Friday, April 25, 2008

Ballet Philippines’ Shoes ++

Dancing to Tell the Nation’s Economic Divide:

A Symptomatic Analysis of Ballet PhilippinesShoes ++

by Ralph Semino Galán

Among the performing arts, dance is perhaps the most apolitical, for it employs non-verbal forms of communication to convey its message. As the dance critic John Martin puts it, “The dance exists exclusively in terms of the movement of the body, not only in the obvious sense that the dancer moves, but also in the less apparent sense that its response in the spectator is likewise a matter of body movement.”[1] For unlike drama and vocal music that use words to relay the subject matter, Terpsichore’s ancient craft relies mainly on graceful movements to deliver its thematic concern. It is therefore difficult to make a definite and definitive statement, political or otherwise, through the medium of dance.

And since body language is the main expressive vehicle of dance, more often than not the narrative, if there is any, unfolds through gestures that are highly nuanced. Ballet, in particular, with its unique grammar and syntax of movements is an arcane art form discernable only to a discriminating few. In a third world country like the Philippines where the majority of the populace is impoverished the appreciation of ballet remains inaccessible to most people except for members of high society, leading to the perception that the elegant art of Isadora Duncan and Rudolf Nureyev, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey is elitist and reactionary.

Furthermore, because of its complex motional vocabulary, some of the details of a ballet performance remain obscure if not obfuscated even among dance enthusiasts. A choreographer therefore must collaborate closely not only with dancers but with various designers (costume, lighting, set), as well as with the musical director to get the point across to the audience. But when you add a dash of theatricality and a pinch of narrative to this artistic admixture then what you get is an audiovisual extravaganza with a more or less clear storyline.

Such is the case with Ballet Philippines’ Shoes++, a dance presentation with a bit of drama that highlights different types of footwear, from a classy pair of stilettos to numerous pairs of the lowly bakya. One of BP’s major productions for its 33rd Season, the five dance vignettes of varying lengths that comprise the show are pieced together by a narrative framework that also delineates the setting of the story: a midnight madness sale in a department store that closely resembles an SM Shopping Mall.

Essaying the role of a typical SM saleslady who wears dark blue eye shadow and crimson blusher while balancing on high-heeled shoes, the versatile stage actor Herbie Go functions as the narrative thread of the entire show, as well as the tongue-in-cheek comic relief between the acts. In his dramatic monologues that serve as segues before the main segments of the presentation, Go tackles the many trials and tribulations that besiege an ordinary employee of Henry Sy’s multi-billion group of companies: long work hours, very low wages, the contractual nature of the job, the lack of fringe benefits (no contributions to SSS, Pag-Ibig Fund, Phil Health, etc.), not to the mention the rude customers one has to deal with, and of course the ridiculously heavy makeup and the uncomfortable shoes. This institutional subversion is doubly interesting, especially since according to the souvenir program SM Shoe Mart is one of the major sponsors of the show. Talk about using the master’s resources to dismantle the master’s house!

It’s a Mall World, After All

The deployment of the shopping mall as the locus of the whole presentation is also remarkable, because it is indicative of the Filipinos’ love for shopping, actual or window. Shopping itself as a pleasurable activity can either be submissive or subversive, depending on the relationship between the buyer and the seller, and vice versa. As critics of leisure studies have articulated, shoppers can either be “passive victims of the designers’ guile, lulled into a pleasurable mood so as to convince them to buy goods they do not really need,”[2] or active opponents of consumerist society albeit by necessity, like the penniless and the homeless who “engage in a kind of cultural politics via symbolic contests with the security guards and affronted respectable shoppers.” Notwithstanding the purchasing habits of its habitués, the shopping mall is here to stay, for it is the postmodern version of the roman baths, the contemporary equivalent of the “people’s palace” of centuries past, the one-stop entertainment center for all social classes from A to Z.

