I returned from Bonn, Germany after two weeks of residency researching a new creation entitled Shifting Geography. In the studio of CocoonDance in Tapentefabric, Beuel and Theatre Im Balsaal in Bonn, I was joined with the most diverse group of dancers to undertake a new choreographic inquiry. With roots as far as Taiwan, Spain, Canada, Germany and Uruguay, these dancers are Samuel Volkhard, Victoria Perez, Fa-Hsuan Chen, Alison Denham, Billy Marchenski and Martin Inthamoussu.
Like entering the void again in making a new work, facing a group of dancers after working on solo works for almost one and a half years, I had to shift my mind and bodily modes of working to enter the premise and energy of working with a group. The eyes needed to be re-trained and to adjust but also, the capacity of emotional reaction and responses to multiple identities, their presence and shapes in space.
This co-creation with Rafaelle Giovanolla, director of CocoonDance has been in the making for over a year, alas, it has arrived to some commitment and undertaking that will take us to the unveiling in the winter of 2014 at the VECC (Vancouver East Cultural Centre).
In this 2nd research process, our task for each choreographer to work separately with the dancers, testing choreographic ideas, an open time for understanding each dancer’s capacity as interpreter and together as ensemble.
Days have passed consisting of collective talks, movement investigations and improvisations creating bonds to one another, dancer and creator, building both professional and personal relations in and out of the studio.
By testing the new envisioning work what could Shifting Geography tell, Rafaelle and I as we forge separately working with the group without sharing any information with each other until the last day of the process, a show and tell of the research result without any expectations.
Shifting Geography resonated a path to encounter the notions of body and culture politics, places and environments, shifts of states and identity. Liquid identity and liquid modernity arises as creators and dancers reveals perspectives and presence in dancing, living, working and experiencing different cultures and places.
When do we accept the act and modes of belonging to a cultural unfamiliar, our ways of adaptation and immediate citizenships?
In late March, in the stark and still wintry cold days yet a quaint city like Bonn at times snowy and still -3 in temperature, I long for the arrival of spring, literally in any given days, as crocuses and spring snow flakes already peak from the ground. While I hear back in Vancouver cherries are in bloom with spring snaps of up to15 degrees, one easily relates to shifting geography, time space locating, affecting one’s body; emotions, nostalgic and longing.
I have shifted geography, I write this in late April, spring in full spectrum in Vancouver, the week in celebration of Canada’s national dance and the upcoming International dance day April 29th globally. So here to wish you all happy spring and more dancing!
It’s Sunday Feb 3, 2013 and I am back at the International Guest House at UPLB (The University of the Philippines), Makiling. The day is sunny, breezy and quiet. Jonathan Tsang - Lighting designer and Mathew Norman - touring assistant travelled with me to the Philippines on yet another leg of the Colonial journey.
My body though exhausted from the rigor of travel, rehearsals and performances, I am energized as I contemplate the value of the art I produce. Grateful to all of our organizing partners, funding bodies in Canada, The University of the Philippines, Los Banos, Co.ERASGA’s donors, members and all of the special individuals who have taken part of the process along the way.
The Colonial project has impacted all of the artists involved, as well as, audiences, who have shared their responses with me and I am inspired and moved by the message of the work.
We have just installed and completed the most awaited leg of the Philippine tour with two performances at the 2nd Southern Tagalog Festival at UPLB, Los Bano’s Umali Theatre. Over 1600 people attended the two shows comprising of students, faculty members and the general public. We feel blessed! The Colonial project began its inception with Dennis Gupa my co-creator, in February 2011. The journey has come full circle and I now have a living art piece that is resonating with the Philippine people.
It has been awhile since I have blogged and I also want to reflect back to the North American premiere of Colonial last October in Vancouver at the Roundhouse and in Montreal at the MAI. The performances created an eventful occasion providing contributions for Co.ERASGA’s capacity and integration of trans-continental work produce and presented in Canada.
We continue to travel in the next two weeks to other regions of the Philippines for the premiere in Manila at the GT - Asian Centre in UP Diliman and at the Tanghal Festival in Bicol, Albay.
