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May 27, 2008

ROEL HOANG MANIPON

In the middle of colorful May 2008, the country’s premiere cultural institution, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), bloomed with an innovative and dazzling production of the Maranao epicDarangen, the season opener of its resident ballet company, the Philippine Ballet Theater. The ballet Darangen ni Bantugen had the honor of being the highlight of the annual celebration of the Filipino Heritage Month, which this year took on the Filipino epic as its theme.
Darangen is chanted by the ever decreasing number of elders of the Maranao people, which live around Lake Lanao and is one of the main Muslim groups of Mindanao. This epic was honored in 2005 by its inclusion in the list of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The pre-Islamic epic consists of 17 cycles and a total of 72,000 lines, telling the stories of heroes as well as episodes of Maranao history and tackling the immortal themes of life, death, courtship, politics and love. Moreover, it contains Maranao social values, customary law, ethics and aesthetics –truly “a wealth of knowledge.”

Transforming this epic, or parts of it, into ballet proved to be a challenging and intriguing task for Gener Caringal, the company’s artistic director and the ballet’s choreographer. Darangen ni Bantugen was made more alluring by the stage and costume design of Salvador Bernal, National Artist for Theater Design, with his imposing, geometrical and almost Zen-like stage design complimented by the vibrant and elegant costumes, stylized Mindanaoan dresses. The music of Jesse Lucas, rendered by in-house orchestra and by the musicians of the Philippine Baranggay Folk Dance Troupe, was provocative, punctuated by native instruments like thekulintang.  
Caringal chose to focus on the hero Bantugen and the time of his death and resurrection. He shares the stories behind the ballet, reveals his creative process and tells his feelings about dance in general:   

How long have you been with the Philippine Ballet Theatre?
From the beginning; 22 years na. I was just a member of the artistic council then. I wasn’t really active. And eventually they asked me to choreograph one number. Then I got really involved with PBT. I was elected as chairman of the artistic council. After that, the council appointed me as the artistic director. Then I left and came back, then left and came back again because in our by-laws an artistic director can stay for four years only.  I’ve been with the company for almost 15 years as a director.

How did you come about doing Darangen ni Bantugen?
We decided to use Darangen ni Bantugen because of the Filipino Heritage Festival committee. They wanted me to do a Filipino epic that is related to Darangen because the Filipino Heritage Festival is pushing for UNESCO’s recognition. Originally for the festival I was supposed to do Labaw Donggon, another epic from the Visayas, but the Filipino Heritage (committee) wanted me to do Darangen. I was scheduled to do Darangen for September so I just changed my season, and then I put Darangen for May, which coincides with the Filipino Heritage Month.

After that, I chose Darangen ni Bantugen because when I researched and looked for materials I saw that Darangen ni Bantugen is the longest and the oldest darangen in Lake Lanao, the most popular among Maranaos. So I was intrigued. I got lots of books and read about it. Basically from all the books that I read I put them all together, I reconciled, and then I made my own interpretation. So I adapted my libretto from the story of Lourdes Sanchez, which is called “Darangen ni Bantugan,” and from the story of E. Arsenio Manuel, the author of the book Myth and Legend.

What were the preparations you made before tackling Darangen?
Well, after researching and really absorbing the story and imagining things, I talked to my composer Jessie Lucas. We had a series of meetings discussing the flow and what kind of music that I preferred for him to do a composition. So I told him I went all the way to the National Library to look for a copy, but they didn’t have a copy.  So I kept on asking, and then Bambi (Ana Maria) Harper (Filipino Heritage festival director) recommended me to a sister. When I called her up she was in Cebu and she could not help me. So my last resort is to go to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and they gave me a copy of the original recording of the Darangen.

So I gave a copy to my composer, and I told him to play around the melodic line and how it is being chanted then develop it into a dance music. And after that I went to Badong (Salvador) Bernal, and crossed my finger for him to say yes. When I sat with him and talked to him about the project, he accepted it. I told him, “Sige naman, Badong, please accept it even konti lang ang budget ko.”  And he said, “No, no, no. The budget doesn’t matter because I like the project.”  So he accepted my offer, and that was a big, big, big help to me to be inspired. Lalo ako na-inspire.

Then I prepared all the scenes and then I asked Ron Jaynario, who is a senior dancer of the Philippine Ballet Theatre, to be my assistant choreographer because, you know, I know for a fact that I’m going to have a hard time because of time constraints. And also I’m acting as executive so I have to prepare all the necessary arrangements especially the theater, the tickets, the publicity and everything else as executive. And I have to raise funds for the production, aside from the funds that the Filipino Heritage gave me. I have to get some other sources. And so Jaynario said yes. And it was a big help for me because all I did was tell him what I wanted and then he constructed because he’s so used to me that he knows what I really wanted. I’ve been doing ballet for him as a dancer. But now he stopped dancing so I asked him to be my assistant and he said yes. And eventually, with all those things, I’m very happy that everything’s coming up into one big production.

Aside from the dancing part they have to act so I had to give them workshop on how to act properly on stage.Grabe! It was a big, big task, and I was excited about it. A full-length ballet is when you do a ballet that covers the whole evening. I and all other choreographers are used to doing choreography for 30 minutes, 45 minutes the longest. And when we do a full-length ballet, it is one hour and 45 minutes dancing choreography. And the last time I did a full-length ballet was in 1998, centennial of the Philippines. I was commissioned to do the story of Andres Bonifacio, and that was the last time I did a full-length ballet. That was why I was so excited about this.

