31 July 2017

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.)


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.

26 July 2017

Serious talks

My latest hobby is revisiting tried-and-tested literary titles. The classics. I think that I’m a better, though slower, reader today; and so, in a way, better able to give them the reading that they deserve. Besides, adulthood can be an amazing filter.

Raymond Carver makes so much sense to me now. Stories in What we talk about when we talk about love aren’t exactly slices of life, but more like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. Carver zooms in on an dull moment until he catches characters in a profound split-second. He barely gets into their psyche. The images he uncovers are real enough to cause a jolt of recognition.

Raymond Carver. What we talk about when we talk about love. New York: Vintage, 1989.

What stood out for me in the collection is A serious talk. Burt visits his wife, Vera on Christmas day. The two have children but appear to be separated, at least not living together anymore. He came over to have a serious talk with her — which never happened.

Instead they spoke but skirted anything of importance. In the middle of their non-conversation, Burt lit a cigarette then scrutinized the ashtray on the table.
He studied the butts in it. Some of them were Vera’s brand, and some of them weren’t… The ashtray was not really an ashtray. It was a big dish of stoneware they’d bought from a bearded potter on the mall in Santa Clara. (p 109)
Later the phone rang and Burt answered it. The voice on the other end of the line was looking for a Charlie. Vera took the call in a different room. While she was away, Burt searched for a knife then cut the telephone cord. After realizing what her husband had done, Vera screamed at him and swore that she’s going to get a restraining order.

Burt picked up the ashtray and attempted to throw it, but Vera pleaded, “Please, that’s our ashtray.”

He left.
He was not certain, but he thought he had proved something. He hoped he had made something clear. The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about… He’d tell her the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish, for example. (pp 112 – 113)
Oftentimes I'm Burt, orchestrating that serious talk but failing. And in failure I reach for an ashtray to break or a knife to carve my way back to someone's attention.

My friends and I — and I’ve observed this with colleagues as well — still resort to composing letters when we want to express something important. Obvious reasons are: Emotional sobriety. Writing allows a calming down. There’s time to weigh feelings and opinions, and therefore make sure that nothing aired will be regretted. Things are recorded, so it may be reviewed again and again, diminishing the chances of misunderstanding.

And that illusion of finality. Having said everything you wanted to say the way you wanted it said makes you feel like you’ve had the last word on the matter. That’s why as much as I appreciate the act of letter-writing, I find it a weakness when talking face-to-face is an option.

Everyone is quick to prescribe communication when forging a healthy, lasting relationship. And it’s hard to disagree. It’s also hard to admit that we don’t know what that means. We’re told to communicate; we aren't taught how.

22 July 2017

Notes on Broadchurch

1. Like any other teenager during my time (not sure what fills teenagers' heads nowadays), I fantasized about having a family.

2. The fantasy gave way to other things as I grew older, until it went on reverse: it became the last thing on my mind. Currently, unimaginable.

3. I'll admit. I jumped on the Broadchurch bandwagon because of Jodie Whittaker. BBC announced that she will be the next Doctor in Doctor Who. Not having heard of her before, I googled her works. Broadchurch happens to be available on Netflix, so I binge-watched the series and finished three seasons in two days.

4. I'm excited, by the way, to see a female Doctor. For the simple reason of novelty. I remember enjoying the David Tennant and Katherine Tate combo because the latter isn't the typical young, pretty companion. Am looking forward to this new dynamic between the leads. (Speaking of the show — a by the way within a by the way — Michelle Gomez's Missy is oh-so-fine!)

5. This is very strange. After watching Broadchurch, I kind of want to raise a family.

6. The story begins with an eleven-year-old boy named Danny found dead on the shore. Jodie plays his mother.

7. Okay, wow, I'm going back to Doctor Who. I believe the episode was A Christmas Carol. The details won't be precise but the mom (guardian? — an important, lovable woman) passed away, then towards the end, by some magic or timey-wimey manipulation, she was brought back to life and everybody was happy.

I was disappointed, not just because it felt like a cheap trick, but because... wait I tweeted about it before (getting used to quoting myself; repetition bulldozes the message home):

8. In Broadchurch, the parents take their son's death as their failure. That's the word they use repeatedly. Fail. I failed. I'm a failure. Jodie in an outburst says her job as a mother is to prepare Danny for life, and she fails at it.