In terms of urban architecture and city planning, the shopping mall has replaced the medieval cathedral or the town plaza as the focal point of community life, as entire neighborhoods have been built in recent years around these superstructures of commerce. Notice for instance the proliferation in Metro Manila of high-rise condominium buildings that are proximate to (or sometimes even attached to) shopping malls, from the high-end luxurious residential units of Makati and Ortigas to the more affordable but less comfortable ones in Manila or Pasay. The popularity of these residential edifices is predicated on the capitalist premise that an ideal domicile has easy access to retail shopping, fine dining and the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

The shopping mall has also become emblematic of the contemporary metropolitan landscape, for the presence or absence of these emporia of consumer products and mass entertainment helps determine the level of urbanization a city has achieved (i.e. Cebu and Davao are more citified than Bacolod and Cagayan de Oro, partly because the former have more shopping malls than the latter). Mall culture in the Philippines therefore is almost entirely synonymous with the urban way of life.

SM Department Store: Footwear Central

The type of footwear a person sports is an indicator of his or her social status. In the Philippines, formal shoes are associated with the upper classes, while slippers are linked to the impoverished masses. SM Department Store (which started out literally as a “shoe mart”) offers the widest selection of footwear, from patent leather designer shoes that can cost an arm and a leg to the most inexpensive flip-flops. The choice of SM Department Store as the setting of Shoes++ is therefore most appropriate in delineating the economic divide, because it is only in a shopping mall where one can encounter a cross-section of Philippine society.

The first segment of the show titled “Sneakers” highlights the flexible rubber shoes, a pair of which most Filipinos from nearly all walks of life possess, from signature brands like Adidas and Nike to their cheap imitations like Adadis (two instead of three stripes) and Mike (reversed check mark). Choreographed by Jinn Ibarola, the snappy yet suave acid jazz dance vignette features the entire BP Company with Christine Crame leading the way in the twisting and turning of lithe bodies to the sound of Mondo Grosso, Jason Rebello and No Se. Since acid jazz as a musical genre fuses jazz with elements of 70s funk, hip-hop, soul and Latin grooves, the ballerinas and danseurs have to execute different dance movements related to these musical styles with the occasional ad lib here and there to make the performance appear less rehearsed and more spontaneous which is a characteristic of jazz improvisation.

Created by Paul Morales, the second number titled “Stiletto” is a sensual pas de trois between two danseurs wearing black clothes and a ballerina in a flaming red sheath. Gesticulating arms and gyrating hips provocatively to the tune of Kolpert and the Mills Brothers, the dancers express their various desires through their bodily gestures. As the libidinal level increases into a frenzy of brusque and broken movements, the dance degenerates into a ménage a trois of sorts, a social barometer perhaps of the changing mores in the Philippines with regards to amorous relationships, a byproduct of the ideas of the sexual revolution that has infiltrated our country from the West. Remarkable in this segment is Georgette Sanchez who does amazing pirouettes and full splits while wearing three-and-a-half-inch high heels the color of fire.

“Flippers,” the third vignette by the superbly innovative choreographer Alden Lugnasin, is the most visually interesting number of the entire show. With the help of appropriate watery lighting designed by Dennis Marasigan and the Romantic music of Hector Berlioz, the whole stage gets transformed into the deep blue sea, as dancers donning snorkels and scuba diving gears simulate swimming movements. All of them of course are flippantly flipping and flapping their flippers (the featured footwear) like dolphins and penguins, though there seems to be no overtly social or political statement here unlike the two previous dances, a decadent pastime surely from the traditional Marxist perspective.

But one must remember that Lugnasin is the same cutting-edge choreographer of “Swimming the River Pasig,” a subtle environmental piece that questions the high price of industrialization and urbanization. With this in mind, “Flippers” is perhaps just a reminder of how as a people we can collectively enjoy the beautiful bodies of water that surround our nation if we preserve the seas rather than destroy them with impunity through premeditation or carelessness, the Philippines being a tropical archipelago with so much marine biodiversity.

The fourth piece titled “.2.” is neoclassical ballet with a modern twist at its finest: dainty costumes and daintier movements performed perfectly to the melody of guitarist Steve Erquiaga and Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Choreographed by Cecile Sicangco, prima ballerina and former BP Artistic Director, and Brando Miranda, the dance features a dynamic danseur and four graceful ballerinas who execute exquisite footwork en pointe to the highlight the toe shoes. “.2.” is perhaps the most bourgeois of all the dance numbers, since traditional ballet has always been associated with the upper echelons of any society. But this apolitical piece is necessary in the overall program of the show, if only to enhance the social impact of the more progressive last segment.