Have you ever transformed other epics into dance before?
Yes, like Labaw Donggon. I did it for the Singapore Asean Festival of the Performing Arts but it was only 45 minutes. A full-length (ballet) also that I did before was called Maharlika.  It was an epic about discovering the Philippines, the real establishment of the Philippines, about how the Philippines came about. The name then was not Philippines yet; it was called Maharlika.

How did you interpret an oral epic?
Well, I used it as a basis. For example, the melodic line, which is the real chanting, and then the composer used it as passages for his approach, which I told him to use with modernized Filipino sounds and instruments. It came out very well especially when you synthesize your music together with the chanting—original chants because I have a recording—on top of the modern interpretation.

What did you think of the Darangen epic when you read it?
I listened to the music first. I did not understand it because, you know, it is in the Maranao language. But the passages were the same. Merong mga high notes na maganda. Then when I read the Darangen story, they did a lot of chanting. They chant about Bantugen. They chant about this one or whatever.

I can relate to the story of Bantugen so easily because the story revolves around feelings.  Like the king who has a longing for somebody, but Bantugen also is attractive to that woman.  I mean, it’s very human [in contrast to] other epics na parang unbelievable, although some of the scenes here that I read were sometimes unbelievable, like Bantugen fighting with the sun, riding the sun. But I think that is how they say it to sensationalize the greatness of Bantugan— fighting the rain, beating the earthquakes. Very interesting! An inspiration on how you are going to interpret this in dance. It gives me more push or drive to explore more. And I wanted to do something very different this time but in the medium of classical ballet.

How is this different from your previous projects?
I usually enjoy doing a story ballet because I love to express dancing with meanings unlike with what we call ballet exhibition. ‘Yung parang they show you how good they are in dancing technically. But on top of dancing technically, I want them to say something that the audience will understand. So I want it very, very narrative. 

With my other ballets like Vinta, when I did Vinta it was only about Vinta, the showing of the technique of the dancers and the influences of Muslim movements. That’s what we call exhibition dancing. There’s no story in it.

What were the challenges posed by Darangen?
Well, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the challenges of presenting it on stage were, for example, showing the audience how he travels from one kingdom to the other while encountering different elements. That I had to show, that the elements are there on stage. That was a big challenge. Also a big challenge was to show the greatness of Bantugen and his weaknesses when it comes to women.

How did you compress the epic?
When I read the story of Manuel, he zeroed on the death of Bantugan. So incorporating it with the story of Bantugan from Lourdes Sanchez, I zeroed on the time before he dies and the time after he is resurrected. So‘dun lang nag-revolve ang aking story. So nang ma-resurrect na siya, celebration na, and that’s the end of my ballet. Because very, very exciting ang death niya, eh. He has to fight all the elements, and then he gets sick. Then the Angel of Death comes down to get his soul. The good friend of Bantugen goes to heaven to get the soul back. That’s why ang ganda-ganda.

How did the costumes aid in or hamper the movements of your dancers?
I trusted Badong Bernal, my designer, because he has been designing costumes for so long for dancers. And I know he knows how to do costumes for dancers. So that’s why I’m very confident with the costumes that Badong designed.

How did these costumes add meaning to ballet?
Well, the costume design, as I look at it, is a stylization of the original costumes that the Maranaos are using. The line, the silhouette is the same but different ang approach ni Badong, even in terms of colors. And I’m very happy with that.

What parts of the ballet you borrowed from folk dances and from classical ballet?
Well, the medium is very classical and contemporary; it’s a mixture. I cannot be purist classical ballet, so it’s a mixture of modern, contemporary and classical. That’s the basic form. And some of the movements were inspired by a basic Maranao arm movement. The most common name for that movement is—I don’t know if it is recognized by the whole of Mindanao—pangalay, a swaying of the arms.

Did you incorporate traditional dances especially from the Maranaos?
I did stylize some but very small like the maiden dance, which is an inspiration from or adaptation of the Maranao dances which they call Asik, the slave dance. ‘Yung mga dance of the maidens, dance of the wives of the king, puro arm movements and nuances lang, because this is a story ballet, and I cannot really do a dance of exhibition.

What were your memorable moments with the dancers?
I really enjoyed how the dancers interpreted the dance, and they were so interested. Because they did not know about the epic, I had to sit down with them. And you know, I got a kind of satisfaction when I told them the real story and how I adapted it and how I was inspired to do it in ballet and how I divided it into scenes for ballet. When I’m choreographing, they can follow what I want to do so it is easy for us. And I think they are enjoying, and they like what they are doing.

What do you expect from the audience?
I expect them to appreciate the Darangen. That’s number one. The most important thing here is that Filipinos, not necessarily the ones from Mindanao or Luzon or Visayas, have a very, very good material, an epic that we can be proud of and that we can match with India’s Ramayana or the Greek mythology.  It’s very popular. It’s being taught sa mga eskwelahan eh. But our Darangen ni Bantugen is a very, very classic story, adventure and odyssey that we Filipinos should really appreciate, learn and absorb.

I’m expecting the people will like it and will ask for more and will want to see more epics in ballet form or dance form, in any form of dance. It could be contemporary, could be more than just a ballet, or it could be a hip-hop type but depicting Filipino epics.

What is dance to you?
I don’t want to say outlet, but you know, I really, really love dancing. This is my passion—to choreograph, to teach and to do outreach. I enjoyed myself when I was still dancing, and I want other people, the young ones, to experience that also. That enjoyment that I experienced I cannot explain through words, iba ‘yun eh. The feeling when you’re on stage, different stages, different countries, different cultures you encounter, and you’re showing your own culture. And the kind of satisfaction when I share it with the young ones. Alam mo ngayon live performances or concerts are dying. Everybody wants to see DVD.  You can get anything.  But live performances are always important because that’s where you get the real feeling—when you go and watch a performer.