During a Q and A at our Umali Theatre show on February 2, a student had asked why I had focused on the themes of Returning, Remembering and Moving Forward? Below, I share a statement I wrote for the Canadian program notes.
“Returning, Remembering and Moving Forward has been the guided path to build this Colonial as dance creation for Co.ERASGA’s 12th season.
Returning again to my homeland in the Philippines was an inspired calling to look closely to the colonial past and present that has grappled my mind in the last years.
Exposed and remembering the many layers of histories of my native land was a discovery of a rich and complex culture that provoked inspirational sources to encounter and understand.
Colonial was the symbol to move forward, I worked with four talented Filipino artists from the Philippines that carried the spirited visions of Filipino hood. Dennis Gupa -Dramaturgy, Jon Lazam -Video, John Carlo Pagunaling- Costume Designer and Angelica Dayao - Composer, exemplified and reminded me of “Kapwa” the Filipino noblest essences of sharing, togetherness, and caring for one another. As a collective mind, we faced the social and cultural remnants of our homelands past thus energizing the present in transporting each of our creative quests to realize Colonial.
What we offer you is simply a glimpse and part of our Filipino heritage, a trace and bridge to a gap of my roots that I yearn to know more of and that were absent in me and to many other new generational Filipino’s abroad and globally.
I specially thank Dennis Gupa my “kapatid” brother, for his invaluable and insightful guidance, trust and for believing in this creative calling, as well to the countless other individuals and organizations here in Canada and the Philippines that helped to create Colonial.
“Alay” in Tagalog is offering and this dance has lived in my body with a longing to be free, an offering and essential journey I share with you."
Ang hindi lumilingon sa pinanggalingan
Ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.
Who does not look back at her origin
Will never arrive at her destination.
By Luis H. Francia
That life is a journey is a commonplace. But where to, exactly? In the traditional Tagalog view, this can only be answered by recognizing where the journey began, and by that act of recognition (appraising its value, its relevance, perhaps for the first time) one can have a better sense of where one is headed.
The journey is best appreciated in a metaphorical sense, for which the physical one is emblematic (and at times also problematic). For myself, a Filipino born and raised in Manila, that journey has included New York City, where I live and where I am writing this. I claim it as my own as well, having lived here for more than half of my life, thus making me at one and the same time a Manileño and a New Yorker. New York is a city that allows, with no resentment, the foreign-born this kind of latitude, to be part of the city’s fabric. Naturally you will always have those who turn their backs on the likes of me, but these are the least of the New Yorkers, in my view. New York at its best exemplifies the Whitmanesque trait of containing multitudes.
In America Is in the Heart, his passionate semiautobiographical account of his life in the U.S., Carlos Bulosan emphasized the role of memory, of looking back (lumilingon), and how it sustained him in those pre-World War II years when “in many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California.” In particular, the memory of his mother, his Ina (and by implication his Inang Bayan), enables him to survive a near-fatal encounter with his knife-wielding older brother Amado, who, not having seen him for many years, has failed to recognize him. Allos (the book’s narrator and Bulosan’s doppelgänger) utters their mother’s name. Kuya Amado puts down his knife and hugs his younger brother. Allos reflects, “Yes, to him and to me afterward, to know my mother’s name was to know the password into the secrets of the past, into childhood and pleasant memories; but it was also a guiding star, a talisman, a charm that lights us to manhood and decency.”
Allos clings desperately to his sense of himself as a Filipino grounded in certain traditions. His greatest fear is to wind up, as many of his fellow manong have, desensitized and brutalized, living without hope and forsaking their grand aspirations, to turn out, in short, as both root-less and ruthless. His fortitude and intellectual curiosity lead him to understand the ideological and social context that he emerged from and into—he says it reduces his “chauvinism—and this empowers him on his onward voyage.
