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The Full Spectrum

By Mae G. Banner

Bayanihan: The National Dance Company of the Philippines

Proctor’s Theater, Nov. 17

Bayanihan presented a color-drenched program at Proctor’s that touched on dance forms from martial arts to flamenco, with forays into Chinese and Indian story dancing and the signature Philippine dance game with clacking bamboo poles.

Kaleidoscope is the exact word to describe the troupe’s ever-shifting array of colors, shapes, and light. No passage lasted longer than 10 minutes before segueing into the next. Perhaps choreographer Ferdinand B. Jose thinks American audiences have limited attention spans. Or, maybe he wanted to cram into one evening a sample of every cultural influence that has flooded the Philippines for centuries; Bayanihan (the term means “working together for the common good”) was founded in 1957 to research ethnic and regional folkways and transform indigenous traditions into theatrical form.

The dances were arranged in a loose timeline, beginning with Earth Rhythms, in which crouching men in grass skirts made marvelous jagged leaps and banged together pairs of sticks, to the accompaniment of tubular flutes and bird-calls. It was as if the virile young dancers were discovering sound and movement in a new world.

A group of women entered in long peasant skirts and headscarves and cloppy shoes. In contrast to their manly partners, their moves were flirty, with small steps and side-curved torsos. They took off their shoes and clapped the soles together in counterpoint to the xylophone, guitar, and upright bass played by an excellent group of musicians at stage right.

Next came a Tribal Tapestry that combined Spanish castanets with Chinese cone hats in a dance of light, percussive movement and precise patterns, wide-legged, two-footed jumps by the men and a magical, Lion King-like passage in which the men, now warriors with swords, danced within the frames of white-maned, abstract horses.

Colonial powers like the Spanish always have inspired wicked satiric dances among their unwilling subjects. A trio of two women and a man mimicked the snobby colonials with mannered arms and high arched chests, elegant and mocking at once.

Bayanihan has won awards for its costumes, designed by artistic director Isabel A. Santos. In many of the dances, the women wore sling-like drapes over their blouses. They would whirl and twist these rainbow-colored silks as they turned, constantly and mysteriously changing the palette. A Chinese-influenced passage began in rose and aqua blouses over striped skirts and changed colors before I could detect how the dancers did it.

Besides the 15 women and 10 men dancers and the seven musicians—gongs, drums, xylophones, ukulele, guitar and bass—there was a coloratura singer in a shell-pink dress who sang both sentimental and comical songs, including a “duel” with the ukulele player that had the audience in stitches.

Even though the dances and costumes changed constantly, a choreographic pattern emerged, which amounted to putting props in the dancers’ hands and letting them float into delicate formations that threaded the stage or ascended onto upstage ramps and platforms. So, we had men with tambourines, women with palm-leaf fans, women with beautifully colored leis in a garland dance, women with filled glasses on their heads. Even in flamenco numbers, the women moved delicately, almost balletically, and the men stepped lightly.

One exciting passage turned the stage into an international bazaar teeming with vendors—Chinese, Spanish, Indian, Mexican and Filipino in all their varied array.

In Mindanao Splendor, leaping men drummed frantically on three tall drums set on a platform. They did drag-steps on one knee and shouted frenziedly in this warlike dance. Now, the women carried woven basket-domes in each hand that glowed phosphorescent green when the lights went out—a magical effect.

Building to a climax, the dance escalated with war games, swords, shields, sashes, and somersaults as the women climbed up onto bamboo poles, a foot on each, where they danced and seemed to fly off the stage. Next came a group of men with coconut shells strapped to their chests, backs and thighs, the better to beat percussive rhythms on themselves and their fellows.

Upping the ante further, there was a military march with a snare drum, a structure of wooden benches on which the dancers performed high in the air with skill and speed, and finally, the couples dance in and out of a grid of long bamboo poles that are maneuvered in intricate rhythms by crouching dancers. This was beautiful, tricky and clever, faster and faster, like a game of double dutch with bamboo instead of jump-ropes.

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