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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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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

entry arrow2:29 PM | Cultural Roundup Before the Summer Hits

[revised considerably]

For a while there, when people talked about the “cultural scene” in Oriental Negros, it was mostly about one beauty pageant or another, with every town and every school bending over to crown all sorts of queens and kings. Indeed, a sad thing to note for a city that has produced two National Artists. There were bright spots, like the International Rondalla Festival and the Philippine Madrigal Singers visit, but for the most part, there was nothing much to crow about.

And so, when we said—back in the summer of 2007—that we were going to lead a “cultural renaissance” of sorts in Dumaguete City, we didn’t expect there would be an explosion of a response from the community. The response was in some ways quite competitive, but in many ways it was ultimately good for the cultural health of the city.

Just think of the many, many things that captured our imagination and our cultural aspirations in the months since May last year: that cultural season (defined, for the most part, by the schoolyear, since Dumaguete is a University Town) had been a kaleidoscope of exhibitions and performances, both popular and traditional, that tried to engage all of the arts—and perhaps we can now rightfully reclaim for Dumaguete its mantle of being the true cultural center of the South.

In Silliman, we had a plan. And a challenge. It all started from that. The plan—hatched under the leadership of Susan Vista-Suarez who took the reins of Silliman University’s Cultural Affairs Committee after being “absent” from the scene for a number of years—was audacious in its ambitions: we were going to reshape what it meant to bring culture to the community; we were upping the ante for the caliber of performance and exhibition that we were planning to showcase; we were going to professionalize the process; and we were going to make the endeavor truly collaborative, involving not just people from the university but also the community at large. I’ve always been an instant devotee for people with vision and a fearlessness that flouted confining convention, and so when the invitation came to join the effort, I gladly did so.

What we had to begin with was Dr. Ben Malayang III’s challenge when he became university president: to take the cultural status quo and make it matter. And so Ms. Vista-Suarez quickly gathered together a tight group of people that would constitute the working committee that would shape the new mandate.

And “work” we all definitely did: in the end, it was a year-long affair that taxed both our physical and imaginative exertions, but all for a cause that excited all of us. To be “excited” was de rigeur for all of us in the committee. One had to be willing to work, and one had to be passionate about matters of cultural efforts to understand why we were doing all of these pro bono. That had to be the case. Because how many times did many of us complain about the lack of an organic cultural climate in the city? I remember one fellow teacher from Silliman’s English Department who once told me: “There’s really nothing in Dumaguete to look forward to anymore.” Sure, shows of all sorts abounded, but there was none, she said, that caught the imagination. And sometimes, when something did, most people would miss it, hearing only of it much later, and then would complain: “How come we never heard that such and such were coming?” Dumaguete, for a place this small, can be a very difficult place to market culture in.

In many ways, that cultural powwow in the summer of 2007 was a chance to do something concrete, to actually find solutions for the complaints we nursed like a bad cold. This struck me as the truth of the matter: it is always easier to complain and suggest (and most of us know people who are capable of words and hot air, and nothing more); it is, however, harder to act and do something. With Ms. Vista-Suarez, we learned exactly what that meant.

We found ourselves virtually starting from scratch. We had to form the basic mechanics for everything, from a more effective marketing strategy to ingenious ticket-selling schemes that took care of our complicated sets of target audiences; from proper archiving to balanced programming; from audience development to technical considerations; from accommodations to finance (working on an annual budget that gave new face to challenge). Programming—the selection of shows for the season that balanced all the arts—was especially difficult. The committee, for the longest time since its inception in 1963, had always relied on a come-what-may process that had relative success, but which never really paved the way for an organic season. The old system involved approving and staging shows as proposals came in. In many ways, a cultural season—which called for ten shows every schoolyear—remained largely unformed and shifting. It somehow worked, but the process prevented a proper marketing scheme for a given season. When anybody, including would-be sponsors, would ask: “What’s in store for the season?,” the answer was always, “Well, we have two shows planned so far…” Ms. Vista-Suarez said we had to professionalize that, which meant putting into place a working and definite cultural calendar for the entire season. Ten shows planned from the beginning, with all requisite preparations mapped out for the entire year. It was a heady charge.

