Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bayanihan - The National Dance Company of the Philippines

Photo by CAMI
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
September 24, 2010

The dancing body is a joyful image.  Yet surprisingly, joy is so often absent from the stage.  Instead, we see sanitized modern and ballet, where the personal dancer is hidden so that the role, concept or vision being danced can take focus.  This is not at all necessary to the cohesiveness of any piece, in fact, it's detrimental.  Allowing dancers to show more of their personality does not compromise who or what they are playing; it adds to it.  Real emotion is so much more compelling than artificial constructs.  Bayanihan, The National Dance Company of the Philippines knows this to be true.  Their Cal Performances presentation at Zellerbach Hall demonstrated that true human joy transforms dance.  Their elation in physicality and love of movement was palpable through every moment of the program. 

Such a rich diversity is present in the dances of the Philippines, reflecting the nation's long and varied cultural history.  Many of the dances were clearly inspired by Spanish Flamenco vocabulary, with elaborate costuming, dramatic footwork, castanet-style hand percussion and exquisite épaulement.  The port de bras was precise and exact in that unique Spanish arm position, lying halfway between bras bas and demi-second.  There was even a Celtic connection on the program.  As body percussion, stomping and sole slapping filled the stage, the men became one with Appalachian dancing (itself a composite of Irish, English, Scottish, African and Native American styles).  And, of course, there was Asian lineage in the movement as well.  In the mask and fan scene, all the choreography and staging played with the idea of the half circle, mirroring the fan's beautiful image with the dancer's bodies.     

There were two common denominators present in all the different types of dance: flat feet and steps in threes.  No matter the style or influence, all the company's choreography featured a flat footed approach, where the weight is placed on the whole foot, as opposed to being shifted to the ball of the foot.  The flatness of the feet gave them a deep, low center, which led to calmness, composure and groundedness at every speed as well as a sense of connection with the earth, with the movement and with each other.  In addition, the company employed several different variations on 'steps in three': balancés, pas de basques, pivot turns, triplets, step-ball-changes.  These 'steps in three' are indicative of change - change in space, change in direction, change of purpose - quite a meaningful comment to describe the story of a people.    

The National Dance Company of the Philippines was the embodiment of absolute joy.  It was as if their internal emotion could not be restrained; they had it to share it through movement and choreography.  The performance permitted us to see souls dancing in celebration.        

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