Herbie Go as SM Saleslady becomes crucial in this juncture for providing the acerbic remarks against the shopping malls, both in terms of its almost inhuman treatment of personnel and the poor quality of its products, that serve as the segue between the last two vignettes. Her biting and bitter statements are brought about by the insults she gets from Mr. Henry Shu after serving him loyally for ten years as a contractual worker. Because of this incident she decides to leave the Big City, return to her hometown, and once there to pursue her commercial skills by hawking the indigenous bakya.

“Tambol at Padyak,” the fifth and final number, showcases towards the end of the dance the aforementioned Filipino plebian footwear in all its boisterous glory. Cobbled together by Tony Fabella, one of the country’s most talented and prolific choreographers, the effervescent dance vignette features BP’s seasoned performers, as well as the less experienced but equally energetic young dancers of the Quezon City Performing Arts Development Foundation, Inc. and the Dancers, Inc., non-profit organizations that provide dance opportunities to underprivileged children. Skipping and shimmying to the upbeat music of Samuel Asuncion, Malek Lopez and the Pinikpikan in succession, the dancers execute a blend of stylized Southeast Asian and Filipino indigenous movements.

In the first segment of “Tambol at Padyak,” the young guest dancers of QCPADFI and DI rhythmically frolic on stage, tapping their legs and chests in group formations resembling Filipino folk games. On the other hand, the second part is reminiscent of Filipino dances associated with agricultural rituals as the ballerinas and danseurs of BP simulate planting and harvesting movements. These bucolic scenarios might appear naïve and romantic and thus reactionary, but one must also never forget that any revolutionary ideal contains within it elements of the quixotic and the impossible.

The last segment of “Tambol at Padyak” has the atmosphere of a rural town fiesta replete with individual, pair and group dance exhibitions, and a clapping crowd whose configuration constantly changes, since in the Philippine performing arts of the traditional sort (which the dance tableaux attempts to replicate) the dividing line between performer and spectator is so flexible. The festivity increases as the dancers display their astounding stamina by executing fast-paced footwork while wearing the featured Filipino wooden shoes: the home-grown bakya. It is a fitting finale for a show that attempts to articulate the inequality between the rich (as personified by Mr. Shu) and the poor (as embodied by the saleslady), and how the impoverished can find the courage to riposte the oppressor and through sheer determination retaliate by abandoning mercantile capitalism to its own devices.

Some Final Words

It is interesting to note that during the opening night of Shoes ++ last October 12, 2001 a reversal of roles has occurred: the filthy rich matrons of the exclusive enclaves of Makati (like Forbes Park and Dasmariñas Village) and the other affluent pockets of Metro Manila (like Ayala Alabang, Corinthian Gardens and La Vista) giving several standing ovations to the children of impoverished families. But then again, this can be mere condescension on the part of the elite who might view these juvenile dancers as paid entertainment and nothing more, enjoying the audiovisual spectacle in front of them in the same manner that kings in the past have appreciated albeit with snide remarks the antics of their jesters, further emphasizing the disparity between the ultra rich and the dirt poor.

A symptomatic analysis of Shoes++ therefore reveals that the presentation is perhaps an indexical sign of how the shopping malls, these cold monuments of urban mercantilism, have deeply penetrated the collective consciousness of creative artists and laymen alike. Furthermore, the show can also be seen as an allegory of an ailing nation like the Philippines, where the uneven distribution of resources has created a continental divide between the well-heeled upper classes and the slippered masses, the haves and the have-nots, the wealthy and the destitute.

End Notes:

[1] John Martin as quoted in Lois Ellfeldt, Dance: From Magic to Art, Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, 1976.
[2] See the entry on “Shopping” in David Harris, Key Concepts in Leisure Studies, SAGE Publications Ltd., London, 2005.

No comments: