Breaking into dance: Notes on ‘Newsies’ and ‘Your highness’

My mistake was electing to sit at the front row despite knowing that Newsies — the stage adaptation of the Disney film of the same title — would be a visual spectacle. Rights to the award-winning Christopher Gattelli choreography weren’t granted to the show’s local production (as I later on learned); but PJ Rebullida, with a little help from Yek Barlongay, created a choreography that, based on audience reaction, was every bit of a winner.

Co-producers 9 Works Theatrical and Globe Live harped on this dance excellence — a clever decision as the musical’s paper-thin characters and storyline would hardly please the discerning theatergoer or keep the casual fan awake. The narrative was standard Disney: an all-too safe journey between plot points leading to a saccharine resolution. A happy ending lurked from the get-go, and conflicts that arose along the way failed to arouse any sense of danger.

Instead the danger was in the dance. I had seen some of these actors before though not in this form. High-flying that is. Almost literally. And so I was impressed and at the same time stressed out as I watched them nail one daring routine after another at breakneck speed. Even Ed Lacson’s industrial set, composed of tiered, moveable pieces, gave its own restless performance, rolling and transforming in every scene.

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Adrenaline rush, I guess, is the perk of being three feet away from the stage. So close to action, you could hear the dancers heave. Your imagination grows wilder, too. Please don’t fall flat on your face, I kept thinking with every jump and back flip. I was also worried that the towering set piece in front of me, which I swear was swaying, might topple over.

Three musicals in and I’ve developed a fondness for the ragged charm of Globe Iconic Store at Bonifacio High Street Amphitheater. As an open space it will always compete with natural elements, as well as the commercial property’s noises — aural and otherwise. The night I saw Newsies, it was raining heavily, microphones were malfunctioning; yet these somehow made the experience special, like elevated community theater. Given the venue’s design and the partnership’s goals, I wonder if 9 Works Theatrical and Globe Live will continue to favor loud, bombastic productions, as with American Idiot and A Christmas Carol.

(Side-note: What I have zero fondness for is tardiness and condescension. The show started 20 minutes late, and was further pushed back with a speech from the producer. I watched on the third weekend, so I was surprised by the intro, which I thought only happens during gala and press nights. There’s no point for a hard-sell pitch; we already bought tickets for chrissake. I understand that you’re proud of your product, but please let it do the talking and let the audience be the judge of whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth. Whether or not the cast and crew deserve a standing ovation, let alone an applause.)

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Anyone can appreciate a good dance routine. But dance, when it tries to tell a story — divested of narrator and dialogue — can be difficult to penetrate. Such is the challenge of Your highness, the second part of Eisa Jocson’s Happyland series, produced by Ballet Philippines.

The ballet’s first and easiest entry point is (surprise!) Disney. Five dancers dressed in the usual tights and tutus take the stage. They proceed like well-oiled robots, naming every repeated movement (fondu, fondu, fondu… échappé, échappé… arabesque…), until they find fluidity, looking less mechanical by the minute and more like dolls. Each performer then dons garments allusive to royalty. Added to their recitations are familiar lines from Disney tales: I can show you the world…

Towards the latter half of the performance, the dancers slip into animal body suits, covering all corners of the stage with erratic moves and wild grunts. Finally they adopt the choreographies of the Filipino fiesta, their voices (as with their stances) more powerful, yet it's hard to tell if they’re conveying happiness or anger, or something completely unknowable.

At the open rehearsal of Eisa Jocson's "Your highness"

While the dancer has become a symbol of grace, one can only imagine the pains that come with the discipline, and the industry. Your highness allows a glimpse at these struggles — the struggles of the body, of the mind, and of the heart elsewhere.

“The previous artistic director of Ballet Philippines invited me to work with them. I told him that I have this project and it’s perfect for BP, because every year they lose some of their lead dancers, who either work in cruise ships, Hong Kong Disneyland, or foreign dance companies. Which is better, in a way, because they continue their artistic practice. But there’s always people leaving,” Jocson shared with me during their open rehearsal.

She also indulged me when I asked how dance can communicate a complex socio-political idea, such as that which informs Your highness. “I want (the audience) to experience the (message) as opposed to ‘get it’; to feel this question or proposal. The work hopefully gives space for that reflection,” she offered. “It’s important to understand and experience the work in different layers, not only on the social and political levels, but also on the aesthetic and reflexive levels. Depending on who is watching — if they’re a dancer or a teacher — they would see things differently. If the person is a musician, then they would be attuned to the musicality of the piece; which is quite interesting because it’s like a chorus, it’s like a concert.”

With that she answered a question I hadn’t brought up. Throughout the show, I read the performance as a literary form — from a short story (a default), to an essay (due to its apparent desire to make a statement), to poetry (given its patterns and lyric expressions). “The voice is part of the body,” Jocson reminded us. And the words I hear in Your highness are pleasurable sonic effects rather than carriers of unequivocal meaning. In short, I forget that dance is its own language, which I have yet to learn to think in.

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