Review by Joelle Jacinto
Hearthy Panlaque, floating in space, in Jodel Cimagala's Numb
Photo by Thea Monica Tiongco
I had first seen Jodel Cimagala’s Numb at a convention space in SM General Santos, not a conventional stage, and the lighting was perfunctory, at best. But I already saw the potential in it, as it was set up as if in a club and the dancers were mindlessly writhing together in rapturous ecstasy. It was not the first work I had seen that was set to resemble the clubbing experience, but I still felt it was creative and courageous in its experimentation. In the Tanghalang Huseng Batute/blackbox of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, with gorgeous, more fully-realized lighting by Doods Lozano, Numb transported us to another realm, delivering a much greater impact, making us first question why weren’t we out there, joining this euphoria (pardon the pun, if you get it, Gen X-ers)? And then making us realize, oh thank the lord we were able to snap out of that.
It starts with Hearthy Panlaque moving in the darkness, illuminated only by millions of tiny blue and greeen lights. Her lethargic movements slowly raises her up to standing, and she starts to... well, dance. Like in a club. Bobbing her head, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, slowly swaying her shoulders as her chest moves to the beat of the electronic music that surrounds her. She is soon joined by another dancer... then another... and another... until the stage is filled with them; they dance to the same beat, but seem unaware of each other’s presence. They dance as if in a trance, as if they cannot help themselves. Then suddenly, the music stops, the lights come on and Michaela Yeban trains a red light on the clump of dancers, who are transfixed towards this new variable in their lives, as if not kmowing what it is and how to move forward. The next sections are a series of manipulations that Michaela subjects the crowd of dancers to, and they follow her, as if they had no choice.
Michaela Yeban in red, distracting the company from their meaningless lives in Cimagala's Numb.
Photo by Jodel Cimagala.
Other than the work’s ability to mesmerize the viewer, I am impressed with the dancers’ full commitment to the work, never breaking out of their trance nor their focus on Michaela, not even breaking character when the audience giggles as Michaela points her red laser on Eldie Gabo Jr.’s crotch. The dancers are all quite young, and yet already very professional in movement and performativity, a testament to their teachers, choreographers, and to their artistic director, Bing Cariño.
Teatro Ambahanon, the official performing arts company of the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Colleges in General Santos City, has evidently been such a force to reckon with for quite some time now. I had noticed a sampling of this each time they come to Manila to visit, but have never been fully aware of their full potential until I saw them at Last Quarter Intensives 2018 last November in Gen San. LQI is an annual contemporary dance (non-)festival organized by Cariño and his company, basically to benefit his dancers, who are also his students in RMMC, who not only learn to dance but create and produce dance - many of them are encouraged to develop their choreographic impulses, even after they graduate. The whole festival is an exciting three-day event that includes a choreography competition, a Best of Teatro Ambahanon anthology, and a Call Back for the alumni, and as of last year, a presentation of dance films. Most of the pieces presented last August 15, 2019 at the CCP were from Call Back, where their graduates had to send in proposals and worked with the younger members of the company.
Milky Perez, bitching about beauty standards in Beauty Balaga's
(ur)Vanidad. Photo by Jodel Cimagala.
There is value in seeing a work again. The first time I saw Beauty Balaga’s (ur)Vanidad, I was perplexed with the barrage of information and imagery that I was assaulted with. Perhaps now that I know what to expect, I was able to fully enjoy Balaga’s statements on society’s concepts of, well, beauty, and how we are forced to accept them as truths. The dancers are cookie cutter clones of each other, though Milky Perez disappoints her lookalike friends by not moving like them. She breaks away from the flock and addresses the audience directly, questioning the need to adhere to beauty standards. Her delivery in Chabacano dialect serves to confuse and amuse the audience further, and somehow makes us feel that we don’t understand her complaints, forced to impose on her society’s/our expectations. Finally, Milky starts to wipe the make up off her and her friends’ faces onto their white nightgowns. It seems like a rebellion against society’s dictations, except when the last girl, Hearthy again, refuses to remove hers, Milky forces the issue. Milky has turned from oppressed to oppressor, and it’s so subtle that it’s terrifying.
