an anthology of musings on music, culture, cosmology, spirituality, and other favorite things by Jeffrey B. Langlois
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Reinvention in Theatre

Sining Kabayoka’s Pilando

When I first saw the play “Halik sa Kampilan” by Sining Kambayoka in 1983, I was enthralled and inspired. I knew for sure that “Halik” was a landmark in Philippine Theatre History. And it was.

More than a decade later, I saw two other productions of Sining Kambayoka—”Pilandok” in 1994 and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1998. The power, novelty, and magic of what Sining Kambayoka was to me wore off. Apparently, the MSU-Marawi-based theatre group lost its lustre and remained where it was when I first experienced it.

This is however, probably not just the demise of one theatre troupe.

After Kaliwat Theatre Collective‘s 1992 “Siak sa Duha ka Damgo,” it became virtually difficult to match its dramaturgical novelty and impact. The only other play which equalled “Siak” in ingenuity and imagination was “GroundUp,” a collaboration between Kaliwat and Melbourne’s GongHouse. All other Kaliwat plays were potent when viewed separately, but altogether lacked the sense of newness, and a moving forward.

And Kaliwat Theatre Collective and Sining Kambayoka are two of the most powerful theatre groups in Mindanao.

For urban theatre groups who utilize indigenous artistic expressions like Kambayoka, Kaliwat, Kathara, Kabpapagariya, IPAG, Kahayag, and a host of other theatre groups all over Mindanao, the very idea of utilizing indigenous concepts and artistic expressions has become a trap, rather than a wellspring of inspiration for enhancing our artistic creations. More and more, we are simply duplicating our previous productions. As theatre groups, we have stopped reinventing ourselves.

Kaliwat Theatre collective’s collaboration with Gong House of Melbourne in “Ground Up”

It is surprising to realize that even indigenous peoples themselves continually reinvent their own culture. A prominent example of this is the Talaandig tribe of Lantapan, Bukidnon. The dugso dance teacher Bae Magila has actually added dance steps to the traditional steps that were taught by their ancestors. Even their drumming is no longer traditional. Going back further, the “ahongan” among Manobo tribes is actually a reinvention from the traditional “agongan.” Even traditional gong artists have composed their own contemporary musical motifs with the “ahongan.” The T’boli got their kulintang from neighbor Maguindanons. And still further, the gongs are actually brought by the Chinese to Mindanao through the galleon trades. In mythology, the Manobo-Tinananon have a tale about a colossal flood that wiped out the entire world much in the tradition of the Christian Bible’s Noah’s Ark. The Bagobo and Manobo goddess Mebuyan’s thousand breasts is told to be an interpretation by a visual artist way back, a concept that was soon assumed to be the original version. And who is to know how different the tales of Tuwalang and Bantugan were in the 15th century compared to today’s version?

the writer (leftmost) with traditional Cambodian court dancers (in costume) and Theatreworks during the Flying Circus Project 2000 in Singapore.

In another part of Asia, a very interesting example of reinventing culture is Cambodia. Cambodia’s arts and literature have been literally decimated by the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s. Artists were killed, tortured, manacled, turned into farm slaves, and starved to death. The surviving handful (90% died from the holocaust) began to rebuild their lost tradition from memory. But because many of these traditional expressions have forever been annihilated, the surviving teachers and the new ones reinvented the classical Cambodian dance that you see today.

The context within which Mindanao theatre groups survive is the continued threat to indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. The dramaturgical trend and the social need therefore, is to approximate traditional artistic expressions and, in portraying myths and stories, to be as faithful to the original material as possible. The reasons vary: some groups advocate for the perseverance of indigenous life and culture in the context of aggressive modernization. Other groups simply think indigenous culture is exotic and beautiful and focus on that culture’s aesthetic merits.

Of course, the qualities of these artistic attempts vary. And so disparate are these artistic efforts that the question of bastardization of indigenous culture has constantly been an issue among arts practitioners.

In the final analysis, the question remains: has the social context—the threat to ethnicity and tradition—of indigenous communities changed with the surge of theatre groups utilizing indigenous expressions? Remember that for whatever reason contemporary arts groups use indigenous art forms, the fact remains that the source, the wellspring of these aesthetic inspirations are indigenous peoples. One can only imagine with such sadness and despair, what our lives and our arts would be like, when these wellsprings dry up.

Arts practitioners and storytellers—traditional or contemporary—are crucial contributors to the whole process of defining a people’s culture. It has been proven through centuries that myths and folklore—essential ingredients of culture—are powerful tools for conquering nations, building civilizations, and stabilizing centers of power. The artists and writers are major vanguards of these cultural tools, alongside the media. Germany’s Hitler knew this. Philippines’ Marcos knew this. China’s Mao Tse Tung knew this. Cambodia’s Pol Pot knew this. The best way to subjugate a nation is to exterminate the emissaries of that nation’s culture.

It is crucial therefore for us artists to understand why we do what we do. If our understanding of myths and folklore are myopic, for example, we impress on our audiences a myopic worldview and this myopic perspective will certainly multiply. People’s understanding of many present-day realities depend on how artists interpret myths, tales, real stories, dreams, imaginations, and actual truths. I continue to marvel at the power artists possess! And yet, do we fully comprehend this power, this serious responsibility that we have assumed the moment we decided to become arts practitioners.

Myths and tales are often interpreted by a storyteller based on his/her perception of the story and this is passed on from one generation of storytellers to another in the oral tradition. As the stories are handed over, they take on the spirit of each storyteller, each time changing modes and colors depending on the storyteller’s cultural and political framework. This process of passing on stories involves multiple levels of reinvention.

Because of its oral (and visual) nature, theatre is subjected to varied degrees of reinvention.

First is sensory reinvention. This involves transporting real people’s stories, myths, and phantasmagoric scenarios from the source (storyteller, dreamer) to the stage by enacting these scenarios based on the theatre artist’s sensory (see, taste, hear, smell, touch) perceptions.

Second is literary reinvention or the act of judiciously putting double-triple-quadruple meanings into these stories, or approaching the stories along metaphorical paths.

Third is cultural reinvention or the act of purposefully finding or creating new dimensions in the stories to the point of turning a story upside down to change modes of thinking, and to provide alternative perspectives or worldview.

Most of the theatre groups in Mindanao and in the Philippines have successfully ventured into the first and second levels of reinvention. But only a few have dared dip their toes into the third.

Mebuyan Peace Project’s interpretation of goddess Mebuyan in “Panaw”

How would you explain how the Bagobo’s underworld goddess Mebuyan has just very recently been transformed by some Bagobos themselves into an evil god banished to the bottom of the earth as a punishment? And why would Salangayan or Saangayan be female in another tribe and male in another? And what of a million other present-day myths? Dare we not challenge them?

History has provided us enough examples of how actual realities, myths and folklore have easily been reinvented to promote and impose a particular political and cultural viewpoint. It is dangerous waters to tread, indeed. But in the context of the continuing exploitation by the powers-that-be of these cultural dimensions in peoples lives, no one particular group of people can better challenge this cultural brainwashing than artists themselves.

It is therefore a challenge for all artists to analyze seriously the contexts from which these myths and stories have emerged. And from such analyses, to cultivate and heighten our capacities for artistic creation so we can actively engage mainstream cultural vehicles in this whole process of cultural reinvention. Let us not leave this power to re-create cultural consciousness to those very forces who suck the life from the wellsprings of our art.

It is high time we stop becoming mere exotic creatures of art presenting indigenous myths and contemporary stories. As artists we have a responsibility to change the world and we can only do so if we continue to explore beyond the boundaries of cultural patterns and artistic tradition.

