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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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Friday, February 23, 2007

entry arrow3:41 AM | An Awakening in Dumaguete

"You live in paradise."
--Yuval Avital of Three Plucked Strings, greeting a Luce Auditorium audience

There's something to be said about the sudden explosion of things cultural in Dumaguete City over the past few days. That it is a welcome development is an understatement that nevertheless quiets down some of our trepidations over Oriental Negros going down uncultured muck. It also springs from earnest hopes that the city can recapture the mantle of being the Cultural Center of the South -- a title which we seemed to be at the brink of losing to neighboring Cebu.

In the past five years, Cebu -- beyond the annual Sinulog orgy -- has been more than methodical in building up a grand cultural climate. Already, an international film school and studio has set up shop in Mandaue, and the city's arts council -- something largely non-existent in Dumaguete -- has been inviting top acts to perform in the metropolis, including plays like Doubt starring Cherie Gil in a cerebral performance that would have been more than right for our own University Town. Instead, for the longest time, Dumaguete culture was mostly choral concerts, tired Broadway musicals, or parades with artistas.

But there has always been a culture of the artistic kind in Dumaguete, which is home to not just one but two National Artists: Edith Lopez Tiempo for literature, and Eddie Romero for film. Not even Bacolod, for all its airs, can claim that distinction. In the early days of Silliman University at the turn of the last century, band music was considered a necessity for the local community, leading to the now-100 year old Silliman Orchestra Band. Shakespearean plays were regular (and much-attended) fare in the old amphitheater, and an impressive string of internationally-renowned virtuosos and performers -- imagine the Ballet Classique of France dancing up a storm in the rickety old gymnasium -- have paraded through our streets and enriched our small town lives. When the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium, a gift of Time magazine founder Henry Luce III, was finished in 1975, it ushered in a gold rush for culture in Dumaguete, prompting even Mr. Luce to pointedly announce in the New York Times in 2000 that it was "the best performance space in the Philippines outside of Manila."

True enough, the Luce stage -- and Dumaguete's enviable cultural climate (with taskmasters such as art critic and connoisseur Albert Faurot, writers Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, ethnomusicologist Priscilla Magdamo Abraham, and dancer Luz Jumawan seeding long-lasting traditions) -- has prodded the rise to prominence of local artists, such as Junix Inocian who would eventually become The Engineer in Miss Saigon, Portal Players founder Amiel Leonardia who would become a prominent name in Philippine theater, Gilopez Kabayao who would become one of the Philippines' finest violinists, and Paul Pfeiffer who would become the toast of international contemporary art, the inaugural recipient of the Bucksbaum Award given by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

And these are only a few names.

The Luce stage, too, has seen the likes of Cecile Licad, the Bolipata Trio, Ballet Manila, Repertory Philippines, Bayanihan, Ballet Philippines, and Dulaang U.P., among many others, perform for an increasingly discriminating Dumaguete audience whose cultural education may be one of the best in the country.

Think about this: at the subsidized rates of Silliman's Cultural Affairs Committee, a typical P500 to P800 ticket price for a show by a major performing company in, say the Cultural Center of the Philippines, can be had for as less as P200 or P150 in the Luce -- and nobody even need buy a plane ticket for Manila. Not a lot of people in Dumaguete realize how fortunate we are culturally -- we get most things for almost a steal.

But then, for the past five years -- save for occasional gems such as the anime parade of Nihon Eiga Sai in 2001 and a controversial staging of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues by the New Voice Company in 2003 -- there was really nothing much to crow about. Was it an expected downturn from the cultural fiesta that was the Silliman Centennial in 2001, to be immediately followed by the terrorized malaise of September 11? Perhaps. But culture in Dumaguete since then had arguably declined, and the audiences with it. Nobody in Dumaguete seemed to care about culture anymore.

And yet, here we are. For the moment, the arts -- from music, dance, painting, film, literature -- seem to have found haven for all the Muses in a singular place: wake up in Dumaguete these days, and always there is something to keep anyone’s calendar filled up. Sometimes there are hard choices to make for the knowing culturati: must one miss out on a film showing and a panel discussion of Sarong Banggi with director Emmanuel de la Cruz over a rondalla concert featuring Russian musician laureates? Remarked one friend, "It's a circus. And I like it."

