On becoming choreographers and the contemporary turn in Philippine dance

The only contemporary dance festival in the Philippines, WiFi Body Contemporary Dance Festival, capped its seven-year run last July and bid its followers and dance public goodbye. It ran under the banner theme “Engage,” and presented works by choreographers and dance-makers who were mostly either emergent or mid-career.


Young dancers Angela Bettina Carlos and Japhet Mari Cabling in his Cabling’s Bent, which won the New Choreographers Competition 2014. Photo by Rico Urbano.


Perhaps as a tribute to the past seven years that witnessed the burgeoning of the dance practice called “contemporary dance” in the Philippines, each work in the festival was curatorially framed—if not actively was—a reflexive assessment by every participant of his/her body of work to have contributed to this dance practice. One could say the WiFi Body Contemporary Dance Festival was one way of constructing contemporary dance in the Philippines that enabled choreographers and dance-makers to recognize their own roles in this construction.

When questions on contemporary dance in the Philippines arise in casual conversations or consultative discussions, one naturally weighs in on the complex interplay of conditions for producing art as autonomous activity vis-à-vis the conditions that materially allow life to exist and subsist. Such discussions are of course valid wherever in the world, but have become more urgent given the current international situation—in which neoliberal palliatives are deployed in response to global fiscal crises; in which flexible and nomadic modes of working emerge and are encouraged; in which austerity measures are taken and public spaces are depleted. One cannot ignore how conveniently dominant state apparatuses and capital have managed to co-opt art’s disposition for risk, uncertainty, nomadism, and flux—not only to entice and cultivate an emergent ‘creative class,’ but more alarmingly to obscure the decline of social welfare in pursuit of the total privatization of public life.

Of course the universal privatization of basic needs as well as of public services and spaces adopted by the Aquino administration in the Philippines does not directly bear on the demise of WiFi Body, the contemporary dance community’s only presentational platform in my part of the globe. What this does, however, is underscore current austerity measures in the culture sector, calling attention to the ongoing debate on the necessity of something called art in the face of systemic social problems. How can one dare make art and maintain the autonomy that characterizes it in the face of poverty, precarious labor conditions, environmental degradation, deterioration of public healthcare, and decreasing public subsidy for mass transportation? Such contentious conditions not only convince but compel the small dance community, given its limited resources, to revisit and reflect on its terse history of contemporaneity closely tied to its assertion of independence and autonomy.

In Philippine dance, the terms ‘independent’ and ‘solo’ converge in the articulation of ‘contemporary.’ ‘Independent’ and ‘contemporary’ have been used synonymously to refer not only to the sort of dance-making and visual language that was indexed as ‘new’ or ‘current,’ but also to a practice that thrived outside the domains regulated by the state and private institutions of culture.

A crucial symptom of this interchangeability can be detected in WiFi Body as a platform for the production, presentation, and distribution of the so-called new or current in Philippine dance. The festival, until its 5th edition in 2010, has always been presented as an independent contemporary dance festival. Why ‘independent’ was dropped from the official festival language was never articulated by the curatorial body behind it; neither did this drop make any noticeable impact on how the dance community proceeded with the production, presentation, and distribution of dance work. Ironically enough, only when ‘independent’ was erased did it become truly legible, readable as no less than the condition of our contemporaneity.


WiFi: from the periphery to the center

WiFi Body was established in 2006 and mounted annually at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the country’s national cultural institution. As the only contemporary dance festival in the country, it was by default the country’s leading contemporary dance festival. And its prestige could only be heightened by the fact it had been funded principally through a grant awarded by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA). Considering, however, how insufficient the NCCA’s grants for running festivals are for actually running festivals, WiFi Body’s other expenses are drawn from donations received from families, friends, a handful of private patrons and, at times, from foreign cultural institutions.

The organizing committee, composed of artists also performing in the festival, has reported a remarkable decline in financial support for the festival—from an overall budget of P500,000 (9,400 euros) in 2006 to P50,000 (1,000 euros) in 2014. Yet even before budget cuts were implemented, artists have already been reporting and casually sharing among peers financial deficits incurred by the burden of mounting a production in a scale much larger than they used to manage. Additionally, throughout the seven editions, artists have sporadically expressed burn-out, fatigue, and disillusionment—all understandable outcomes wrought by the demands of juggling administrative, artistic, and creative functions when those who do the juggling have little experience, even zero training, in marketing, creative communications, financial administration, or business management.

It needs to be said that WiFi Body developed out of several isolated and peripheral combustions of ‘independent creativity’ outside the state-sanctioned cultural space of the CCP. Whether as a move to resuscitate its waning popularity among the artists, a strategy to reinforce its hold on the country’s official cultural narrative, or a ploy to reassert its influence over artistic production is still undetermined, the CCP nevertheless took notice and took these combustions under its wing, folding them into its yearly programs by providing them with both a venue and the prestige of being held in the national cultural center. Whichever the motive, the CCP reached out to art personalities identified with the pathos of independence, prompted by the emergence of alternative modes of art production, presentation, and distribution.

So how did WiFi come to be? Or more specifically, how did a peripheral dance practice (Philippine contemporary dance) find its way to the mainstream center (WiFi Body funded by the NCCA and hosted by the CCP)?

Prompting the foundation of WiFi Body was a newly established dance platform known as the Contemporary Dance Map, a network that toured and, well, networked alternative spaces for dance. This platform incubated aspirations and articulations of contemporaneity brewing among a loose network of dance makers, artists, and choreographers who aligned themselves with an aesthetically intuited notion of the contemporary. Led by choreographer Myra Beltran, this group was composed of choreographers Paul Morales and Jose Jay Cruz, dance historian Basilio Esteban Villaruz, and younger choreographers like myself who due to our dance education and professional dancing activities were affiliated with the said group.

A self-produced initiative, the Contemporary Dance Map strung together other various and sporadic self-produced initiatives of a new generation of dance makers who, in Beltran’s words, “think differently, consciously reflect upon the potentials of their medium, and demand from the cultural politic recognition and constructive response.” Hence ushering in what Villaruz described as a “new phase in Philippine dance, where artists now outside of CCP’s stable seek for the Philippines’ next dance thrust.” After two meaningful editions in 2005 and 2006, the Map managed to build a kind of visibility for contemporary dance, enough for the country’s premiere cultural institution to take notice and entice this small community to migrate their program to the CCP.


Choreographer Jose Jay B. Cruz sharing his negotiations on Philippine dance making to colleagues and younger choreographers during the 6th edition of Wifi Body


While many were eager to indulge the proposal, a few others had expressed reluctance over what was thought of as a big jump into the unknown, if not a betrayal of the impetus that set their practice into motion. For instance, many of these entities were just beginning to find manageable production models: while some simply drew funds from their own personal income and savings from non-dance work and businesses, some made meager earnings thru professional dance work that did not necessarily have to do with contemporary dance.  The demand to present work that was national in visibility was definitely advantageous in developing the morale of their own independent companies, but it could also, at the same time, endanger the very model that they had incubated for some years. There was also some clamor to push for a discursive platform where artists were compelled not only to produce one dance piece after another but to unpack assumptions and notions of contemporaneity—even to naively ask each other what it meant to be a contemporary dance artist. After all, all we knew at the time was we didn’t rely on state-funding, and this non-reliance was one way by which we could constitute our independence; how this independence coincided with and set apart an emerging modality in dance we could only intuit.

With much discussion, anticipation, anxiety, and debate, the network agreed to accept the invitation. And thus was born the WiFi Body Independent Contemporary Dance Festival as an outcome of the Contemporary Dance Map. But as the Map continued to exist, it unfortunately lost momentum, enthusiasm, and steam, evolving into a nothing more than a tokenist yearly celebration of the International Day of Dance, much to the dismay of some network members.