Billiard Balls and Seven Days of Music and Merriment

— rehashed article from August 2004.

l-r: Eric Gancio and Gary Granada

Last night, musician-composers Gary Granada and Eric Gancio, playwright and recent Palanca Awardee Arnel Mardoquio, theatre artist and development worker Lyndee Prieto, and myself spent hours discussing physics, politics, business, theatre, education, and life at Eric’s house. I was late for the small gathering and when I arrived, Gary was explaining to his captive audience the complexity of the atom. The atom, Gary said, moves so fast that scientists cannot figure out its exact location at any given moment. He compared this to a billiard ball in the middle of a pitch-black room. The only way to ascertain where that ball is, is to throw a second ball at it. When the second ball hits the first ball, one is able to APPROXIMATE where that first ball came from and where it went next. But because the ball has rolled to a new location, it is no longer possible to determine its EXACT previous location.

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Theatre Artists on Music Celebrities

Last week, six theatre artists gathered at Taboan, Matina Town Square, Davao City for our almost-nightly rounds of Red Horse and San Mig Lite. Before dancing to the 80s upbeats of one of my favorite pop bands Top Secret, we decided, by some divine prodding, to discuss Mindanao’s music celebrities. In other words, nanglibak.But let me begin at the beginning.

We came from the recital of the ten choreographers and would-be choreographers who attended Agnes Locsin‘s one-month choreography workshop. We wanted to know, just as Agnes certainly did, if the workshop participants learned anything from the country’s choreo Master. After all, most of those who attended were our friends and colleagues. But mainly we wanted to make kantiyaw, hehe.

After an awesome night of contemporary dances mostly derived from settler folk, Moro, and lumad artistic traditions, we all agreed later that we were quite impressed with the works of Gilbert Abenoja of Dance Arts Studio, Jun Boroy and Cyril Collado of Sining Kambayoka, Bejay Absin of Karatula, and Jude Magdayao of Davao del Norte. Gilbert’s choreography of “two gay lovers” was the runaway favorite, evoking squeals, laughter, and loud applause from about 30 audience of mostly theatre artists.

Overwhelmingly satisfied with the visual treat, the objective to make kantiyaw the choreography graduates was promptly forgotten and was re-directed to the choreo Master herself because the treat didn’t include dinner. “Mga baga’g nawong,” balik-kantiyaw ni Agnes, “libre na gani salida, magpakaon pa gyud!” We left laughing, and proceeded to eat dinner at TAPS Ilustre.

In high spirits—often rare among tired and aging artists like us—Richard Belar had this brilliant idea of walking from TAPS to Matina Town Square, a good 1 1/2 kilometers away. And so we did. We ended up spending about 30 minutes at Bankerohan bridge, talking about forgettable stuff, staring into the dark, murky Bankerohan river, and comparing Judy Ann Santos’ red dress on the billboard with the red blouse worn by one female band artist. We walked the entire kilometer with hands to our mouths and noses as jeepneys and cars sprayed dust on our greasy hairs and oily faces. The night was hot, and our clothes rapidly soaked. When we got to Taboan, Matina Town Square, my legs were trembling.

We all slumped down on our backless seats and for unknown reasons began a quiet but animated discussion about Mindanao’s alternative music celebrities we’ve had the privilege of watching or working with. We argued on quite a few things, but most of us agreed that Joey Ayala was our timeless favorite for two reasons—his music stirs our hearts and challenges our thinking, his spiels captivate our minds. Joey communicates, and communication is the core of performance. Joey is also a giant on stage, possessing what we theatre artists call a powerful stage presence. Second in line is Gary Granada, for exactly the same reasons. But while Joey’s songs tug your heart, Gary’s amuse and entertain.

Many musicians are bad public speakers. And most music artists probably think they have an obligation to say something to the audience before they start playing. Well, here’s good and/or bad news (depending on what angle you view it from)—when a music artist opens his/her mouth to speak (not to sing), the expectation to hear an impressive spiel is bigger than the expectation to hear a beautiful song. For many of us, we prefer musicians to play non-stop rather than to break away from song and murmur a few unintelligible syllables. We all agreed that both Joey and Gary need not sing a song in order to captivate an audience. They are both remarkable public speakers. Gary, particularly, is hilarious—the musician counterpart of poet Don Pagusara.

