Rafael Froilan, son of legendary Philippine dance icons Nonoy Froilan and Edna Vida, is completing a documentary on the male dancer. I was invited to a fund raising for the film by young dancer and future important dance personage Mika Fabella, and I had replied, I was worried that the film would just be all about JM (Jean Marc Cordero, current Ballet Philippines principal dancer, and my former student at DLS-CSB), knowing that Raffy followed JM around all the time for several months. Mika replied that they were also focusing on other male dancers and she wanted to hear my thoughts about it. My reply would not fit on that Facebook chat thread.
The male dancer has actually been done as subject matter for a film. Cases in point: Billy Elliott and that super short, all-hype ABT docu, Born to Be Wild with Corella, Malakhov, Carreño and Stiefel. So I’m also worried it’s just going to be one of those. Well, Billy Elliott was awesome, and do you need another film about male dancers? But that’s just jaded me talking.
I have to admit: I have an obsession with the male dancer. I think it’s partly my upbringing – I was witness to the rise of the “3 ballet-infatuated Banzon brothers,” who were my uncles, and all trained by my dad, who was himself one of the most sought-after male dancer during his time. My 2 brothers were also the most sought-after male dancers during their time. I was surrounded by male dancers all my life and was taught to treat them well – they will be my pas de deux partners: nurture your relationship with them and they will not drop you from an overhead lift.
Some of my favourite dances to watch were of large ensembles of male dancers. Gener Caringal’s Sandugo from Andres KKK. Agnes Locsin’s Moriones. Sarah Samaniego’s Bilang 1 2 3 4 5. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Augustus Damian III’s Reconfigured. Umesh Shetty’s Alarippu (Oh, wait, there are girls in that… I forget haha), the male ensemble in Novy Bereber’s Angel of the Morning (and the female ensemble parts were also quite strong and masculine, when I think about it). When I was a kid, I watched West Side Story over and over again, and to this day I’m still not sure if I want to be a Jet or a Shark. Not even Maria or Anita. I wanted to be a boy. The parts in Dad’s choreographies where the four Banzon boys would dance by themselves (my Tito Dicky didn’t continue dancing when Tito Raoul, Tito Rene and Tito Greg started dancing for other groups), and his Bacchanale, which was remarkable during the time because it was so manly. And I was eight years old then.
I also liked the male parts in traditional folk dances, which I obviously could not do because the costumes were naked from waist up. Ah, but to do the Igorot warrior dance. That would be awesome.
My obsession with the male dancer nearly became my Master’s thesis, but my Research Methods professor said nobody has really talked about the history of ballet in the Philippines before and I should do that first. Talk about boys later, maybe for your PhD. But I did write a paper for a postgrad Art and Society class about the cultural, social and economic implications of being a male dancer in the Philippines. You can read about it here. I read that again recently and thought, Wow, Joelle, you really know your subject matter. Haha.
But seriously, I did. In my very first year of college, I wrote a paper on the male dancer entitled, “Kissing the Frog: Men in Philippine Ballet” and discussed all the ado about the male dancer, which at the time, was quite endangered (also discussed in the link I shared above). Steve (aka my academic mentor Basilio Esteban Villaruz) was excited that this is the line of study I was interested in and guided me towards sex and gender theories. Ironic (sort of) that I eventually wrote about the (implied) feminism in the dances of Denisa Reyes for my Bachelor’s thesis. I mean, what I discovered about that was neither Denisa nor I were actually feminist to begin with.
But what steered me towards Denisa was a work she did that was called the first postmodern work in the Philippines: Muybridge/ Frames. The choreography itself was actual genius: the concept of the 8 men being photo stills of one man, the masculinity of it, the flow. I was not interested romantically in any of the men in that dance the first time I saw it (and hello, you know me), but it would have been easy to assume I liked it primarily because it had 8 sinewy-muscular guys wearing nothing but white trunks, white socks and white jazz shoes, flexing their muscles for photographer Edvard Muybridge. But it wasn’t sexual. It was astounding.
At this point, I have to address my position as a woman with a healthy appreciation for men. Does my admitted obsession with the male dancer have anything to do with my sexual inclinations? Maybe, but perhaps somewhere subliminal. To date, I have never had an official romantic relationship with a dancer – I have only dated musicians. Somehow (especially since I grew up with my 2 dancer brothers), I have this mindset wherein you don’t take dancers seriously. Because of course I have been attracted to boys who just happened to be male dancers. Just not enough to actually be in a relationship with one.
There is this dynamic in the dance studio where you have a special relationship with your co-workers, and most especially your dancing partners. I love my dancing partners – all of them. Like I said earlier, I was taught to take care of them; in my case, I was very good at feeding them, because we all know how small dancers’ salaries are. The trust on the dance floor extended off it, and some of my best friends from the dance world have been my pas de deux partners – obviously my brothers, but also Sydney, Niño, Jared, Alvin, Stephen, later Mac, San, Rolby and Jeff in PBT, and earlier than that, Carlo Pacis in UP. Poor Peter San Juan, Ardie and Arnel would be bullied by the aforementioned first four boys if they happened to end up partnering me, forcing them not to do a horrible job. I obviously loved the male dancer even more when I danced with them; I was very spoiled.
(I wrote an article about these boys for Malaya, during the staging of Romeo and Juliet in 2003. It covered the entire back page of the broadsheet and had an awesome photo of them in their Capulet vs Montague costumes. I discussed the phenomenon of their being straight, that they preferred this job to being hoodlums on the streets, how they competed with each other, how they worried about the future. I think I still have a copy at home in the Philippines.)
And of course some of them flirted with me, with varying degrees of seriousness, but mostly a joke you can laugh about in the end, because they all knew I would never actually give them the time of day. Or knew that to a point. I remember one of them quite hurt when I wouldn’t kiss him back in the wings, and onstage, as townspeople watching a soloist, asked me point blank if I wouldn’t kiss him because I was in love with the boy dancing right then. Said object of affection, on the other hand, was flirting with me shamelessly on tour in the Visayas, and was dejected when my then-boyfriend came to watch a show in Bacolod. The other dancers had fun putting him down for that, telling him, “Well, too bad you’re not 6-foot tall, half-Spanish and own a hacienda.” When I heard about that, I wanted to tell him, “But you can do 6 pirouettes.”
And it goes back to the dance. If I were to fall in love with a male dancer, I would fall in love first with his dancing. His musicality, the quality of movement, the masculine and technical leaps and tricks I wish I could do, the passion he has for his dancing. He stops dancing, but the high from the experience of watching him dance remains, and I look forward to seeing him dance again. Interestingly, this is how my mother fell in love with my father, when she saw him dance the paunjalay for Bagong Anyo. So perhaps my obsession with the male dancer is genetic.
I haven’t seen this documentary of Mr. Froilan, but I can imagine what it would be about. The dedication of the male dancer to his craft, lifting weights, forcing his turnout, working on his turns and double cabrioles. The pityingly small salary, and the extra work he has to take on to be able to pay the bills or go out with their girlfriends/wives. The uncertainty of their futures. Why they would do this – and by this, I mean, dance – anyway. I like JM, but I don’t want to watch an entire documentary about just JM. I hope Rafael Froilan does male dancers the justice they deserve.