Ballet Philippines Features the Filipino in Sarong Banggi

Everything was beautiful at the ballet, even infidelity.

Ballet Philippines’ Sarong Banggi celebrates the music of Maestro Ryan Cayabyab. The prolific music-maker again proved his genius through the re-working of fifteen Filipino folksongs. A project of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Cayabyab together with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra endeavored to produce this collection of well-loved tunes. Familiar melodies of yore were given updated nuances of Filipino lightness and harmonic texture. The songs retained their charm and regional flavor and provided hinges on which librettist Dennis Marasigan anchored his vignettes on.

The ballet’s narrative is too contrived and rushed and while the normative prescriptive stance on Philippine life and culture may not necessarily be proactive and progressive, credit must be given to the creators of this ballet for having been able to come up with one coherent plot based on fifteen songs that have their own individual narratives and cultural contexts. The ballet followed the love story of Pilar and Jose and how their lives, and their family, were changed by sarong banggi, one night. Marasigan’s libretto told of the travails of sustaining and protecting the family and how family wins at whatever cost.

Earl John Arisola and Monica Gana as Jose and Pilar in a touching pas de deux choreographed by Carissa Adea. Photo by Erickson de la Cruz.

Monica Gana as the young Pilar was delightfully coy. Her innocence and spirit showed through every gesture perfectly complemented by Earl John Arisola’s Jose that is brimming with youthful energy and boyish charm. The older Pilar and Jose were played by more seasoned dancers of Ballet Philippines, Rita Winder and Jean Marc Cordero. Winder and Cordero’s performances reflected the maturity necessary for their roles. Rita Winder, as the lead matriarch, was commanding both in presence and dance technique. She proved to be one of the stronger dancers of the BP ensemble and had amazing control and clarity of movement and theatrical portrayal. Other noteworthy performances were delivered by BP dancers Jemima Reyes, Janine Myrtle Arisola, and Garry Corpuz. Sarah Anne Alejandro who played the mistress can afford to be more coquettish.

Sarong Banggi is to be lauded for brilliant choreographies. Six dance-artists collaborated to come up with interesting dance pieces that carried the characters from scene to scene. Each piece has its own strength but the production can benefit from seamless transitions, consistency, and better organization. Artistic director Paul Morales’ gift is in telling stories with sharpness and coherence. His piece allowed the audience to distinguish the present from the past while Nonoy Froilan’s strength is the ability to illustrate and evoke emotions with the body. Hong Kong-based Carlo Pacis worked wonders for the corps de ballet for the beginning and the closing acts of the ballet. He kept with the fiesta theme for both dances and was successful in livening up the stage with innovative movement design accentuated with handheld props. The last dance with white kites was a feast for the eyes. Movement and materials were carefully curated to fill the space without compromising the Filipino sense of ginhawa or ease.

12094841_10153691088164284_4687239066442819237_oRita Winder (center) as the steadfast matriarch Pilar. Photo by Erickson de la Cruz.

The tersipchorean veterans shared the opportunity of art production with the younger generation. Ballet Philippines must be proud for having honed dancers into fine choreographers in Carissa Adea, Ronelson Yadao, and Cyril Fallar. Adea’s pas de deuxs were interesting because of the recurring movement motifs that strung the various love stories of the narrative together. Yadao, on the other hand, brought in much texture into the ballet with well-researched explorations. Especially fascinating was the incorporation of mimetic movements of mating birds inspired by regional dances from the Cordillera for the first meeting of Jose and Pilar. Fallar’s pieces were refreshing for their whimsical qualities. Providing younger artists with possibilities of this magnitude is a way of empowering them and supporting their craft. It also gives homage to the tradition that has allowed them to develop into the artists that they are and will become. Congratulations, Ballet Philippines and CCP Dance School!

The costumes and sets were effective, too, in rendering visual and contextual support to the production. Rajo Laurel’s dresses brought color and added dimensions to Ohm David’s imaginatively spartan set design. The color-blocked costumes with uneven hemlines, reminiscent of the local delicacy sapin-sapin, gave so much life to the stage. His decision to use color as time reference helped the audience follow the plot. Black and white costumes were used to depict memories in the same manner as sepia photographs while the colorful dresses stood for the present. The power of simplicity was also emphasized by David’s sketches of Filipino culture with blown up doodles of fiesta buntings, bamboo depictions of vintas and spatial boundaries, and exaggerated outlines of built heritage.

Everything has to beautiful at the ballet—this and the need for happy endings that very much agrees with our Filipino sensibilities may have limited the Sarong Banggi. However, the most recent Ballet Philippines production is valuable for stirring renewed interest in Filipino culture and celebrating their homegrown talents. It is a good starting point for further exploration of the new musical material that is Cayabyab’s Serenata. It opens the material for other possible interpretations and imaginings. Hopefully, it will encourage artists to be more mindful of the cultural values they are promoting and the kind of knowledge that is being produced and reproduced by their art.

Toi, toi, toi for the rest of the season, Ballet Philippines!