How far back should one look? The easiest thing to do is to gaze through rose-colored lenses at our distant past. That would be a mistake, a futile exercise in false nostalgia. Sure, I’d love to situate myself in a place and time where the oppressive burdens of Catholicism, racism, gender inequality, and the continual exploitation of our natural resources (rarely for the benefit of most Filipinos) did not exist. This view of the distant past as a lost Eden can be therapeutic and act as an imaginative spur to reconfigure our lives in the same way that a belief in a heaven can reconfigure our lives here on earth. Otherwise nostalgia has a way of effectively sidelining the hard truths of what in fact are the realities of a recognizable past that we need to deal with: that of having been colonized for approximately 400 years. That Spanish words are part and parcel of our tongue. That the use of English is widespread. That Catholicism continues to play a dominant role in our lives. That the quality of mestizaje is an enduring feature of our Filipino-ness.
This is not to downplay the visceral appeal of the distant, precolonial past, nor its usefulness in helping to instill national pride, nor its corrective qualities that counter the distorted and racist views the colonizers propagated. I think of José Rizal, who, when living in London, regularly visited the British Library. There he copied Antonio de Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de Las Islas Filipinas, a biased history of the conquest of the archipelago by the Spanish. Rizal annotated his copy to show how, even before the arrival of the sword and the cross, there was in place a vibrant ancient culture, subsequently marginalized by the colonizers. Revisiting and reinterpreting the past did not, however, result in Rizal foregoing his education; he didn’t stop speaking, or writing in, Castilian; he did not give up Western dress.
So Rizal points the way. To recognize and familiarize ourselves with the precolonial past, one need not dress in a loincloth or tattoo oneself with baybayin (the ancient script), though there is absolutely nothing wrong in doing so. What we do need to do is alter our mental landscape, to ask the question of how does one use the colonial experience. How do we get it to serve us, rather than being held forever in thrall to it? This is both challenging and complex material for Filipino artists in the various disciplines, through whose imaginative lens we can best explore the highways and byways of not just our colonial past but our colonialist-inflected present. I think of the painter Ben Cabrera, the sculptor Agnes Arellano, the novelists Jose Dalisay and Gina Apostol, the theater group PETA, the late film director Lino Brocka, the poets Jose Lacaba, Emmanuel Lacaba (killed by the Philippine army in the 1970s), and Joi Barrios, as among the many, many artists who have done and continue to do just this. Who can forget the revitalizing force of OPM (Original Philippine Music), where rock bands such as Juan de la Cruz and Asin wrote their own material and sang in unsentimental Tagalog, rendering the issues of our troubled times relevant to the greater population?
A signal event in my own journey was the discovery of the 1899 Philippine-American War, that bloody and brutal conflict (at least 250,000 Filipino lives lost!), resulting in the occupation of the islands by a supposedly freedom-loving United States for half a century. A war glossed over by U.S. history books, and not at all discussed when I was at the Ateneo de Manila as a naive undergraduate, it opened my eyes to my own personal past—my maternal grandfather was a U.S. soldier in that war while my paternal grandfather most likely supported the revolutionaries in his hometown of Magdalena, Laguna. In 2002, Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-2009, was published, edited by myself and a colleague, Angel Velasco Shaw. The book put together articles, both reprints and commissioned ones, as well as poetry, photographs, excerpts from plays, and reproductions of art. For me, the war continues to serve as an important lens through which to consider and question our recent history.
To investigate and interrogate the past isn’t just one option among many but an obligation if we are to understand ourselves as Filipinos, whether in the Philippines, or in the Diaspora, the kind underscored by this production, whose lead choreographer Alvin Arasga describes it thusly: “In Colonial the body encounters the real and the imagined past ... recovering from domination. The inspiration’s vigor lies in the premise that the remnants of the colonial past can be re-created as a metaphor of light that can guide one to a journey of hope, fearless and free.”
Amen to that. And bon voyage to all those embarked or about to embark on such a journey.
Luis H. Francia
Copyright L.H. Francia
Luis H. Francia is the author of Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago. His poetry collections include The Beauty of Ghosts; Museum of Absences; and The Arctic Archipelago and Other Poems. He is the author of A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos, and co-editor of Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999. He teaches at New York University, Hunter College, and the City University of Hong Kong. A Queens resident, he is very much a part of the 99 percent.