In the end, the cultural year in Silliman included these: the Second Open Dumaguete Biennial Terra Cotta Festival, folk singer Grace Nono, pianists Ingrid Santamaria and Reynaldo Reyes, guitarist Michael Dadap, violinist Jay Cayuca, tenor Ramon Ma. Acoymo, the Manila Symphony Orchestra (with pianist Cristine Coyiuto and conductor Helen Quach), the New Voice Company’s The Good Body (with Monique Wilson), Tanghalang Pilipino’s double-bill of Gee-gee at Waterina and Welcome to IntelStar, the Powerdance (with Douglas Nierras), Actor’s Actors’ Love Letters (with Pinky Amador and Bart Guingona), and the U.P. Guitar Orchestra; art exhibitions by Aloha Laviña, Samuel Molina, Bong Callao, Razceljan Salvarita, Mark Valenzuela, Amihan Jumalon, Donnie Luis Calseña, Uno, Jana Jumalon-Alano, Hemrod Duran, and Is Jumalon; talks by Johanna Poethig, Chris Brown, Jutze Pamate, Kitty Taniguchi, John Stevenson, and Myrna Peña-Reyes under the new Albert Faurot Lecture Series for Culture and the Arts; and a spirited OPM concert by many of Silliman’s singing and dancing talents, including the Kahayag Dance Troupe. There was also an assortment of events, cultural and otherwise: ABS-CBN staged its national journalism summit in the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium, and there was also a sneak preview of Jade Castro’s endearing film Endo, which StarCinema brought in even before its regular nationwide theater run. In February, Mariyah Gallery celebrated the Arts Month with an exhibit featuring the works of Napoleon Abueva, Nelfa Querubin, Meri Anecin Pejoska, Entang Wiharso, Sid Gomez Hildawa, Raul Isidro, Peter Bevan, Charlie Co, Dennis Ascalon, Kitty Taniguchi, Estrella “Tala” Contreras, Karl Aguila, Maria Taniguchi, Ambie Abaño, Andita Purnama, Sari Adita, and Danni Sollesta. At the tail end of the season, Tokyo University sent in a corps of dancers from Japan, together with the Ramon Obusan Dance Company. Theater student Christie Angel Balansag also directed two plays, Sino Ba Sila?, a farce by Juan Cruz Balmaseda, and The Incredible Jungle Journey of Fenda Maria, a children’s play by Jack Stokes.

In the middle of all these, the rest of Dumaguete took note, and helped fill in the rest of the cultural slate. Foundation University, through the efforts of its alumni association, brought in De La Salle University’s acclaimed singing group Kundirana, and later brought in popular singer Nina. Other local groups brought in more mainstream fare with concerts by Sarah Geronimo, Sitti, and David Pomeranz.

The rush of cultural shows seem appropriate given that the structure iconic of local culture—the three-decades-old Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium—will soon be closing for a few months for much-needed repair and finishing refinement, courtesy of the Henry Luce Foundation. Among other things, the crumbling seats will be upgraded to international standards, the sound system will be enhanced, and the orchestra pit, unused since the Luce opened its doors in 1976, will finally be finished. Until July, its doors will be closed.

Which makes the March 1 concert by the University of the Philippines Guitar Orchestra a minor travesty of utter forgettableness.

This was, after all, the last show for the cultural season. It was a promise that did not hold. The concert they gave—titled “Bach to Gershwin”—proved perhaps that you can never really call a bunch of guitars banded together an “orchestra.” Because an orchestra, I know now, should mean a gathering together of varying sounds, all of which are stirred into a kind of organic, musical magic. What we had instead was a cacophony … of one sound. For example, Gershwin’s usually stirring “An American in Paris,” one of my eternal favorites, sounded mysteriously flat, its playful familiar cadence undistinguishable from one note to the next. This was a strange thing to observe since, when one has to nitpick through the performance, all the musicians played very well, with a virtuoso display admirable in a group so young, but the entire show was an inexplicable stretch into boredom. It was a sad mystery that night.

