Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Bittersweet Romeo and Juliet

In the last two years, the company has been restaging ballets from  the treasure trove of Ballet Philippines repertoire. National Artist Alice Reyes' "Romeo and Juliet" is the last classical full length ballet to be restored before the company steps into their golden season. The idea of passage of rites at the end of the 49th season is quite fitting and beautifully symbolic. The dancers on the company frontline have been gifted with experience that can equip them as they step into the next chapter of the company's journey. Much like how Balanchine transfers his legacy through his trusted dancers, the company now has a fleet of people who worked directly with the choreographers (which is of utmost importance) in restaging moments in dance history. While it is not an assurance that the creations will be protected from ruin, there is a glimmer of hope that it will stand the test of time. There is also an opportunity to revisit the work and improve it as necessary.

Preservation Project 

This version of Romeo and Juliet was originally meant to be a commissioned work by a foreign guest choreographer. By some twist of fate it ended up being choreographed by national artist for dance Alice Reyes. The choreographer expressed that she was inspired by the grandiose Bolshoi Ballet version and the temperament of the San Francisco Michael Smuin's version. While the company has performed Romeo and Juliet several times, this version has only been performed thrice after premiering in 1981. In the recenty concluded performances the titular role was shared by Denise Parungao and guest artist extraordinaire Joseph Gatti, Monica Gana and Ronelson Yadao and Jemima Reyes and Victor Maguad. As declared by the choreographer most of it is in its original format with minor changes to adapt to skill level of the performers.

Test of Competence

The production proved to be quite a challenge for the dancers. Reyes had everyone dancing intricate patterns with grand sweeps, swivels and quickly executed partnering. This included all the character dancers who in their senior age also had to perform lifts, backbends grand battemonts (kick extensions). To say the least there were a lot of vibrant moments in the ballet celebrating the capabilities of the dancers. The competence of the company was highlighted when the Manila Symphony Orchestra would have evident misses on the tempo and the dancers would adapt to unreasonably slow timing or unbelievably quick pace. They thrived with a smile and a few unnecessary beads of sweat on their foreheads. Their coping mechanism was commendable beyond words.

Denise Parungao on opening night glistened with a new found maturity in her performance. She has always excelled in lyrical ballets but her depth in interpretation has visibly grown through the years. Her emotions were not reserved for the grand extended movements but the motionless moments as well. Her character was well sustained throughout the ballet. Fluid in movement and emotions, this may very well be one of her best performances ever.

In this version there is very little opportunity for Romeo to show off tantalizing tricks. Despite this, Joseph Gatti still captivated the audience with his  portrayal of Romeo. He still delivered his usual six pirouettes ending in arabesque and suave jumps which were highly impressive but he put a little bit more on the table to cement  his performance. His vulnerable moments were his best. Memorable was when he stabbed Tybalt. After the first unceremonious strike, he twisted the sword shoving it even deeper into the body in one vibrating movement in complete maniacal rage. Eyes fixed on Tybalt, his eyes turned soft as he had realized what he had just done. No tricks there just an authentic moment shared with the audience. It's true sometimes less is more.

Together Parungao and Gatti conquered the challenges provided by the orchestra. While they were robbed of a few moments of breath which the canned music provided they did not allow the speed of the tempo to take away the whirlwind effect of the balcony scene. Their transition from one lift to another were silky smooth. With every luxurious backbend or grand lift so much emotion was drawn out. They were equally mesmerizing in the bed scene. They were, throughout the ballet, fully committed to each other melting my heart both as a dancer and as an audience member.

Noteworthy were the performances of Ballet Philippines' technicians. Eugene Obile as Tybalt, Earl Arisola as Mercutio and Victor Maguad as Benvolio all delivered the required testosterone to dance side by side Joseph Gatti. They represented strong dancing from the Philippines with their expansive leaps and clean footwork. Butch Esperanza who played Count Capulet moved me to tears as he carried Juliet thinking she was dead. Every bit a veteran his face alone told the story of instant regret and inconsolable forlorn.

