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October 13, 2003


She called up twice, I think, to consult me on her title. “Nick, if scenes typical of Goya are called Goyescas, can a series of my dance-dramas be called ‘Filipinescas’?”

Absolutely, Leonor. ‘Filipinescas!’ It sounds like a most inspired title.”

The second call was about the subtitle.

“What I have, Nick, is: Philippine Life, Legend and…I need a third word, also beginning with L.”

“Lore,” said I. “That, Leonor, is the word you want. Lore.”

“Philippine Life, Legend and Lore. Exactly! Now I have the name complete.”

And that’s how Leonor Orosa Goquingco got her show christened, circa 1960.

“Filipinescas: Philippine Life, Legend and Lore in Dance.”

In 1960, or thereabouts, she was composing what seems to me the most moving section of Filipinescas: the Holy Week or Penitente suite. She based this ballet of hers on an old Batangueño folk dance called subli, which pious grandmothers in Batangas knows as the dance of the Cross, because it is a profane staging of a sacred rite: the Adoration of the Cross. If in transforming a Batangas antique into a dance-drama, Leonor showed so sure a hand (and foot), the reason would be that both her bloodlines are Batangueño.

She was deep in roots when she did her dance to the Rood.

The Adoration of the Holy Cross, one of the chief rites of the church on Good Friday, gave rise in Batangas, during Spanish times, to a dark ambiguous dance, the subli, where men crouch and women stand erect, and the spirit of piety moves to an undercurrent of sex. In moving from altar out to the patio, the Dance of the Cross somewhat a dance of the war between men and women.

The men stoop and the women stand straight because, in the old days, only the men were allowed at the altar to adore the Cross. After the Passion according to St. John had been chanted, the priest took the shrouded Cross from the altar, gradually uncovered it, then held it up before the congregation with a cry.

“Behold the wood of the Cross where hung the salvation of the world!”

He stripped off his shoes and prostrated himself before the Cross. Then he reclined on the altar steps, cradled the Cross on an arm, and summoned the men to come and adore it. Meanwhile, the choir chanted the Lamentations.’

The women remain standing while, one by one, their menfolk left them, and shoes stripped off, went forth to adore the Cross at the altar. Just before entering the sanctuary, they prostrated themselves a second time. Upon reaching the altar steps where lay the priest with the Cross, they crouched down a third time and bowed their heads low before kissing the wood.

Behind them, black-robed and black-veiled, the standing women looked down on all these mighty lords of theirs abasing themselves to the ground. Here was the male displaying in public that meekness he’s capable of only in the privacy of the marriage chamber when soliciting sex–for these are the only times the proud male bends his spirit: in church, on Good Friday, before the mystery of the redemption; and in bed, on love nights, before the mystery of the female.

The folk genius of the Filipino has taken this ritual of adoration out of the church and synthesized it into a dance that’s the profoundest of our folk dances. The subli, the Dance of the Cross, makes large mocking statements about the relationship of the sexes, evoking in the spectator not delight, not the impulse to applaud, but silence: the silence of shock, of shyness, of alarm even.

The dance begins slowly, gravely, but the pace irresistibly quickens. The woman dancer is covered not in veil but with a man’s hat, as if to flaunt her mastery. The male dancer, barefooted, crouches at her side, his stooped head level with her waist. Because this is a Good Friday, when bell and organ are mute, there’s no music; the man and woman move to the ratatatat ratatatat of the Holy Week matraca: bamboo rattles or clappers or sticks rapped rapidly together. The monotone is as mesmerizing as jungle drums and the rhythm of it grows ever faster, faster.

Back and forth they move, the male and the female: he stooped and sweating; she, erect and serene; he, crouching ever lower, flapping his elbows, wagging his behind; she, haughty and disdainful, holding herself rigid as she moves.

The rhythm intensifies, mounts to a crescendo, till the male seems a wild animal at bay, an epileptic in a fit. Suddenly, the intolerable clamor stops and in the awful silence one sees the woman standing motionless, the male prostrate at her feet.

* * *

The rhythm of the subli is a haunting one and it haunted the mind of Leonor Orosa at a time when she was asking herself: “What can I do now that’s really new?” She had created ballets out of the war dances of the Igorots, the love dances of the Moros, the field dances of the Christian folk. She had made the tinikling an international delight. She had imposed on the steps of the folk dance a form and a discipline that seemed to promise the Philippine dance. In her “Noli” suite, inspired by episodes from the Rizal novel, she had gone beyond both ballet and folk dance into pure drama–drama that needed no words, that needed almost no music, that could express well all it wanted to say in limpid movement.

