By Mae G. Banner
Bayanihan: The National Dance Company of the Philippines
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
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
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
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.