Missing the pointe 

The story of the ballet is well known to many but I believe that prior knowledge of the story should not be necessary when watching a ballet. All key elements should be clear as day. While the restaging was a vibrant one, I found that there were key scenes that were overlooked or underloved. In the first act the Prince of Verona gives fair warning to both the Capulets and the Montagues that lives shall pay for the forfeit of peace. However within days, the rivalry caused the death of both Mercutio and Tybalt. In the literature, the imagery repeats itself when the Prince of Verona imposes his final say about the rivalry which makes sense of the prologue that says "Two households both alike in dignity in fair Verona... where civil blood makes civil hands unclean". The Prince of Verona giving his final judgement of Romeo was not shown in the ballet which for me is of vital importance. This missed scene emphasizes that Romeo and Juliet is not simply a love story but a story about the uselessness of rivalry and the importance of moral restraint. The scene also explains why Romeo had to leave Juliet so urgently because if he did not leave he would be killed. In this version after the bodies are taken away, Romeo's goodbye quickly follows. It should be noted that the Bolshoi version which is one of the inspirations for the ballet also did not have this scene but instead had both parties come out with the both dead bodies and the two camps blaming each other through mime and tableau framing the bed scene that ends with a goodbye.

Another important scene that was missing was the unfortunate timeline of Brother John who was supposed to deliver the Priest's message to Romeo. Since this was not included, it seemed as if the priest was irresponsible and remiss in his promise to Juliet making him out to be the ultimate murderer.

In the last scene, when Romeo comes to see the supposedly dead body, Paris is nowhere to be seen or he was presumably already killed by Romeo. This diminishes the tragedy a bit because it does not quite show how desperate and ravaged Romeo is at this time.

All the deaths with the exception of Romeo and Juliet's demise were underwhelming. When Mercutio dies, no one except his lover came to his aid. When Tybalt dies, again no one commiserated. Rosaline took over Mother Capulet's lament. She didn't even touch the body instead she and the husband performed a very cold series of choreography. No tears for Tybalt. When the Capulets found Juliet's cold body, Mother Capulet still does not have the opportunity to hold her child. In all these dying scenes, choreography was prioritized over sentimental movement which left me unaffected and unmoved. It wasn't until Romeo and Juliet's  final death that I was emotionally shaken.

A ballet is of course based on the director's vision which I fully respect and acknowledge, I just think the story could have been more true to the text had it included more of the layers and less ensemble dancing. While I had issues with the story telling there is a whole lot to still be proud of. First of all, this was a Filipino made ballet that lasted decades. The mere fact that it was ornately made by National Artist Alice Reyes with sets and costumes by National Artist  Salvador Bernal instantly makes it a historical gem worthy of preservation. Second of all, the ballet as a whole had a wealth of movement. The aesthetic of this version was strong, bold and memorable. The sequences were intricate and musical. Lastly, it is a ballet that showcased that Ballet Philippines is resilient, strong and competent. This is a company ready for their golden season.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Transitory/Transit Story is not a Love Story


It is always a privilege to dance a pas de deux. A dance between two people is precious because you share more than space. You share a moment in time. You breathe the same air, feel the same energy and hear the same rhythm. As you go through the motions of individual or synchronized movement, your connectedness tells a story.   Hence partnerships in dance are always exciting for me to witness because it's easy to recognize relationship through context of movement. Togetherness, is such a beautiful relatable  concept to explore right?! More so for a piece called "Transit" co-choreographed by Joelle Jacinto and Jack Kek.

I usually explain my visual experience simply through describing the work but a back story is essential (or rather value adding) to the discussion of the piece.  The collaborators' individual backgrounds demonstrate how two totally different cultural and emotional standpoints can meet in the middle and create a solid path together. Jacinto is heavily trained in  ballet and contemporary. She belonged to Philippine Ballet Theatre and Company of Dance Artists performing a wide range of repertoire . Schooled in no less than the University of the Philippines,  she belongs to our country's elite academe of dance having pursued different levels of studies in Philippine Culture. Kek in contrast is highly accomplished in the  traditional  classic Chinese and Malaysian folk dance. He graduated with a the degree of Master of Fine Arts majoring in Choreography from Taipei National University of the Arts. He danced professionally with Cloud Gate  and B. Dance Company as a contemporary artist allowing him to widen his dance genres.  Malaysia brought these two together and their friendship blossomed into a Nuryev-Fonteyn like partnership with both interchanging roles as choreographer, critique and dancer and friend.  After years of dancing and choreographing for each other, they finally embarked into a collaboration piece with both of them creating. 


