodied Pinoy jollity and friskiness—the way no undertaking can remain serious for long before it is interrupted by silly jokes and romantic declarations.

Then there was the two-man Duha in Alden Lugnasin’s propulsive neo-ethnic style. This one was unmistakable: you can see it anywhere in the world (it premiered in Jackson, Mississippi) and know it is Filipino. Scarcely had the audience recovered from the newness of Duha when it was treated to the beautiful collision of the classic and the contemporary in After Whom by Augustus Damian. That is the kind of dance I like to watch, something that busts out of its classical frame, threatening to spill out of the venerable CCP stage to revel in the chaos of the streets.

After the interval, a return to traditional exhibitions of technical virtuosity, which I think of as “See, we can do what the Russians do.” Which is not to disparage such showcases, because they are the foundations of ballet and Filipino dancers do excel at that. Still, I was happy when four male dancers in bright red ruffled skirts took the stage in Alden Lugnasin’s Lahat ng Araw. Wielding large red fans, they made a stunning visual. What was the piece about, the fluidity of gender? The balance of the masculine and the feminine, yin and yang? The color red? Whatever that was, please do more.

Another hero, another letter, another bittersweet farewell in Lakambini from Rock Supremo, the Andres Bonifacio musical. This time I knew what it was about because it was set to a song from Rock Supremo. The choreography is also by Paul Morales, the Artistic Director of Ballet Philippines, and like Halik it is suffused with feeling—love and despair giving way to hope.

The finale, Tony Fabella’s Tambol at Padyak, was a celebration of youthful exuberance with dozens of dancers tearing up the stage. Americans have their tap shoes, this crew had wooden bakya. Tambol at Padyak addresses the question, “What is Filipino?” Its answer: the pure joy of living, regardless of the circumstances. I propose that it be taught to P.E. classes all over the archipelago.

There is a scene in Joey Gosiengfiao’s Temptation Island that sums up the Filipino’s relationship with dance. I mention it here not to belittle Master Pieces, a serious cultural endeavor, but to show that it is spot-on in portraying the Pinoy sensibility. In the movie, one of beauty contestants shipwrecked on a desert island turns up the Giorgio Moroder disco music and declares, “Walang tubig. Walang pagkain. Magsayaw na lang tayo.” (No water. No food. Let’s just dance.) The reality may be dire, but that’s no reason to be gloomy.