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…


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.


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.