The piece began with just the sound of the waves crashing, Jacinto and Kek are found in stationary stillness. Jacinto began  to allow the trickling out of energy  starting with her fingers until she progressed silkily into  a series of signature vocabulary from  the neo-ethnic style of contemporary she is trained in. She evoked a strong yet feminine vibe as she transitioned into swaying  her hips  with every breath. Kek followed suit and in contrast created shapes that are similar but stylistically opposite from Jacinto's. Showing his classically trained Chinese port de bras, he established his space. They eventually found  the same rhythm dancing in their individual spaces.. They continued their contrasting sequences gravitating towards each other but like corporeal beings walking in a busy street, they did not lock their eyes.  Jacinto was eventually left alone and danced a solo establishing her own brand of movement, a combination of lyrical and quite  linear movements. Long arabesques( extension to the back), developpes devant and alasecondes (extensions to the front and side) characterized in a very pedestrian manner. Light-footed Jacinto looked as if she was searching for something. As she walked out,   Kek then launched into his pulsating solo with sharpness in his execution of static poses. With jerks here and there he also seemed to be looking for something but with an urgency that is more potent than Jacintos. They eventually found their way into each other's arms and the most interesting section of the piece commenced. As they launched into their pas de deux, they kept their differences of their movement and intertwine d themselves with complementary shapes in their signature styles. They melted into each other and in a very amazing-race like environment (and music)  dealt with the regular commute of life. The reference of daily transit was clearly seen. They established platonic friendship. This is not a love story. The sequences showed a developed dependency in their pursuit for something. Two people's fate cemented by destiny and a single goal to figure out life despite their  differences. This first part of the performance ended with both dancers dressing up presumably to leap into the next stage of their lives. 

The duo attempted to do a multi-level experience and so Kek  used the ground floor to tell his own story of exploration. He used the swing and the bench interchangeably. In this section, it's almost as if he transforms into a kid figuring out the most difficult mathematical question. How do you solve the problem of Jack Kek? His chosen music even spells the world " Maybe it's time for the old ways to die". Maybe it's time for him to go a different path? At this point, he led the audience to the second floor. 

The third section of the piece has Jacinto and Kek dancing on top of  a carpet of bubble wrap. Both dancers  go back and forth  as if preparing for a departure. It seemed like both were finally going on life changing trip , time for their old ways to die. However, the twist is that Kek brought out a luggage. and proceeded to wrap Jacinto and shove her inside the luggage. But he couldn't so left her in the middle of the room. Helpless, he walked towards us and said "One way ticket to Taiwan" . 

Transitory/Transit's story telling is glaring. It left me broken and vulnerable for a moment because of the universality of their theme. Finding someone to depend on is a beautiful thing but finding a soul mate to depend on is an ultimate blessing. When circumstances interfere, there is a choice to be made. From the mundane movement to the life changing moments, it is a continuous cycle of deciding to be part of a relationship.It is a decision to stay in each other's lives regardless if you are moving forward together or apart.  In this exploratory work, they chose to protect their blessing. The presence of a real connection was palpable making it difficult not to be emotionally invested on the dancers' performance journey. It felt very real and the goodbye truly  broke my heart. Quite ironically Kek left the day after the performance. 

Choreographically, the piece had it's moments. Memorable to me was the apparent weaving of different genres into a wonderful story of togetherness. I liked the contrasting textures. The unexpected lifts solidified their aesthetic. The piece however, had a few obstacles. The  content is quite emotional and to break the moments by the need to transfer to a different level diminished some of the magic. In between the sections, were verbal interactions with the audience that I found unnecessary because it breaks the fourth wall and the sensory experience. The length of the piece could also be reviewed for future staging because the material is strong enough. I look at this piece as one that would easily adapt to different types of staging because at it is dancer dependent more than anything. 

This collaboration was worth seeing.  I do hope as both artists grow where they are planted that they remember why they started it. At the very root of it is a search for answers, the search for possibility.  With their piece's apparent potential,  like the dancers they portrayed have a decision to make. Can they still collaborate despite distance and difficulty? Can they still  explore paths together while apart? I hope that the answer is yes because the world needs to remember how to feel again. See you soon Jacinto-Kek.