It may have started last September when Foundation University unleashed the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra as its initial offering for the cultural season at Sofia Soler Hall; continuing on to an increasingly worthwhile Buglasan Festival; and straight on to the tribute for National Artist Edith Tiempo early this month. These days, the Second International Rondalla Festival -- held for the most part at the newly-built Convention Center -- seems to occupy most of our attention with its slate of string music appreciation spilling over into concerts, lectures, and outreaches.

Last Thursday, four international acts -- the Silay Kabataang Ensemble, Silliman University's Kwerdas, Russia's Quartette Phoenix, and Israel's Three Plucked Strings -- gave a varied sampling of rondalla music to a packed Luce Auditorium. (When was the last time this happened for a cultural show in Dumaguete?) It was, to be sure, a resounding success. The concert, billed as One: Cuerdas sa Panaghiusa, found an audience grateful for the string renditions by the Negrense troupes of traditional melodies (and some delightful non-traditional ones as well, including a rondalla version of Koji Kondo's "Super Mario Brothers" computer-game soundtrack, arranged by a young Dumagueteño composer Algernon Van Peel).

But it was mostly an evening for discovering world music and finding there is much to appreciate both cerebrally and emotionally. Three Plucked Strings' conceptual music energy rang close to the affecting and disturbing (in turns), from the more traditional "Jewish Klezmer Suite" by Zeev Bitkin, to the playful "CODA" by Vyacheslav Ganelin, to the strangely hypnotic "Dark City Alleys" which the Israeli trio -- Avi Avital on the mandolin, Yuval Avital on the guitar, and Yizhar Karshon on the harpsichord -- played with Kwerdas as a soundtrack of sorts to a projected 10-minute film of a walk-through in the dark byways of an Israeli city.

And then there was the comic folksiness of the Russian Quartette Phoenix. Their rendition of the traditional American melody "El Cumbanchero" (done in bluegrass style), and Vasily Parhomenko's "Block-Fox" readily fleshed out the bright folksiness of the pieces, but made them resonate more with the skillfully appropriated humor of their act. At the end of their repertoire, the Russian musicians -- Inessa Gareeva on the domra, Anatoly Kazakov on the domra-viola, Radi Gareev on double-bass balalaika, and Alexander Ivanov on the accordion -- brought the entire auditorium to a standing ovation.

Beyond string music, there is also the independent filmmaking forum -- sponsored by Silliman's Cultural Affairs Committee and the College of Mass Communication -- with director Emmanuel dela Cruz and producer Raymond Lee, two cinematic voices responsible for two of the most acclaimed Filipino films in recent years: Sarong Banggi (directed by Dela Cruz), and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (directed by Aureus Solito). The latter -- the first Filipino film to be accepted at the Sundance Film Festival and the first to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the prestigious Independent Spirit Awards, which is the Oscars for independent films -- had its showing at a packed Luce Auditorium as well, a good turnaround from its disappointing regular run last year in the city, when its showing at the decrepit Ultra Vision Theater did not even attract the haphazardly curious.

In the coming weeks, there will be more. The University of the Philippines Dance Company will perform with Silliman's Kahayag Dance Troupe in a dance concert titled Sayaw Pagtagbo on February 26. The international VDay movement, in time for Women's Month, grows even stronger this year with poetic performances for VPoetry on February 28, and the coming of New Voice Company's play of Eve Ensler's The Good Body some time in March. The Philippine Madrigal Singers is coming on March 7 for its national outreach tour of Tara Na! MADZitawanan Na! The Silliman University Campus Choristers will perform its musical history in Passion slated on March 24. The Second Terracotta Biennial and Arts Festival will unfold sometime in the summer. And then the writers will come in May. And in the coming cultural season, perhaps we will have Tanghalang Pilipino. Perhaps even French Spring in Dumaguete. Perhaps more.

A cultural avalanche in Dumaguete? That would seem to be the case. Nobody's complaining.

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