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.

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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.