The Noli suite is a culmination in Leonor Orosa’s career but, having achieved it, she turned elsewhere. Let others exploit what she had opened up. She herself, the ever restless pioneer, again craved something “really new.” The task didn’t look promising. There hade meanwhile been the folk dance revival and the material had pretty much used up. Nothing new, it seemed, could be discovered about the native folk dance, or could be done with it.

But Leonor noticed that the folk dance troupes displayed all the facets of Philippine life except a major one; the religious experience. Here, still untouched, was a wealth of material –for, like all peoples in their youth, the Filipino is a corybantic worshipper, praying not with mouth or mind alone but with all his body, using all his limbs to express his faith as he dances in Obando before St.Clare, in Pateros before St. Martha, in Pakil before the Dolorosa, in Cebu before the Holy Child.

Above all, there was that season of the year which used to loom so large in the life of the Filipino: the time of Lent, which had produced his vividest customs and traditions: the Pasion and pabasa, the Caridad and cenaculo, the flagellants. Yet the Philippine theater had yet to put onstage the pageant of the penitentes.

Leonor Orosa decided to choreograph the Philippine Lent.

She searched around for a folk dance to base her drama on: it should be a sacred dance associated with the Cross– and almost at once the subli came to her mind. She pondered its double movement: the crouch of the male, the stern grace of the woman. Its rhythm–that mesmerizing ratatatat ratatatat –entered her being and so possessed it that at last she cried” “This is it! Yes, this is it!” The creative fever burned again.

She started with nothing save the rhythm, that monotone rising to a crescendo, and from it she gradually evolved the swaying of the crowd in mystical rapture, of a priest rapt in a paean of Golgotha. The people crouch and bow their heads to the ground in a beautiful circular movement; and the women’s loosened hair, spinning, accentuates the rising fervor. The priest bends forward, bends backward, and caresses the air with his hands. In the background rises the Cross and the crowd undulates toward it as the rhythm of the subli, the rhythm of ecstacy, grows faster, faster.

Then the monotone darkens, is no longer the swaying of a crowd but the whips, the writhing of a flagelante scourging himself. Like a dancing dervish, he prances about in a rapture of pain. Like a sacrificial offering, he crouches down before the Cross and bends backward, his arms forming a cross upon his breast as he flails himself on the back. Four men whose dance vaguely suggests the maglalatik gather around him and scourge him further. The tempo builds up to its climax and the flagelante swoons as the four men, in a swift grouping of terrifying loveliness, raise him aloft on a bamboo pole.

Again, the monotone changes in throb, is now the treading of feet on procession; and the women bearing lights on the palms of their hands seem to be dancing the pandango sa ilaw as they glide forward, and the binasuan as, like Veronicas, they wipe the bleeding face of the flagelante. But the rhythm of the subli is still dominant and it becomes a clattering, a shattering roar, as the stage darkens and the radiance of the Cross alternately fades and flashes–for this is the moment of the Tinieblas, the death of the Lord.

In the last scene, the Salubong, the monotone is muted and the subli dance, highly stylized, may be glimpsed in the movements of the Christ appearing to his Mother, and of the Virgin bending to feel the wounds of her son. The subli, as has been noted, is an ambiguous dance and a number of people have been shocked by an undercurrent of sensuality in this dance of the Risen Christ and the Virgin. “Almost like lovers!” is the outraged comment. Leonor Orosa has been very daring, but she has not offended against good taste or devotion. She has clothed her Christ in a pale-blue camisa, her Virgin in a white veil instead of the traditional black mantle. The dance she created is charming and she has tried to bring the powerful subli rhythms under control –but it’s possible that the subli has been stronger than she.  The dark moods the old Batangueños wove into the Dance of the Cross do slightly cloud Leonor Orosa’s salute to the Resurrection. On the other hand, they are not out of the place there, for they remind us that Easter is older than Christianity and that the rites of the Risen God used to be pagan fertility rites in honor of phallic figures like Adonis and Dionysus, and of earth goddesses like Isis and Astarte.