A time before contemporary, becoming contemporary

My guess is my peers and I are in a similar boat: my career in contemporary dance and as a choreographer in the Philippines came by way of a solo. That is, by producing work with my own body and putting out a language that I thought I could claim as my own. We were all producing works with our own bodies, inscribing on ourselves our own choreographies, pining for idiosyncratic artistic grammars embodied themselves by those who wrote them. To what extent this effort to construct such languages had proposed a new way of working and thinking dance was indeterminable—but it seemed determining it was of little value anyway. What seemed to matter more to the community was that we were a community abandoning the choreographer-dancer hierarchy. That we did this by producing work in which the object and instrument of labor coincided in the bodies that were in our control: ourselves. That we considered this practice a legitimating venue to be recognized not only as dancers or choreographers but as artists.

In retrospect, our experiences testify to how contemporaneity was more or less dependent on assertions of autonomy and independence. It’s almost funny how much depends on independence, and how the lofty abstraction that is the contemporary could be spawned by the crude material concern of where to get funding—solo dance in which the dance artist is both choreographer and dancer being the point where limited resources and autonomy converge. Because of the sweeping affiliation of contemporary with independence, being a solo dance artist was enough to call oneself a choreographer, and being a choreographer was enough to claim being contemporary.

Back then—before WiFi Body and the Contemporary Dance Map; before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram; before what we now know as contemporary dance even existed—we were concerned with nothing else but to find and activate, by way of self-organization, performing spaces for outsiders and autodidacts like ourselves who were/are not part or belonging to formal institutions in dance.

So, at that time, while we were in the process of becoming choreographers by way of our dancing activity and legitimizing our careers as dance artists, we were also becoming administrators, cultural managers in the service of ourselves as artists—self-organizing, self-governing, and self-administrating mechanisms that would render our practices legible not only to the public but even to our own selves. Or to put it in Marxist terms, we were the objects and agents of our labor while producing and distributing capital for the consumption of the market that mostly constituted no one else but ourselves.

In short, alongside our attempts to establish ourselves as choreographers, we were already choreographing by way of the administrative and organizational roles that we had to fulfill in creating an environment conducive to our propositions and practice.

We needed to be choreographers in order for us to become choreographers.


Imagining the contemporary and being autonomous

The presence of contemporary dance in the mainstream Philippine cultural narrative only became prominent a decade ago, provoked by the assertion of an aesthetic space outside state-sanctioned and -supported institutions like the CCP. This notably traces back to choreographer Myra Beltran’s bold assertion of her studio space as a legitimate production and presentational space for dance—producing and presenting works that did not benefit from state funding nor institutional support. Alongside this was her brazen proposal of contemporary dance as dance produced autonomously from institutions, the implication being contemporary dance is politically divorced from dance that is officially legible and acknowledged.


Choreographer Myra Beltran teaching a section of Anne Teresa de Keersmaker’s “Rosas” for the Rosas Remix project “Rosas ng Maynila.” Photo by Jeff Carnay


Before Beltran’s Dance Forum, dancers were limited to careers sanctioned under state-supported dance companies. No one dared venture outside of these spaces. Her unprecedented move not only allowed her own work to thrive, but most importantly paved the way for the emergence of a notion of dance that exists by itself—in the bodies of the artists, in their homes, in the terms of their own working spaces, organizational peculiarities, and political assertions.

It was only fitting that she eventually became a key personality leading the WiFi Body festival as founding and artistic director the last seven years. Under her leadership, inspiration and infectious zeal to champion dance, contemporary dance, was born. As well as a political imagining of dance that is independent and autonomous.

The current demise of the very platform WiFi Body may be seen as a failure in matching art market demands with creative practice, and also perhaps as an indirect aftershock of austerity measures to streamline public spending. But this recent development has only made clear that perhaps art thrives best when autonomously run, managed, distributed, and practiced. Perhaps the forced divorce of independent contemporary dance from both state support and from institutions that guarantee the fulfillment of art market demands can be reframed not only as the insistence of autonomy but also, especially thru the divorce from state support, an unwitting appeal for the state to reallocate its limited resources towards strengthening basic services that constitute the social life of Filipinos.

— January 2015, Quezon City, Philippines

*This essay was commissioned by the De Singel Internationale Kunstcampus as part of the accompanying literature for their “Stop in Manila” program which takes place from 12-15 March in DeSingel, in Antwerp. Much thanks is extended to DeSingel, particularly Karlien Meganck whose curiosity of the Philippine landscape has been instrumental motivation for this essay and to Angelo V. Suarez for the additional editorial inputs. 

The anxiety of contemporary part 1

This is the first part of an ambitious historical essay I have given myself the task to write. The aim of the essay is to rally for critical investment in defining the contemporary turn in Philippine dance and to once and for all re-write Philippine dance historical writing other than the anecdotal taxonomy of dance recitals, dance companies and personalities that have come by and are coming by

hijack poster

Poster promoting the a dance event celebrating the International dance day in the Philippines, led by the Contemporary Dance Network Philippines, a network composed of choreographers and dancers who ‘self-identify’ as contemporary


When questions on the state of contemporary dance in the Philippines arise, either in informal casual conversations or in formal classroom-plenary set-ups, I almost immediately have to restrain and remind myself that the fervent sentiments I harbor on a daily basis may not necessarily be the kind of answer that the public or even the dance insiders may be looking for. After years of thriving along the margins of what is supposedly the alternative history of Philippine dance I have learned to manage expectations. That is, first and foremost assuming in most probability that this question on the state of Philippine dance is less provocative than it sounds and more like a customary symbolic gesture that stakeholders feel more compelled to ask than to answer. More like a question addressed to the ‘big other,’ functioning as mere rhetorical gestures than prescriptive definitions. The few forums on contemporary dance for instance rarely ever conclude with aspirations to define the contemporary turn in Philippine dance.

Unfortunately the too many initiatives I have tried to establish in the name of  a productive dialog on contemporariness, and by productive I don’t mean those simplistic conjectures that “anything of the present is contemporary” and it is relevant to “keep this artistic expressions alive because they give space to freedom and preserve the humanity ” type of parochial reasoning, have often failed if not been out rightly dismissed as divisive. And so explains this school-girl awkwardness I feel towards this question: “What is Philippine Contemporary Dance?” An awkwardness manifesting either as a lump in my throat or by an uncontrollable urge to scratch my hands, lips and forehead not unlike those adolescent amorphous adrenalin rush one experiences when confronted with the possibility of absolute praise or outright rejection from an ‘other.’

Often times, my answer, despite my attempts to be thorough, come out as an imprecise representation of the community to which I belong but have very tedious ties with. It is a nauseating experience, if not totally an embarrassing one. The reason is less of irreverence, or disgust, or ignorance, or resentment but the complete opposite – that is, having witnessed the so-called emergence of contemporary dance movement in the Philippines at its formative phase both as an involved player and invested observer, how can a succinct, ethico-critical chronicle that will not turn off the typical ‘peace-loving-unity-in-diversity-and-misunderstanding’ dance enthusiasts or the dance community which has historically positioned itself at the far extreme of theoretical tradition and comfortably positioned itself in the other end of dance as a “non-verbal para-linguistic” discipline naiveté be arrived at? And while the temptation to respond “it’s complicated” seems like an enticing option, I also know that the problem lies in fact of it’s not being complicated enough! Or that we are not complicating it enough. Unless, of course, its lack of complication is that which constitutes its very complication, rendering the response “it’s complicated” appropriate. Even then the response “it’s not complicated” is nevertheless not complicated enough!

The question remains and no matter how at odds the majority of the dance community is with settling for a definitive account of the emergence of ‘contemporary’ in a country where ballet, modern ballet, musical theater, and bastardized Filipinized versions of it dominate and where hybridized combinations of these stylistic forms produce what is tentatively called ‘contemporary’ identifying the contemporary turn in dance may perhaps be the only way to really answer the state or unstate of Philippine contemporary dance.

This essay is a product of this anxiety over the contemporary. An anxious chronicling of the events and mindsets that has produced this uncertainty called Philippine contemporary dance. There having no previous attempt to write the history of Philippine contemporary dance or even a modest endeavor to identify historical markers signaling the contemporary turn, this essay is both a history and a critique. A critique not only of the field it is chronicling and its history, but also of itself.

There is an unspoken contract of inclusivity preoccupying the aesthetic conduct of the local dance community. An idealization of contemporary dance as an all-embracing style and philosophy that accommodates all body types, dance backgrounds, stylistic concerns, expressions, theoretical affinities, historical narrative, ethnicities, gender, body size, religion, modality of production, and even class. The same kind of homogenizing capitalist neoliberal spirit guiding socially relevant and responsive corporations who tailor suit their products and services according to every imaginable individual taste,gender and/or religious orientation, food preferences (vegetarianism, raw food, vegan, cave man diet, macrobiotics, etc), ethnicity, environmental concern, animal rights, and what other civic concern protecting the right of the individual liberals like professing their fidelity to by pressing share or like on facebook. This predilection finds a convenient exemplification in current dance and performing arts presentations that veer towards a blanket bias for novelty, or to be more precise, pieces of dance that sustain appearances of novelty, sometimes also even as recuperations of a long lost romantic untainted cultural past repackaged as novel tailor suited to every imaginable individual taste, gender and/or religious orientation, food preferences (vegetarianism,raw food, vegan, cave man diet, macrobiotics, etc.), ethnicity, environmental concern, animal rights, and what other civic concern protecting the rights of the individual liberals like professing their fidelity to by pressing share or like on facebook.

These recuperations take form through innumerable artistic gestures that flag national identity as the single marker of relevant artistic practice and esoteric speculations on cultural diffusion and histography that easily pass off as expert knowledge. As made apparent by the privileged space that works and artistic projects articulating cultural diaspora, post-colonial assertionof the local, ethnic revival and historical particularism occupy in the Philippine arts and culture landscape. How many times, for instance, has the quest for the Filipino been used as a proxy for artistic achievement? And conversely, how many artists whose works deliberately steer clear from identity narratives of ‘being Filipino’ have been dismissed as disconnected and irrelevant? A quick look at the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCCA) – the country’s designated policy and grant-making agency for culture and the arts – affirm this short-mindedness: “The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), Philippines is the overall policymaking body, coordinating, and grants giving agency for the preservation,development and promotion of Philippine arts and culture. “

Art, in the Philippines, as it seems is, in many different shapes and size, mediums,slogan, even avant-gardesque motherhood statements, but a serviceable therapeutic platform for the traumatized colonial slave, whose only chance to establish an enduring cultural tradition has been prematurely snatched by white colonial benevolent forebears who hold the privilege of having written the history and future of its brown subjects as a matter of gracious favor to the ignorant pagan tree worshiping indios, to rid himself of colonial impurities.

Defining contemporary has always been consigned to nothing else but a simplistic assignment of the word ‘new’ or ‘new expressions’ to the word dance. New being either the space in which dance is performed and presented, i.e. galleries,train stations, malls, apartments, temples, town plazas, rooftops, cemeteries,etc; or the combination of movements and ‘steps’ that “haven’t been previouslypresented together;” or the discovery of a “unique physical vocabulary” that evokes an aura of newness; or the addition of elements such as video,photography, literature, film, sculpture and fashion in the presentation ofdance that serve as nothing but scenic backdrop in dance productions. This circuitous description has, so far since the word ‘contemporary’ started to appear right next to ‘dance’ in late 90s and early 2000 in the Philippines,never been fairly unpacked. Perhaps the difficulty lies less in the perceived tautology of contemporary but more in the failure to imagine the contemporary as political.

to be continued…

What/Where is the choreography: citing expanded practices in choreography


Let me begin by way of a personal anecdote, describing a recent work that I consider as pivotal in how I position myself against the aspirations I aspire for as a choreographer negotiating what, Walter Benjamin in his essay The Author as Producer, describes as the attitude and position to the relations of production of one’s time. A question that “directly concern the function of work within the literary relations of production.” In short how do I position myself as a choreographer negotiating the exigencies of remaining afloat within an art economy that does not necessarily yield the means by which one can remain afloat as a non-choreographer, or a 32-year old mother of two with rent, monthly utilities, healthcare, clothing, and daily costs of living to attend to. Which brings to the table our favorite question, how do we as artists involved in the thing we do as artists survive when obviously the thing we do as artists does not guarantee access to the means of having a “good and comfortable life” that any adult aspires for.

The work I am pertaining to, entitled The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00pm to 8:40 pm, was a work produced while and through a residency granted by the Campbelltown Arts Centre’s International Dance Residency Program where I together with Filipino poet-critic Angelo V. Suarez collaborated with Australian dance artists to investigate the complicit network of interdependency involved and necessary for artists and cultural workers who “flit in and out of art-related institutions.”

The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00pm to 8:40 pm is a work in choreography and administration, developed between myself and Suarez together with Australian dance artists Sam Chester, Matthew Day, Alexandra Harrison, Nikki Heywood, and Dean Walsh under the curatorial and administrative assistance of dance artists Julie Anne-Long and Emma Saunders. Allow me to quote from the notes to work which was distributed to the audience members during the performance:

“This is a work of choreography. Which is to say, this is a work of literature. The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00 P.M. to 8:40 P.M. is an investigation into inscription—that is, how relations within a theatrical context are inscribed as well as how these relations are administered. This is a work of administration. Which is to say, this is a work of choreography.

As cultural workers who flit in and out of art-related institutions, the 7 artists have come up with a choreographic work in and out of the process of which they could also flit, as per administrative procedure: For 3 weeks prior to the show, The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00 P.M. to 8:40 P.M. was conceptually and physically assembled according to a pre-set schedule that marked when each collaborator would be present—a means of allowing the work to carry on even when some of those who worked on it were absent. One could even say that part of what constructed the work—the process of construction being “a careful symphony of comings and goings,” as Harrison described it—was one’s conscious and occasional absence from it. How telling that the 7 artists have agreed to not join the audience, further administrating and inscribing themselves into the performance thru their absence.”

I am referring back to this work particularly due to the online discussions that have ensued between myself and Suarez, and curator Tang Fu Kuen. The bone of contention was a line in the notes saying: “The discussions are also framed within the economy of an international exchange, a type of economy that either enables artists to become mobile and productive, or disables artists to be forced into mobility when they do not choose to be mobile and into productivity where they produce works they do not necessarily choose to produce.” Whether it was a misunderstood as cynical distrust in the economy of international dance exchanges, typifying the current mode of cultural production in contemporary economy, or an ungrateful spite against the necessity of “being mobile” is as far as I am concerned, didn’t matter as much. For isn’t it the very character of the art economy that allows, to quote Suarez, “feed the mouth that bites its hand…[even allow[ing] this economy to flourish as in the case of the cottage industry known as institutional critique]?” Furthermore the work, put in the context of international exchange, the platform by which most of my work, if not all of my work is allowed to exist, actually elicits this kind of self-reflexivity to thrive. The statement thus was nothing more than putting into historical context circumstances by which the work was being produced.

But why I am really citing this work is to illustrate how we – the artists, particularly Suarez, and myself who flew to Australia together with our then 7-month old child to do a residency – articulated our relation to the forces of production by exposing the administrative procedures and personal circumstances which are ordinarily considered as external to an aesthetic or choreographic work known to the public. In fact it was this very administration of the bodies in performance, bodies that included the audience who were precisely the instrumental accomplices of the work that we wanted to articulate as the choreographic work.

Immediately, the question “But (where) is the dance here?” comes to mind. My answer is that “there is none.” This was a work in choreography and not a work in dance. And as you’ve seen there is not a trace of anything in the work that may even remotely resemble dancing. The only thing that may account for this work to be of a work in dance or a work in the field of dance is that it has been conceived, produced, presented and distributed within an institution of dance by a group of people entrenched in the field of dance. Save, for Suarez and Nikki Heywood, who is an actor and dramaturge, all the collaborators had a distinct dance background and context to speak of.

What The Audience watching the Audience… is proposing is a notion of the choreographic divorced from dance. Encompassing the once stable relationship of choreography with the body and movement. Here, choreography is articulated and understood as an activity of organization. An organization of bodies in space and time, recording and organizing movement and gestures into a sensible whole to constitute a community — choreography as a social activity that not only connects bodies to form a community but also organizes the relations in which these bodies exist to interact. In short it is a work of administration, wherein what is administered is not only the bodies of all that are present in the performance but the very relations and power constellation by which each one present in the space is inscribed in.

German dance critic Gerald Siegmund proposes “the birth of choreography as a result of a moment of crisis, a moment of loss, of disappearance, of death both of the dance and its dancer.” Choreography is thus an action that keeps things, things that are immediately disappearing from finally disappearing. Is this not what we experience when we set movement material down into their “final choreographic” mode? Setting material in order to preserve the germination and materialization of an idea, concept, feeling and/or affect into a gesture? Siegmund then adds that it is this very instability – instability of the dancer’s feeling, fear of falling, crashing and dancing out-of-step – that is at the center of choreography. And hence, a community-forming moment that is aroused by the fear of impermanence. For dance is not only immediate and ephemeral but also always absent. In a sense that once it is realized and embodied it immediately ceases to materially exist. Choreography then aspires to prevent this abolition from taking place by putting into a code, into a score, and writes into language the body that is absent or at the threat of absence.

Allow me to momentarily digress and cite Andre Lepecki’s book Exhausting Dance in which he makes reference to the works of Jerome Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Vera Mantero, and Juan Dominguez among others whose works in the 90s introduce a stilling of movement as a response to dance’s identity of being-in-flow and it’s historical trajectory towards motility or continuous motion. This stilling dismantles the notion of dance as that associated with movement, constant agitation, flow and continuum of movement. And thus creating a crack in which thinking the choreographic in terms other than movement is made plausible, where “new possibilities for thinking relationships between bodies, subjectivities, politics and movement” is addressed.

This historical moment in recent contemporary dance history changed the landscape by which a dance performance is experienced, read, produced and consumed. If then, one could easily talk about dance performance in terms of what kind of object ‘dance’ a performance is, as in what is the dancing matter, the technique-style and subject matter being communicated through metaphor are being presented in the 90s these questions were no longer sufficient. Instead what emerged is another approach that was not solely if at all concerned with “what object a dance performance is” but “what kind of concept of dance” is being proposed and performed (B.Cvejic 2006). In this framework, a work of dance or choreography may be considered as a kind of proposition that issues a comment on dance. Through which the materiality of dance and the experience of the spectator are laid bare and challenged by way of self-reflexive critical questioning of one’s own position in the production and redistribution of experience and knowledge of dance.

At this point I would like to show another work probing the notion of choreography as an act of administering. Administering not just bodies and relations of these bodies with each other and in space but also the conditions within which these bodies move. The next work is an excerpt from a solo work Anything less is less than a reckless act. This solo, a lecture-performance, calls attention to the decision-making process constitutive of the aesthetic experience itself. It attempts to illustrate how audience members or spectators of a dance performance are implicated in the way they choose to experience a performance. And how in by administrating the means for them to watch and take a position as I wish to expose how the audience are participates in the construction of the work.

PETA Theater Center, June 2010

The initial impetus of this work was to isolate myself as a choreographer from the dance object by way of creating a structure by which I could still frame the work as a solo without necessarily being as “physically dancerly” involved in the dance object.

How does one, whose career track as a choreographer was primarily determined within the bounds of a solo dance practice, accomplish the task of distinguishing the dance from the choreography when one’s work as a choreographer within a solo dance practice is immediately complicated by the subjectivity and mandatory charisma expected of a solo dance performer? How does one, whose career track as a choreographer being primarily determined within the bounds of a solo dance practice and complicated by the subjectivity and mandatory charisma conforming of a solo dance performer, become a choreographer capable of critical distance from one’s own productive labor? How does one, whose career track as a choreographer being primarily determined within the bounds of a solo dance practice and complicated by the subjectivity and mandatory charisma conforming of a solo dance performer negotiating a critical choreographic distance from the one’s own productive labor, distinguish between activities called dance and choreography?

I am guessing that like some of my peers in dance, my career as choreographer in the Philippines has been catapulted by means of a solo – a solo I have “choreographed” and performed in 2004 by way of an invitation to participate in Jay Cruz’s Dancing Wounded Contemporary Dance Commune’s (now Transitopia Contemporary Dance Commune) entitled “Truth about beauty, truth about dance.” Now whether that solo was choreographically worthy or performer or, should I say ‘dancerly’ worthy still remains unclear to me – though I suspect the former, that is I knew then as performer with substantial stage experience that I must have possessed both the skill and charisma of carrying out a solo that warranted the public attention and recognition I have received as a dance artist.  In retrospect, I will say that in the context of how the so-called independent dance and the rise of independent dance artists in the Philippines has evolved there was an apparent indiscriminate tendency to synonymously interchange the terms solo dance artist with choreographer. As well as the sweeping affiliation of the contemporary with independent (dance), and/or solo dance artist. It was as if being a solo dance artist was no different from being a choreographer. And hence, I was interested in determining, whether I could be, being a choreographer whose career track has been initially established by solo dance works, a choreographer or that if I could choreograph expressing my bodily subject position. In this work, I tried as much as possible to disassociate myself bodily by not demonstrating the movement to the two dancers but by simply giving out verbal instructions that the dancers themselves had to interpret according to their experience and baggage as cultural beings.

The opportunity to clarify what is being a dancer and what entails being a choreographer has never cropped up until recently, which perhaps account for what may seem as a turning against dance, in favor of choreography, choreography that is beyond dance. Not that being one and the other at the same time is not possible but just that from where I am – where, being the place in which one works as administrator and administratee, sometimes separately but often simultaneously, in fields that may have to do with dance but often also fields that are outside of dance – the contrast needs to be clarified in order to properly situate one’s relation to artistic and cultural production. And hence elicit and receive the necessary support and infrastructure that will allow me to work as an artist and produce work that is considered art or aesthetic.

Back then, before there was WiFi or Contemporary Dance Map, or Facebook, or what we now know of as independent dance has even existed, all we – and when I say we, I mean us dancers who were informally bound together by a common: dancing outside what were considered as radars of dance namely, the CCP particularly Ballet Philippines, Philippine Ballet Theater, even of UP Dance Company – were concerned of nothing else but to find, and in our case, activate, by way of self-organization, performing spaces for outsiders and autodidacts like ourselves who were/are not part or belonging to formal institutions in dance. So, at that time, while we were in the process of becoming choreographers by way of our dancing activity; being publicly recognized as “dance artists” we were also becoming administrators, cultural managers in the service of ourselves as artists – self-organizing, self-governing and self-administrating mechanisms that will render our abstract work as dancers to be legible to the public, even to our own selves. Or in Marxist terms, we were producing capital, while also distributing capital for the consumption of the market. Or in what I am proposing as the expanding notion of choreography, we were becoming choreographers. Hence, one can say that we needed to become choreographers in order for us to be choreographers.

How far and to what extent can we choreograph the dance. That is to say to include the circumstances and political constellations that make it possible to frame a particular work as dance? Is it possible to account for those otherwise considered external to the dance — the material coordinates, micro-political arrangements, relations and economic decisions surrounding the production of any work in dance — and declare them as part of the aesthetic work?

I say yes. It’s been done and is being done. Jacques Ranciere provides us with a theoretical framework to back up such assertions when he defines aesthetic “as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience.” He further elucidates that aesthetic practices are those that “disclose artistic practices, the place they occupy, what they ‘do’ or ‘make’ from the standpoint of what is common to the community.” Artistic practices being the “ways of ‘doing’ and ‘making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility.” By proposing aesthetic practices as those that “disclose artistic practice” Ranciere suggest a more encompassing definition of the ‘aesthetic’ as something that does not merely involve the making of art but the more so the activities that distribute art or allow art to be distributed, experienced, produced and presented. In other words, the politics ordinarily conceived as extraneous if not “just contextual” to art.

If the aesthetic then encompasses what we ordinarily perceive as art, including even those that are otherwise just circumstances allowing one to participate in the institution of art, my proposal of the choreographic is hence to call attention to all the ‘other things’ that allows one to choreograph or to administrative endeavors that render the expressed to be sensed by a public, even by the artist himself. Let me then close this by citing a current work entitled Daily cost of living 01.05.2012 – 01.05.2013. Daily cost of living… is nothing but a tedious documentation my daily expenses incurred by way of collecting the receipts of all my expenses from food, daily necessities to books, eating out, clothing, rent, cost of daycare and reaction. These receipts will be published as a book after one year and called out as a choreography – a choreography of daily life, a daily life of a choreographer who negotiates life as a choreographer and non-choreographer aspiring to be a choreographer.



Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer” in Reflections, edited by Peter Demetz, New York,  Schocken Books, 1986, pp 220-238.

Cvejic, Bojana. “To end with judgement” www.mobileacademy           -berlin.com/englisch/2006/texte/cvejic03.html

Lepecki, Andre. “Introduction: the political ontology of movement” in Exhausting Dance,                       New York, Routledge, 2006.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill, London, Continuum, 2009.

Siegmund, Gerald. “Five Theses on the Function of Choreography” in Scores No. O, Autumn 2010.

Disco dancing by the lonesome

A year-ender post for a not so deserving year to post a year-ender for. This post is a sort of regrettable apology for not seeing enough performances during the year and for purposely missing  those that promised the contemporary. In short to write a year-ender on Manila’s dance scene without even the benefit of empirical evidence to substantiate my claim that there is not even a hint of interesting in Philippine dance is surely asking for trouble and perhaps another reason to further alienate myself from peers who toiled and worked hard in their respective studios for the past year. But who said criticism and spectatorship is no hard work.

And yet if an inventory of the invitations, press releases and email invitations were to be made, here is what 2011 amounts to: (1) the routinely  season performances of Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Rome & Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, ad naseaum; (2) staging of neo-classical pieces including the premiere of Filipino neo-classical/modern ballets based on narratives of nationhood, womanhood and identity; (3) “contemporary” rendition of Le Sacre du Printemps, which was not at all publicized save for a few insiders who don’t seem enthusiastic about promoting it; (4) yearly fragmented celebrations of International Dance Day care of National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ (NCCA) Committee on Dance — who seem to either be working from another country what with their negligence in connecting with the dance country’s dance community or working from another era where ballet and Filipinized versions of it are thought interesting and valuable (come on really?!) — and the Contemporary Dance Network Philippines whose preoccupation for site-specific performances in lieu of bringing dance to the public as in this year’s Hijack Dance and Underground Dance are but haphazard excuses to mount well-made indoor performances; (5) Congresswoman Lucy Torres being appointed as NCCA Ambassador for Dance; (6) and yes, who can miss the overly emotional debate on the Dance Bill (House Bill 4260 and Senate Bill 2679). I’ve just recently heard through the grapevine that the only three major dance companies in the country — who, mind you, have no stake at all in contributing anything phenomenal to the field by way of disturbing the status quo aside from for their almost obscure persistence to restage classics over and over again — are now equally vying for the privileged spot of national recognition. A silly request really, given that there are only but three companies in the country which means declaring all of them as national dance companies, well, misses the point. Prestige fail. Democracy sucks.

Billed as the country's first ever international dance festival organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts' Committee on Dance. One did not need to see the actual festival to feel embarrassed at how incredibly amateurish this festival was.

And still there were some that sounded interesting and important and yet largely ignored by the dance community, perhaps even by organizers themselves who failed to disseminate information in their activities to key stakeholders of the community such as (1) Sayaw Salita: A Forum on Dance at UP Diliman, (2) and a forum on contemporary dance and independent practice organized by Goethe Institut in Manila to celebrate their 50 years of work in the Philippines which was again sadly not disseminated among key stakeholders and attended by a few if not mostly by people who have not a clue about contemporary dance practices in the country.

And the performances I wished I’ve seen were: (1) Airdance’s anniversary show Adarna — I know — a lot of flying perhaps — but, now that the company is being run and managed by the promising generation of the emergent, the show pretty much approximates a picture of what there is to look forward to; and (2) Agnes Locsin’s Encantada, because while I’m not personally a fan of neo-ethnic ballet, Locsin is still the one among the current crop of established Filipino choreographers who has demonstrated a true singularity of vision.

2011 will pass as another uneventful year in Philippine dance.

Taking Sides

Our arbitrary associations to history and its relative authority in the pursuit of predictability can sometimes leave behind a bitter aftertaste of disgust, even discontent and anxiety similar to bouts of insecurity that visit any creative process. The consequences of which are rarely documented, nor reconsidered until much later when hindsight is already mute and inconsequential–the moment when history is already written with or without objections. The consequences of which are often overlooked in favor of the magnanimous reputation of artistic genius. Or not, such as the case of the ‘alternatives’ who have haphazardly earned a place among the emergent by the sheer claim of marginality; conveniently manipulating its very charm and political correctness. One that, frankly speaking, borders on nothing else but excessive self-aggrandizement even on indulgent un/necessary confessionals that the public secretly clamors for and hesitantly rejects. Only now, unlike then, confessions can no longer rely on a foolproof idiot’s checklist of transgressions so neatly categorized according to an accurate nomenclature.

Not that things are more complex, nowadays, nor are they any simpler, but the numbing tolerance for plurality bestowed upon us has itself given us the precious impotent capacity to take sides. Free will is freely sold at a cheap price, if not practically free, like those consumer-friendly promo stints that make us believe in the auspicious timing of cash flow.

But there is of course nothing more gratifying and daunting than freedom. And pleasurable than indulging its possibility, (despite) knowing its impossibility. More so now, with the timely change of what many deem as a respectable government laden with the empty hope for a better if not at least, a nearly decent future. Still, what is it that really transpires when one is given the freedom to choose freely? How much of this freedom do we actually exercise or are allowed to exercise? To pose this question is almost cheeky, nostalgic, irreverent and surely irrelevant; leading to either irrational emotional arguments or a sober dead-end. So are we really free or free only insofar as the options made available to us?

The freedom to choose must have been the most beaten theme in human history and artistic actions co-opted either by propagandist claims or crass commercial liberalism. Yet it is easy to miss that any artistic process whether created in the isolation, as in the typical image of an artist-idiot savant locked in his studio or when appropriated by more relevant social agendas involve the same process of weighing—of making decisions and foreclosing other “creative options.” The theater is about making decisions; beforehand during the production of the work or in the production itself, re-enacted every minute exactly the way it was.

This was exactly the crucial point of Anything Less is Less Than A Reckless Act; to strip down the spectacle of a dance or theater performance into one of the most basic elements of creation – making and enacting choices. While it may immediately seem that continuing to ponder on theater and performance, and its machinery may be a tad to dull, stubbornly solipsistic or even a bit out-dated, watching and enjoying contemporary performances require a level of understanding how the operations and procedures are communicated to the audience and even the artists themselves, rather than further mystified.

But perhaps before proceeding, a haphazard but diplomatic estimation of performance and performance-making strategies current in Manila is in order, even if only provisionally, and even at the risk of oversimplifying overlaps in stylistic tendencies and historical agendas.  Generally speaking there are two orientations that exist in the Manila performing arts landscape. The first one, which is the dominant stream of performance practice, is quite easy to recognize, not only are they more common, easily accessible and visible, but they do not demand much from the audience. It is enough to sit and be entertained. It’s quite simple: the choreographer or dancer gets an idea or inspiration, tinkers around with it “creatively,” translate it into some aesthetic/artsy dance or movement sequence with a few acrobatics (of course) typically accompanied by music done by a local composer or as in more often the case, by an easily comprehensible piece of music either a drum-and-bass or electronica-inspired,21st century hit classical music or indie-alternative pop songs. The former is almost always the default preference, as is the easy one too, simply because no further textual and contextual work is necessary as the lyrics are conveniently weaved into the choreographic work. Fancy lighting design is also added in to complete the aesthetic experience.

The other orientation, which lies along the margin, seems to veer toward the more didactic and pedagogic, and often misconstrued as alienating, boring, “we can do that too” non-sense. Here the performance space is immediately seen as loaded with political, ideological and historical contexts that need to taken apart and examined. In such performances, the power relationship between the audience and artists are challenged, investigated if not amplified. Most of the time there is not much spectacular action happening (though not often the case). In some situations, there is only silence or minimal music, some talking, and direct confrontation and communication with the audience. These performances problematize how the distribution of significations and meaning is distributed between the viewers and doers. Here the magic of the theater is stripped bare to its possible minimum. Not much costumes, no acrobatics, simple clean lighting if ever at all. A single idea is persistently explored and often the procedures of artistic production are exposed to the audience and demystified.

Now, surely both kinds of performances offer specific experiences that should not be compared with each other. And even not all artists are self-conscious to make deliberate steps towards aesthetic orientations. But sometimes during the process one has to learn to pick a side, pick a direction and pursue it full stop because the integrity of any artistic and creative process lies in the capacity to make decisions and persistently commit to it until the end, even if the end may seem to be a failure, even if one already thinks they know what will happen.

Moreover, there is no way to say whether a right or wrong decision has been made because perhaps there are no right or wrong decisions which the audience in our last show Anything Less Is Less Than a Reckless Act*, soon had to realize. Even they had to concede to the possibility that there are no right and wrong decisions, only corresponding consequences and risks. And that decision-making is not a matter of choosing what is right or wrong but deciding which risks we want to take; which ones we could stand to live with at the present moment while foregoing the anticipation of the future. The moment of performance after all takes place not on the stage, neither inside the hall where the lecture unfolds but in the irreducible gaps of perception, in the actuality of the event, and in the possibility of experiencing different kind of connection and disconnection. The real performance is not the ‘product’ that we see in front of us but in, what I shall borrow from choreographer Xavier Le Roy’s work, ‘product of circumstances.’

Anything is less than a reckless act is a solo lecture-performance project produced by The Lovegangsters and presented in cooperation with the French Embassy in Manila at PETA Theater Center, 15 June 2010.


The insistence to call dance work

photo credit: Mervin Espina

The insistence to call dance work necessarily begs the unavoidable interrogation of the aesthetic appeal of dance. A move that is far from innovative but only near ambitiously progressive and constructive. Proposing a recreational nitpicking of the modes of production and distribution of sensible intensities of the body on stage and in the everyday. A move immediately petty but still overlooked. A move that invites a retrospective disclosure of the informal networks operating within the performing arts. A move, somewhat annoying in so far as what need is there to say that doing is work. A move that is boring to a point of hysterical. A move that strips dance of its affective quality and romantic autonomy, which should dangerously lead us to destabilize the awkward distance of art from entertainment. A move that is satisfactory in so far as public interventions are becoming vague career moves. A move that is fresh but sometimes too trendy. A move that dares to abandon the particular and say that dance is “no more than an empty emblem.” Which is to say that it is no different from the pleasure products and services we consume to pass off time or to give us a gratifying moment of relief from habit. Such that it is subject to the same system of exchange and transactions that we reserve for all things material except art.

The insistence to call dance work is necessary in so far as any activity that offers amusement is ‘the prolongation of work.’ Those pleasurable relaxing weekend breaks, illicit love affairs, nomadic backpacking adventures, summer getaways, momentary breaks from the dullness of routine, improvisatory excursion in public commuter sites are meant to provide the vital rests in order to work again.

The insistence to call dance work is a baggage that has to be neatly unpacked by those who have chosen to practice it beyond their adolescence and making careers out of it. Beyond the cute, little pink tutus that crowd the proscenium stage every passing of summer recitals. Beyond the decorative artificiality of arabesques and pirouettes, so earnestly learnt and mastered. Beyond the virtuosity of malleable and flexible bodies dancing around physical barriers in site-specific performances. Beyond the display of love for dance, which breeds the exploitative rationale for being paid less. Beyond the spur-of-the-moment reactionary tendencies to burst open the seams of theater, as if the formal space of the theater were not porous enough to produce interesting anomalies worthy of exploration.  Unfortunately, not far from our corporate yuppy counterparts working their asses off everyday riding the train, we have to concede to the same routinely discipline of work. Because dance is not exempt from ideology, nor governed neither outside of social phenomena, nor devoid of geopolitical presuppositions, and no dance is not completely free.

And hence it demands that clarity and some form of even tentative organizational frameworks be laid down. That is if an environment for art practice that matters is to be achieved beyond the occasional and fleeting traces left by performances, no matter how kick-ass they are. It is about time that the consequences of individual choreographic incursions into the real world be made accountable for their propositions of engagement. Otherwise, a retreat into the safe confines of the theater should immediately be drawn up. And yes, this is an unfair expectation. Expectations are made precisely because they have to be surpassed. If change is truly to be achieved, stakes have to be raised, sometimes at the cost of losing face.

The community of contemporary dance practitioners indeed raised the stakes by going out to the streets with the much talked about Moving Dance LRT Dance Express. Dancers and choreographers alike came out of the comforts of their studio, minus the comfortable experimental frame of the theater, sans costume, sans make-up, sans their dance personas to spread the word of dance among ordinary riding public on the fitting occasion of International Dance Day celebration worldwide. Donning ‘ordinary’ clothes seemingly conspicuous at first, they filled the otherwise bane cold environment of the train station with their impassioned and sweating bodies. No it was not an ambush, far from an ambush, despite the seemingly ambush-like quality of a haphazardly organized improvisation jam. In fact the event was closely coordinated with the LRT Administration who expressed enthusiasm for the Contemporary Dance Network’s proposal to infect the train. And why not! Anything to go against the grain is welcome, summer was a time to break free and Philippines election time is no stranger to strange occurrences.

Here was free reign. No entrance or exits, no rehearsals, no methods of work, no set steps, no set choreography, no procedure, no proscenium stage, no clear audience area, no constraints, no costume change, no faltering technical cues, no lights to find yourself into, no tedious frustrating marketing of tickets, no illusion, no appearances, no director, no lighting designer, no stage manager, no front of house reception, no definite roles, no regulating mechanisms, no schema, no expectations, no bureaucratic theater operations, no checks and balances, and no accountability.

The LRT Dance Express defies any way of evaluation or appreciation precisely because it did not set one. And here lies its cleverness, surely to the frustration of a reading spectator. It was foremost not for the consumption of a discerning spectator. Interestingly despite its attempt to bring dance closer to the public the public is lost because there is no space for them; the public is merely an accidental element in the whole thing. Why? Why, because the dancers willed themselves to dance in an almost ritualistic action reminiscent of summer solstice where the public truly became spectators watching in awe, in fascination, in disbelief, with barely any time to consume and process what was happening. The potential to create more meaningful connections that is paradoxically allowed in conventional theater and dance performances was lost, lost to the throngs of bodies eager to move, eager to impress and sweat out whatever was interior to them.

If laborers are entitled to a labor day, to give cognizance of their efforts to keeping us all afloat, what the local celebrations of International Dance Day proposes is a working-day out for dancers. Why not? Everybody needs a break!

[This essay was first published online on Philippine Online Chronicles under the title Barely An Ambush, 20 May 2010, http://www.thepoc.net/thepoc-features/metakritiko/metakritiko-features/6874.html]

No effort, no entry

What follow are traces of diachronic coincidences of two unrelated dance performance events that have taken place along the MRT and LRT2 lines of Manila within the period of two years. In no way should this be mistaken for an attempted synchronic comparison of aesthetic tendencies in local contemporary dance practice nor a summation of its trajectory, nor a fool-proof guide in making things happen. What is presented here instead, is an ambitious diptych of digressive dance anecdotes told from the varying positions of insider and outsider–an exercise in tenure in which one must deploy the skills of performing while at the same time occupy the role of an observant spectator.

Event 1 is a post mortem, short of regretful, self –referential recollection of a dance hijack organized by The Lovegangsters back in 2008. Event 2 is a differential outsider’s take on the recently concluded International Dance Day celebrations organized by Contemporary Dance Network Philippines in collaboration with the Light Rail Transport Authority last April 29.


Event 1 [14.06.2008 on the MRT line]

One hot summer evening, two years ago, in one of ’em secret hiding places along the by-now gentrified strip of Maginhawa we foolishly drew up a plan to salvage what was left of our optimism; a guerilla-motivated disco takeover of the metro. Possibly fueled by a then ongoing obsession to make a difference via hallucinations of Debord, the Paris commune, anarchist utopia, pretentious post-Berlin wall fascinations, tactical interventionist actions, revivalist disco night parties or just a nostalgia for all things pure and authentic we drew up a plan to dance hijack the MRT line. We should have known better. Youthful recklessness aside, hijacks are only fit for those mad enough to even bother with any plan or utopic takeovers masked as art. We were not even young anymore then. In fact to be precise, we were approaching what was to be the end of our decadence. And now in hindsight it’s easy to think that what had transpired was merely an excuse to hold-off any impending submission to sobriety befit of nasty next-day hangovers. Or a sentimental persistence to hold-on to adolescent excess and frustrated mis/adventures mediated by cosmopolitan romantic aspirations of a free-bordeless, brave and tolerant world. Nothing to do with dance. Nothing to do with art. Just some silly hope in the future and dreaming.

We should have known better. Hijacks are of course only possible in so far as any plan for recklessness, subversion or disturbance must immediately concede to nullifying its own means and ends. In that any public site specific performance or intervention must first and foremost yield to the same insipid, careful, deliberate, studied patience and tedious consideration suitable for conventional “indoor” theater/dance performances. There is no avoiding the sober because it has and will creep in each of us. Even the most irrational violence of terrorist attacks or emancipating of revolutions undergoes the same weighty consideration of procedure. And even the fetish for intricate gestures of subversion is complicit to the “very logic it denounces.”

The plan was simple: indiscriminately ride the train in full disco dancing garb, with big boom box in tow, in small groups of five or seven, starting from Ayala Station all the way to Cubao. In trickles, we imagined ourselves growing into a collective of dancing freaks, overtaking the train with our infectious display of energy, rowdiness, charm and that internal rhythm that makes one dance, devoid of any compositional/choreographic end. No other agenda or purpose. Who needed one? All we wanted was a hijack–the means justified the end. And So we thought. We were soon to realize that it was one of those conceptual meanderings better written (and talked about) than executed. We should have known better.

Yet we still found the perfect excuse to push through aboard Carlos Celdran’s funky MRT tour/ride from Ayala to Cubao to launch Groovy Manila Map and Guide, which culminated at counterculture underbelly Cubao X where a party and program of performances awaited its guests. Celdran willingly agreed to carry our hijack plan in the frame of his tour. Never mind the differing views on ‘disco.’ We were dead set. Lo and behold; a flurry of text messages, email spam invitations, friendly word of mouth enticements sent, play list in hand only to realize the train we rode had been cordoned off to the rest of the ‘ordinary’ commuters for the exclusive enjoyment of tour. From Ayala, the train breezed through all the stations near empty except for the group of weirdly dressed hippiefauxhemians and some artist-types dancing to the fascination (and probably disgust) of the people waiting by the platforms who watched in disbelief as the train just passed through with complete disregard of it’s riding public.Maybe some of them were amused, we were not. We wanted to be lost among the crowd of commuters. We should have known better.

Event 2 [29.04.2010 on the LRT 2 line]

photo credit: Paolo Picones


One hot devilish, body and mind-numbing afternoon around 40 dancers from the Contemporary Dance Network Philippines (CDNP)gathered at the Legarda Station of the LRT Purple Line to disprove any doubts that doing anything under this damned heat wave is anywhere near impossible. Pleasure and wholesome fun can be achieved minus the intoxicating high that mostly accompanies such routinely cathartic releases. And it can be achieved through the permissible acknowledgement of authority that our forebears once rejected, that those foolish retro hopefuls of present are so stubbornly resisting without regard for the systemic indicators that mediate their own subversive gestures. But not without ambition–the task for the afternoon entailed peculiar perseverance, not to mention physical endurance and enormous amount of energy because dance/ing is not at all for the faint hearted and shy. Besides, dancers know how to take heat, they’ve been trained for this all their lives. No it was not a collective ritual to induce rains from the stale skies of our megalopolis. Though the rains did come a few hours after, offering a well-deserved refreshing respite from the long extended Manila summer. Neither was it a collective demonstration of dissatisfaction. Neither was it to be mistaken for a nostalgic invocation of guerilla performances meant to disturb the sensuous guarantee of the society of spectacle.

Yes, the afternoon was boisterous as the infectious shoots and cheers of the dancers who danced, swung by every pole in sight, jumped over turn stiles, leapt through empty spaces of the moving train filled the otherwise somber mood of an ordinary commuter train. Both to the surprise and fascination of the people riding the train. Still one could not deny the alienating sanguine that was invisibly (and performatively) drawn between those who were doing and those watching. A necessary distance even more meaningful in lieu of attempts to break the ordinary and everyday. And like many conventional performances, this one still had to concede to the obvious: the dance, dancers, stage and its audience.

Moving Dance @LRT Dance Express organized by CDNP in cooperation with the LRT Authority, dovetails the yearly Contemporary Dance Map (CDM) series celebrating the International Dance Day. Initiated in 2005, the series seeks to increase the profile and awareness for contemporary dance practice in the country by consolidating the individual creative efforts and endeavors of leading independent practitioners and makers of contemporary dance. Under the leadership of Myra Beltran, the series began as a tour of alternative performing spaces for dance in Quezon City and Manila. Five years in, the platform has since served as fertile ground for young emerging talents in contemporary dance, many of whom are now developing their distinct dance vocabularies and aesthetic trajectories.

Moving Dance comes at an opportune time. It was after all, only a matter of time before Manila joined the rest of the public art bandwagon already taking place elsewhere. Halfway through a decade, the network’s work has grown to bear fruit for a wider appreciation of contemporary dance. Proof is the popular growth of enthusiasts turned practitioners coming from varied dance backgrounds like street dancing, ballet, hip hop even pole dancing and what-not who have all by now found their way into the “legitimate network” of contemporary dance practitioners. Proof is the unnerving raw energy of the dancers who battled the high afternoon heat, exhaustion and repetitive emptiness of rowdy improvisational free dance compositions aboard the train. Proof is the blessing of the LRT administration to accommodate what would otherwise be just “too strange.” Never mind the differing and sometimes disparate views on dance and public engagement. The International Dance Day was a fitting occasion to be united in dance. Where boundaries such as differences, form, style, aesthetic inclinations, political agenda, and body are put aside for the common aim of the festive. Where everyone complied with the universal language of dance.

…And now what?

What do these two isolated dance events have to do with each other? Nothing. Except for their overt musings on public spectacle, optimistic claims to challenging the liminal frames of dance and tendency to make spectacle out of their own gestures clamoring for change. Both attempts that propose to reclaim the place of dance not in society, but the place of dance in dance. To wretch it out of any context other than its own propagation. To marry the means for its own end. To declare the autonomy of the body in dance or the autonomy of dance which in Alain Badiou refers to as a self-rotating wheel where dance is “like a circumference which represents its own principle, a circumference not drawn from the outside, a circumference that is drawing itself.” Risking that which they do not know because it is only by “linking what one knows with what one does not knows” that emancipation of theater from its gripping sterility and stultificationcan be meet. And there is no other way to carry this out but through the ambitious, for what point is it to plan anything less of ambitious anyway?

[* this essay first appears published online at Philippine Online Chronicles, 20 May 2010, http://thepoc.net/thepoc-features/metakritiko/metakritiko-features/6755.html]

The half-truth and half-lie about watching

Now having settled on the initial discomfort of watching, it remains to be further pricked upon why the insistent demand of distance as a strategy to sustain curiosity, when there are hints at constructing a deferential, provisional, even bureaucratic detachment of self or suspension of judgment.

The need is of course not so obvious, given that Manila is – no Berlin, or New York, or Vienna, or Amsterdam – a cosmopolitan schizoid not urbane enough to let go of its post-Marcos guilt and parochial artistic concerns. Any discussion about art and culture will almost always induce those dirty words: Filipino, identity, social responsibility, history, gratitude, etc. Not enough art exhibitions or contemporary performances challenge our comfortable, parochial minds.  Neither do we have any festivals that force us to re-examine the experience of watching apart from merely judging a piece of work as good or bad.

Despite the growing practice of art outside the cultural center, most of which are merely reactionary, the values attenuated on art still hinges on the age-old patronage system.

Nothing wrong here really; the performing arts practice in the country is after all premised on patronage system pretty much until now. The cavernous Cultural Center of the Philippines building is reminiscent of Rockefeller Center, an elite secondary school for the performing arts patterned after the famous Hollywood flick Fame: dancers coming from privileged families from down South, scholars sent by rich people to study abroad, all dressed up pretty and nice performing at benefit dinners. These dancers are idealized as glamorous, beautiful, ephemeral, poster images on magazines and dailies, and the body brutally molded to idealize the human condition if only as reactionary response to all of the above.

Again, nothing wrong here except that it’s boring, staid, and uninteresting.  It perpetually reinforces the deceptive conception of art as something that should be breathtaking and beautiful, and therefore alienating. Alienating in so far as the thing remains far from us. Should we accept this premise then there is nothing left for us to do but slip back into the passive consumption of a performance. Within such a setup, this ranting could might as well be taken to the privacy of backstage dressing room talk.

Whether it is even productive at all to discuss how dance has lagged behind contemporary thought is probably not as important as appreciating our place in it as viewers or spectators. A performance is never complete/d without the complicit imbalance of power between performers and its spectators. And this premise need not be taken seriously (no matter how jolting it may sound) but humorously and constructively. Should we consider a performance as a construction rather than a “way of imitating reality or expressing states of the mind,” then its completion rests not in the reality of the dancers sweating their guts out but within our imaginations and how it subtly affects the way we see (our) bodies. In fact, this is why we watch, we like the distanced vulnerability of watching something unfold while experiencing a connection to it, be it emotional, physical or intellectual, without having to risk so much.

But distance is also risk, more so for the artist drawn to guard the meaning of their work. They hold of on impulsive creative decisions and instead modestly maintain the empty potential of the stage – a site where significations are not only contested but also stripped bare of their necessity. Instead they have to illustrate the obvious, such as the frame of the theater (notwithstanding its ideological and historical baggage) and the ‘performance event,’ the body and its organization, the choreographed assignments of who is watching and who is doing, the performer and the spectator. Paradoxically, the performer-maker or author is left impotent, castrated. Their function is left to merely establishing a situation or pretext for an ‘activity ‘ to take place, which is the performance itself — a performance that includes both spectator and performer.

So what makes a performance contemporary or what makes watching contemporary? What makes for contemporariness is perhaps not simply the content of a work, no matter how sociologically loaded or relevant it is to the times, or in how innovative the gestures we witness onstage. The way it resists the fascist tendency to represent the abstract into form or inscribe some notion of the human condition on the emotional expression of a dancer’s body, yet paradoxically keeping the tension in the way things are. Performing involves a negation of an act in order to communicate something transparently outside of the body.

Detachment is necessary if only to effectively slide into that critical zone of doing and looking at the same time or what Joao Fiadeiro refers to as “protecting myself from what I want.” Why take this risk? We can take this risk precisely because the stage is safest place to, because we are distanced away from it.

[this essay first printed online by Philippine Online Chronicles at http://www.thepoc.net/thepoc-features/metakritiko/metakritiko-opinions/5264-the-half-truth-and-half-lie-about-watching.html, 25 March 2010]

The most obvious thing in dance is the dance

photo credit: Sam Kiyoumarsi


Wearing the pants or wearing the role is no guarantee that the obvious has clearly been stated. This is because observations of the obvious are too easily dismissed as useless, for the very reason of banality, or being too easy. Even the act of mimicry accedes to certain ideological and historical baggage, that are often overlooked precisely because of their anomalous absence onstage, too deeply imprinted to become unnoticeable. But no naiveté is naïve enough to discount the probability of reason behind, or reasonfor and reason underneath. Almost always, an ontological admission occurs to enact procedure, even if it were unconsciously made. Even self-reflexivity or transparency, almost near absent from the impassioned local performances we see occasionally, is not exempt of agenda, whether it is obvious, self-reflexive or implicit. Sometimes the agenda is disclosure itself. Even if the mirror in the dance studio, the first encounter of approval, guarantees the strict visual adherence to form.

The most obvious in dance is nothing but the dance. So there you go, any attempt at appreciating dance from the lens of even the metaphysical has to concede to its object (and subject). A teacher once said that dance will always be abstract and probably she is right. No matter how much reference to cultural history, popular culture, fragmentation of social order, the mobility of the body, the transience of time, the eloquence of nature, the strength of the female, the frustration of love, post-colonial diaspora, the need for change, anxiety of displacement, the battle of good over evil, the frailty of ambivalence, the fusion of tradition and contemporary, the loss of innocence, nostalgia for the ancient, hope for the disillusioned, the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised, and the search for identity and authenticity is made they will just all have to take a back seat. One can take any kind of dance/ing, or set of intricate movement patterns and situate it in any of the varied contextual readymade options, place some appropriate title and you have a piece — a work that masks form for content and meaning. Or in Barthes speak, the death of the referent, what survives is not the dance, but the signifying relevance we put into dance. Has the dance, or movement then become merely an excuse, subsumed by the bigger agenda of meaning or process?

This can happen of course. And is this not a mark of contemporary, reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade or even of Damien Hirstwhere title frames the work, much more important than the actual object? The latest offerings of Airdance and Ballet Philippines for example, or even the last Pasinaya Open House Festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, featured a wide array of dances that almost all looked the same, felt the same, sounded the same, moved the same only varying in title, costume, music, and casting. Where difference is a matter of short-circuit tactic pointing out the minimal as if.

So where do we start? How do we appreciate dance? The answer to the first is provisional; there is no satisfying answer to what dance is, neither is there a satisfactory answer to what art is. There are observable aspects of dance that choreographers like Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, Hooman Sharifi, Anne Therese de Keersmaeker and many others, even scholars like Rudolf Laban have tried to break down: time, space, inertia, energy, momentum, lines, point, shape, volume, density, and rhythm. How do we know if it’s good or bad? We never do. It’s not even important because watching is less an exercise in judgment than reading. How do we appreciate it? We don’t, we just read.