9. Whenever I (adult me) would sit down and think about having a family — why I may or may not want one — I would discover that, among other things, what's stopping me is that fear of failure to protect (which I've explained better here).

10. I'm sure I've come across other stories with characters meeting death head-on. But Broadchurch has made such an impact on me because it's simply well-made, what else?

Other stuff I like about the show:

11. Acting and casting. Special shoutout to Olivia Colman! The people of Broadchurch look like people in a real town. The only miscast actor for me is Arthur Darvill, whom I feel is too baby-faced for the role of the reverend.

12. The reverend. Darvill's fluffiness aside, the show makes a case for keeping our Faith, capital F. It paints the church kindly, as a sane institution.

13. Death is not the only horror in Broadchurch. It's a hugely horrific show that inspires me to live. Because the good people persist despite personal failures and failed systems. They don't win against criminals or change corrupt institutions, but they somehow find ways to overcome them.

14. I'm sleepy, I'll end here. All praises to Broadchurch. I already like Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker (leftmost) is Beth Latimer in "Broadchurch" and future Doctor in "Doctor Who". (Photo via @BroadchurchTV)

07 July 2017

(Not) just like the movie

Early in the Second Act, three thugs discuss breaking into a convent, their entire strategy hinging on wooing the nuns to let them through without the slightest hesitation. In a rhythm and blues number called, Lady in the long black dress, the men take turns in telling the others how to really do it. “My name is Bones and I’m a Libra. I dig sunsets and strolling on the beach, and loving my neighbor as myself; and right now, baby, I’m standing next door to you,” goes Bones, adopting an ‘80s boy band suavity — husky voice, calculated smirk, and the gait of someone who might be having an upset stomach.

That scene pretty much defines the nature of Sister Act, the stage adaptation of the 1992 blockbuster film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Its intention is clear: to charm. Not exactly to wow. The storyline is straightforward, with no converging plots, twists or flashbacks; and the characters sit somewhere between stereotypes and caricatures. It’s only a question of, Will they pull it off? Will they manage to turn the charm switch on?

The Goldberg-produced musical debuted in the mid-2000s, over a decade since the film’s release. Now it’s enjoying an international tour, with a two-week run in Manila that closes on July 9th at The Theater at Solaire. The time gap doesn’t matter, apparently. Sister Act the movie has made such a huge impact that its appeal remains strong 25 years later. All it takes is the title and the promise of kooky singing nuns to get people interested in its stage counterpart.

Someone asked me, “Is it as good as the movie?” I think it’s never fair to compare an adaptation to its source material, though one has to wonder what the new medium has to offer.

Caught the gala performance of "Sister Act" the musical last June 29 at The Theater at Solaire.

You might imagine that with the powers that be at the helm of this production, you’ll find a glorious, jaw-dropping set design and costumes. Not quite. The stage is rather bare except for a towering, not to mention rotating — and glittering — figure of The Blessed Virgin Mary. In an era where theatergoers have witnessed actors fly onstage and gotten wet with fake rain, a 16-foot glammed-up Mama Mary doesn’t impress.

Then again, visual spectacle is the least of the show's priorities. Anyone who has seen the film may have already forgotten bits and pieces of the story, but I bet that, along with the harmless naughtiness brought by a colorful soul into a nunnery, they remember the music and how it made them feel. As it was onscreen, so it is onstage. Music continues to be a strong selling point. Those who’ll catch the musical to hear their favorite numbers from the film sung live, however, will be disappointed. Or not: Alan Menken’s original score and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are equally infectious.

Watch out for Rebecca Mason-Wygal (Mother Superior) and her interpretation of Here within these walls. Arguably the brightest spot in this limited run, Rebecca brings humanity to her character that her scenes are some of the show’s most touching. As a leader she’s stern yet confused. She remains the voice of reason, even as her internal voice doubts God. And boy can she crack a joke! If Sister Act is going to be memorable, it’s all up to the performers. The melodious songs are there; the script, intended to tickle and tug at the heartstrings, is there. The ensemble only has to show up with a little more fire.

What’s gained in this theatrical translation is that church vibe. Regardless of your faith or musical preference, you can’t deny the pleasures of listening to a choir and singing along with a community, smiling on the side. You’ll have that here, for sure — and then some. But nothing more to elevate the spirit to high heavens. This weekend, attend mass if you want to contemplate God and watch Sister Act if you want to have a good time. If you're looking for catharsis, search elsewhere.

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