We further agreed that we couldn’t connect with the music of Grace Nono. Grace is a lovely person, and, according to my theatre colleagues, unexpectedly humble and very professional. Of all female alternative music celebrities, she has the strongest stage presence—with or without her eclectic, elaborate costumes. She could eat you up alive. Her voice is equally powerful. But her music, with all its Enya-ic charm, simply doesn’t move us. What we think her music lacks is what commercial talent agents call the X factor. Among the Talaandig dugso dancers, it is called the “dance spirit.” As a performer, Grace Nono is an “external actor” (a term I shall discuss later), which is commonly used in theatre.

With the exception of myself (sa walay pagdapig-dapig), the rest of the group were one in saying they couldn’t resonate with Cynthia Alexander‘s music either. Cynthia plays superbly, and one is drawn to her technical prowess. But while her lyrics go deep into the navel of things, and are even spiritual, one who doesn’t have a copy of her lyrics—gets lost. In the end one feels nothing amid all the exotic display of amazingly difficult guitar licks and percussive rhythms. Her music is very intellectual, but there’s no emotion, said my colleague. However, the group was all praises for Cynthia’s guitarist Sancho—he possesses all the emotion Cynthia’s music lacks.

Bayang Barrios has one of the most beautiful voices in the industry. In the concert-theatre performance with Mebuyan Peace Project, she only sang 1 1/2 songs, and in her first song, several of the audience (including myself) have actually cried with her. She sparkled in the production. But as a solo vocal artist playing with a back-up all-male band, Bayang is easily devoured by the powerful stage presence of her bandmates. With Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad, Bayang was a standout—the whole country was in love with her. It was when she started going solo that she began to pale as a performer. And so the libakeros and libakeras began an analytical journey into Bayang’s singing career. What is it about Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad and Mebuyan Peace Project that makes her stand out? Answer: the theatrics of performance.

Bayang shines when contained and directed in a musical environment that has strong theatrical elements. While Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad is not a theatre group, Joey employs performance skills he learned from theatre, and which he contaminates his bandmates with, either by directing them or by how his repertoire flows from one song to another. On her own, Bayang is pretty much her simple self—lots of flair and extensive body movements but without the discipline and impact of theatre, a woman whose spiels don’t like her but which she dishes out anyway.

Now you must remember that these are the viewpoints of six theatre artists. And with theatre artists, communication is their primary reason for being. You have a message, how effectively can you communicate this message through your art?

In theatre there are two kinds of acting—ACTING (external acting) and BEING (internal acting). External acting employs outward projection, elaborate and big gestures, costumes and make-up. These help define and communicate a character, or among music artists—stage personalities, among talent managers—packaging. This is Grace Nono. Internal acting is the weave and synergy of who you are as a person and that character or personality you assume on stage—Joey Ayala and Gary Granada. NON-ACTING is being exactly that person you are offstage—Bayang Barrios (as a solo artist) and Cynthia Alexander.

A perfect performance is that of internal acting or being. When you achieve a weave between who you are offstage and that singing personality on stage, you are able to effectively communicate your thoughts and your feelings effortlessly. This weave is what the audience see and receive, and they begin to resonate.

There is a third level of performance—the inexplicable. For example, the Tanggunguan (a kulintang piece) when played by a Maguindanon onor (virtuoso), would sound different when played by a contemporary artist like myself—no matter if I got the entire kulintang score down to the last quarter beat. What makes the difference is that which is inexplicable. The inexplicable, is what the Talaandigs refer to as the spirit “dance teacher.” Women will never learn the Talaandig dance Dugso if the “dance teacher” hasn’t descended upon the apprentice. Malu Matute‘s (of Cynthia Alexander’s troupe) skill with the kulintang is impressive, but incomparable to Ben Tejero‘s (of Kariala Etniko) skill because Ben has a “dance teacher” looking over him—even if both of them were playing the same piece together.

Much of performance—whether in music or dance or theatre—is about communication. Once an artist enters the performance area, a relationship begins between the artists and the audience, guided by the “dance spirit” or the music spirit (if s/hes present) for musicians. Relationships flourish with effective communication.

Our twenty-five centavos’ worth.