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

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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…

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