A few days later, the Sidlakang Negros Foundation presented the last play in the Luce for the season. Pinocchio, a children’s musical by Jim Eiler and Jeane Bargy from the book by Carlo Collodi, had a two-day rerun of sorts, after it played to appreciative local audiences two years ago. Still directed by Joanie Dy-Sycip and Rene M. Oliva Jr., with musical direction by Gina Raakin and choreography by Clarissa Reboton and Wilholm Ho (and set to colorful imagination by a lavish stage design by Jun Marcial Romano and Reuben Rubio), the play starred Crystal Esmero as Pinocchio (who was wonderful), Dominador de los Santos as Geppetto, Ted Atencio as Antonio the Storyteller, Elaine Maravilla-Tonogbanua as Angelina, Karma Dell Villarin as the Blue Fairy, Romar Natividad as The Coachman, Anthony Gerard Odtohan as Candlewick, Wilholm Ho as Gino, Jed Lozada as Senore Gato, and Rosbert Salvoro as Senore Volpone. I enjoyed the musicale immensely, if only because it was charming, and featured a very winning, talented cast. At the very least, with Pinocchio, the cast sang exceptionally well, displaying an acting gusto that seemed unbounded. This was community theater at its admirable best.

Finally, this March 14, the Dumaguete cultural season ends with Eve Ensler’s A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer—the newest VDay presentation after several years that have seen various incarnations of The Vagina Monologues, Usaping Puki, and The Good Body. What can I say, Dumaguete may be the most “vagina-friendly” city in the Philippines (read: a city of empowered women). We’ve been doing VDay for more than half a decade now, more than any other place in the country save for Manila. This year, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of VDay with a new play adapted from the book by Eve Ensler, as directed by Dessa Quesada-Palm. The show features pieces written by such luminaries as Dave Eggers, Susan Miller, Edward Albee, Edwidge Danticat, Michael Cunningham, and Maya Angelou, on an assortment of topics ranging from sexual abuse to Darfur to the rights of women and children, all essayed by community stalwarts Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio, Suzane Lu-Bascara, Glynda Descuatan, Michele Joan Valbuena, Sharon Dadang-Rafols, Nayna Malayang, Myrish Cadapan-Antonio, among many others.

Ms. Quesada-Palm writes of directing the play:

I agreed to read A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer before my final response [to the invitation to direct the show]. I feasted on Eve Ensler’s compilation of contributions from forty-nine remarkable writers. Each one exceptional, each one urgent. There were moments when I had to stop reading, the images too terrifying, the pain too real and gripping. And at the end, I knew these were stories that needed to be rendered visible, to be heard, to be transformed. I figured, I could use a bigger plate… A number of stories are from war-torn Africa. Some pieces can be emotionally exhausting, but imagine for a moment what the women and children who live these realities go through without much choice and respite. May this exhaustion turn to a yearning to turn things around, to end the complicity of silence, to dare and say stop to all forms of abuse…

And that may well define the kind of culture we’ve been trying to bring to Dumaguete in the past season: culture that ultimately edifies, and culture that—while also entertaining us—also tries to take measure of ourselves as human beings who are part of a larger world.

Still, the irony may be that it is not easy promoting art and culture in our University Town. True, there are many pockets of enthusiasm in places, but when push comes to shove, sometimes the need for cultural knowledge takes on an invisibility veil for many. One local elementary school administrator, asked why he doesn’t push for cultural education for his students, was reported to have said: “Makuha ra na nila sa cable TV,” which paints the distorted perspectives of people who should know better.

What that sad sack doesn’t know, for example, is that, according to a recent study conducted by the American for Art organization, young people who have been exposed to arts regularly are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, three times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair, three times more likely to win an award for school attendance, and four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem. Other studies have shown that being active in art has a measurable impact on youth at risk in deterring delinquent behavior and truancy problems. The arts involvement also increases overall academic performance among those youth engaged in after-school and summer arts programs targeted toward delinquency prevention.

That you can’t get from cable TV.

You can get tickets for the March 14 show of A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer at Sted's and the Department of Psychology in Silliman University. It will be staged at the new Negros Oriental Convention Center. Why not the Luce Auditorium where VDay had been traditionally held in? Simple: this weekend, the Luce closes its doors. Until July.

And starting that month, the next cultural season will feature Actor's Actors' Art, Repertory Philippines' Tuesdays With Morrie, Cinemalaya, Ballet Philippines' Pinocchio (not to be confused with the musical), the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and others. Till then...

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