Cimagala’s My Gummy Bears returns to the CCP Blackbox, but as its original iteration with 7 girls, amplifying the cray displayed by Jovie Ann Domingo and Shiela Mae Mantilla, who performed this as a duo in last year’s Wifi Body New Choreographers Competition. As with the other works, I saw a different performance, even if the choreography is unchanged, and I realized that what these ladies were doing were all the things women are not supposed to do in public: make spectacles of themeslves by screaming, laughing out loud, throwing themselves into a wall, taking off and throwing their high-heeled shoes in the air, pulling their hair, complaining about their life, speaking their opinion, having an opinion. In this dance, they all do these, and we commiserate. It is quite powerful, when you think about it.
So many girls in Jodel Cimagala's My Gummy Bears.
Photo by Jodel Cimagala.
A friend and co-dancer remarked to me during the show, “TA has so many girls now...” Yes, it’s impressive, especially when TA was known previously for its strong male ensemble. Now, they have several impressive female dancers, as well. As I’ve implied earlier, one of Teatro Ambahanon’s current strengths is their dancers - that there are so many of them, but also that each dancer is either a very talented mover or a charming personality, or both. Fortunately for TA, several of their dancers are both, and this works well for a company whose choreographers are known for incorporating humor in their work. Ralph Malaque’s Silopin would not work without any of the four boys cast in in it, and Give-Way Diosanta is undoubtedly the reason why Harold Monteagudo’s Lezgo! is so memorable. Well, Give-Way and Jovie Ann Domingo, replacing a dancer who could not join the tour. Lezgo! was already very tongue-in-cheek hilarious last November with its full cast of boys, but the addition of Jovie pretending to be a boy, made it more so. Lezgo! similarly experiments with herd mentality, but with the dancers realizing on their own that they can choose to just break away from the crowd, leaving Give-Way alone to figure it all out on his own.
Harold Monteagudo's Lezgo!
Photo by Art Orillanida
TA’s choreographers bank on the personalities of their dancers - Monteagudo had definitely given Jovie more to do in this version - but also injecting their own personalities into their works. I was told that a part of Lezgo! was indirectly trolling Monteagudo’s twin brother, Harry, as Give-Way starts to cheekily replicate movements from the other’s Solitaryo. And Silopin is a relentless display of Malaque’s seeming obsession with animé, with Boom John Dave Panes, Bryan Andagan, Give-Way, and Malaque himself, entertaining us with their cartoony antics from start to end. The choreography relies on the comedic timing and chemistry of the dancers and Malaque polishes it up expertly. The underlying message, that these kids were all high on rugby throughout, is also not lost on us as they come out of their highs toward the end, and, their backs against the wall, finally fall into a collective stupor.
Boom John Dave Panes, choreographer Ralph Malaque, Bryan Andagan and Give-Way Diosanta
in Silopin. Photo by Jodel Cimagala.
The humor aspect seems to be standard for TA works, which I noticed in 2008 ba when Julius Lagare and DJ De Vera competed at the Wifi Body Festival’s New Choreographers Competition (Lagare won that year). While metropolitan artistes see the humor as parochial and not recommendable to dance festivals in Europe, I personally like the humor, and I like that it is identifiably TA. I believe also that it is why TA is popular in their hometown of Gen San - I was rather surprised that the audiences (and they came in droves!) at the LQI 2018 shows were genuine TA fans, that they did mini freak-outs when they see Beauty Balaga or Ralph Malaque or the Monteagudo twins outside the performance space, like groupies do when they see their rockstars or their kpop idols. I deduced that they make work that their audiences can understand and appreciate, and this is why they have this audience at all.
This is not to say that TA’s work is mindless popular entertainment. Yes, there is a parochial charm, even what can be said as a masa appeal, but the repertoire is actually quite intelligent, presented so boldly that the viewer has no choice but pay attention, ask questions, be overwhelmed. It is for this reason that I am willing to go see them perform, whether at the CCP or in Gen San, or wherever else. Looking forward to LQI 2019 this November; you should be too.
Banner: Beauty Balaga's (ur)Vanidad, photo by Jodel Cimagala