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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

entry arrow4:29 AM | Beyond Tutus

That all ballets are silly is a common pedestrian perception, cultivated perhaps because we are increasingly a nation that would rather thrive on a mass culture of asinine telenovelas ... and largely nothing else. Oh, wait, maybe Pinoy Big Brother as well. These very well define the shallow bottoms of our cultural preferences.

Case in point: the reported legions that descended on a recent local film shoot (here in Dumaguete) involving Pinoy Big Brother housemate Sam Milby would easily dwarf the audiences that lined up to watch prima ballerina Lisa Macuja dance on the Luce Auditorium stage over the weekend. The lowbrow, of course, always wins.

Not that I am complaining. I have swayed and rocked without shame to the highly danceable "Pinoy Ako" theme, courtesy of Oranges and Lemons. I have declared Tina Paner's "Tamis ng Unang Halik" as my current favorite old song, and have downloaded -- through Limewire -- those classic Sharon Cuneta favorites, "Mr. DJ" and "High School Life." I once asked one of my graduate students to do a paper utilizing a Marxist criticism of Meteor Garden in its heyday. I read komiks like there's no tomorrow, and I regularly pronounce in my Philippine literature classes that the savior of Philippine publishing may very well be the Tagalog romance novels that are heaped on our newsstands everywhere. I can proudly lowbrow anybody without raising as much as an eyebrow -- but I also draw the line when an ignorant buffoon makes fun of highbrow tastes as well.

Call me a cultural schizophrenic then -- but in my mind, Jessa Zaragoza easily goes hand in hand with Montserrat Caballe, and The Simpsons take equal space with my devotion to Edward Hopper. I can defend to death the playful doublespeak of Lito Camo the way I can pompously claim Barber's Adagio for Strings as a masterpiece compared to the sentimental trifle of Pachelbel's Canon. The late Susan Sontag after all first showed us the way when she proclaimed she could better appreciate the music of Patti Smith because she had read Nietzsche. Pretentious? I'd rather say "culturally all-encompassing."

The week that came before last Friday -- the day Ballet Manila was scheduled to unveil its Carmen to Dumaguete audiences -- was spent defending my choice about going to see the ballet for this first weekend night. Some understandably could not watch it due to financial restrictions, given the poverty-stricken air we call the Philippines. The ballet, for most, was simply not a practical part of the budget -- an excuse I never myself give. But at P2,500 for the prime seats, this was one cultural show for those with deep pockets only (and although mine was shallow as usual, I am most fortunate to have the charity of older brothers). Some, however, chose not to watch, categorically giving the reason that all of ballet was, well, "sissy." What is up with all that jumping? the uninitiated always asks, those froufrou tutus, and those tight tights that barely conceal the endowments of masculine bulges?

Wrong focus. Some ballets are downright silly, of course, especially those dreamed up by that local dance studio whose recitals are dressed up as full-fledged dance shows with excruciating repertoire comparable to the screeching sound of nails being scratched on blackboards. If this is how Dumaguete has learned to see ballet over the years, we fervently need a passionate reawakening.

This is what exactly happens in Carmen and Other Ballets. Here, Ballet Manila -- brought to Dumaguete by the untiring efforts of the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee -- offers some of its prize repertoire: dances that have helped set the mark for the company that is now being touted internationally as "the ballet company of the new millennium."

Forget the minimalist set, or the horrifying threadbare dirtiness of the Luce's stage curtains (unwashed since the 1970s) that virtually mar the otherwise fine show. The dance is what should matter.

The two-part program is a virtual Ballet 101 for those who only know ballet as a dance composed basically of tutus, tights, and turns. George Bizet's Carmen, done up in the choreography of Eric V. Cruz, closes the program, and this is where we see Lisa Macuja taking the role of the famous seductress. We have seen her before on the Luce stage, much younger of course. Now, she embodies what may be called the premium of classic wine -- full of body, full of spirit; there is a worldliness, a graceful weariness to her that I have not seen before, but that may be due to the role. Carmen, after all, is the story of a girl who takes one man -- the bullfighter Escamillo -- to her heart, right after seducing another, the hapless Don Jose, whose broken heart and killing passions bring the ballet to its tragic end. I loved that death scene in the end. Even the spotlight gives ample drama: it singularly focuses on Don Jose's anguish, then extinguishes its light at the sight of his suddenly outstretched hand. This is theater we all know classical ballets are made of. It did not disappoint.

But while the second part of the program affirms our longtime perception of ballet as the classical dance form, the first part gives us a contemporary rhythm that subverts the commonplace opinion of what ballet can give us. True, the steps are what they have always been, since ballet is really a narrative dependent on certain choice movements that serve as a grammar for the grand emotional gestures and twists of plots: one always gets, of course, the arabesque, chasse, emboite, jete, passe, pas de chat, pirouette, plie, port de bras, releve, saute, tendu... but all transformed to give us something new.

In Arnis, for example, Ric Culalic's energetic, testosterone-amped choreography pays tribute the movements of the ancient Filipino martial art of wielding bamboo sticks. Set to the haunting percussion and earthy primal rhythms of Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, the dance -- of eleven men kerchiefed in red and prancing in both grace and threatening fight stances armed with bamboo sticks -- sets the tone for the evening, and readily tells us, "This is not the ballet of your grandmother." There is a muscular rawness to the dance that is both hypnotic, even sexy -- even when some of the young male dancers failed to come through with that element of danger that should have informed their very movements. Still, it was a wonderful shock to the system.

The masculine burst of the opening dance segues easily to Tony Fabella's Dalagang Pilipina, with music and arrangement by Jose G. Santos and Louie Ocampo. Here, as opposed to the previous number, the tone is decidedly female: it is after all based on a fashion show -- complete with the gowns of fashion guru Auggie Cordero -- with lithe ramp models traipsing in glamour and sophistication, essaying a tribute to the contemporary Filipina. It is a romp through beauty pageant territory, which gives the ballet a campy twist.

That fashionista vein is the direct antithesis of the next ballet in the program -- Arachnida, Agnes Locsin's difficult ballet that aims to recreate what the company describes as "the strength, mystery, and sensuality of two mating spiders." As danced by Sandra Lynn Huang and Jerome Espejo, this is ballet at perhaps its most inventive, with the music of Les Holcomb and Matthew Fargher giving it a creepy resonance that nevertheless remains alluringly sexual. Is there grace, after all, in the creature of eight legs? The answer is surprisingly in the positive -- although we do get a dance that is steeped in a kind of darkness, in a kind of gracefulness that is nuanced by arachnid jerkiness.

I was much less impressed with Agnes Locsin's Filipiniana take in Sayaw sa Pamlang, which puts together different rituals and dances from our ethnic heritage: the pangalay (a dance of hands), the sagayan (a dance to drive away evil spirits), the kzudaratan (a dance to show a manner of walking), and the kuntao (a dance of martial arts). Perhaps because it looked like an abortive singkil; perhaps because it seemed to intrude too much into Bayanihan territory, although this time essayed through the prism of ballet. But it was competent enough, that much I can say.

The four dances -- contemporized and Filipinized -- show us the rich possibilities of ballet that sadly escape the simpleminded prejudice of many. Which is sad because, given this ballet or the sight of Sam Milby any day, I'd rather look up straight into anyone's eyes and say: "Sam Milby? Sam Milby who?" But that's just me. Now let me get back to singing "Mr. DJ."


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich