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.

Wifi_newchoreographer

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.


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]