On Tour With Philippine Ballet Theatre’s Darangen ni Bantugen
by Joelle Jacinto
We are in an office in the city hall of Victorias, doing the quick change from Water, or the girl’s section of the Elementals that attack Prinsipe Bantugen while traveling to find the princess in his dreams, to Fairies, who help him on his journey, especially since he’s by then really beaten up and near death. I successfully zip up my blue costume by myself as I make my way to the chair right outside in the corridor, where I keep my props, headdresses and face towel. As I push the Fairies’ silver ribbon onto my head, I feel the zipper coming undone, a terrifying creeping down my back.
I try not to scream.
My sister, Jacqui, with a crowd of half-naked boys (either in their Earth or Air unitards peeled down to their waists, or in their warrior shorts, the breastplates flopping loose on their chests) plus company manager Joel Matias gather behind me, in an attempt to fix the zipper. The other fairies are about to enter and look at me worriedly because I’m supposed to enter with them. The entourage behind me tries to zip me up again, but the clasp has dislodged.
“Ate Joelle!” Tracey calls from outside, because we’re about to go on soon. Very soon.
I curse; I don’t remember what I say exactly, but Jacqui kind of swats me, reproachfully.
One of the boys produces safety pins (it may be interesting to point out here that the big sewing kit for the tour is never carried by a girl from Cebu to Roxas) and they help each other hold my back together as the pin me up. Photo finish! As soon as they’re done, it’s time for my entrance. I whirr outside, all giddy and breathless, and have the best Fairies dance of my life.
“Fairies” is my favorite part to dance in Philippine Ballet Theatre’s Darangen ni Bantugen. If you see the ballet, you’ll know what I mean. We are the “spirit protectors” of Bantugen, played by Jared Tan. The fairies are led by a queen fairy whom the programme notes call Diwata, played by Jared’s sister, Faye Abigail Tan. She’s in a pretty purple dress with sheaths of cloth for a skirt; the rest of us wear similar dresses but in blue and green. The ends of this skirt actually catch themselves onto tights, cutting them up so badly, so the company girls decided, at the premiere last year, to forego wearing of tights for this entire ballet.
The sleeves are again swathes of cloth draping over our arms; they usually get in the way of dancing, and some costumes are so worn out that the sleeves slide off some girls’ shoulders. It may sound like this costume is more trouble than it’s worth, but I absolutely love it. I think it is the prettiest costume I’ve ever seen, and I wish I had a picture of myself wearing it. As it happens, the quick change from Water to Fairies is super quick, zipper mishaps notwithstanding, and there’s no time for pictures. After Act I, we automatically change back into our Maidens costumes and I’m always so preoccupied by how I’m going to repair that stupid zipper.
Actually, all the costumes in Darangen ni Bantugen are gorgeous; which is just right as they were designed by National Artist Salvador Bernal. The Maidens costumes are sleek and sexy dressy pants attached to a corset. When Princesses Datimbang and Magimar are thrown to the floor at different sections in the ballet, people don’t just gasp because of the injustice and violence, but also because you just don’t throw down gorgeous women in gorgeous gowns to the floor. The red Bird costume is majestically awesome, from the large headdress with the beak to the shimmery bejeweled chest to the bright, shiny tights to the monstrous wings. I had the pleasure of putting that costume on and loved every part of dancing it, even the shiny tights (they were stirrup but I scrunched them to under my knee because stirrups are just too 1980s for me) and the monstrous wings that made every Bird cast before me cry in frustration. I also loved the headdress, never minding that it was such a hassle to carry between the two Chinese cities we danced in.
It isn’t just the costumes, though. It’s the entire ballet, the entire experience. Here was a part of our culture that used to belong to just one cultural community in Mindanao. It’s a chant that takes nine days to complete, and none of us in the company would even know it if we were to hear it. Thanks to the UNESCO, it’s now declared as part of our intangible heritage, and thanks to the Heritage Festival, Philippine Ballet Theatre was able to interpret this Maranao epic as a ballet – a medium that will be easier to understand by not just people in the Philippines but in other countries as well. We were told, in Kaifung City in China, that Darangen ni Bantugen was the best ballet they had ever seen and how beautiful our country must be. I doubt they were just talking about the costumes.
When we Maidens exit in the middle of Act 2, just before the dance of the Souls in the Skyworld, we stay copiously beside the stage as much as possible, even if we’re “in the way.” We don’t really care, you see, we want to watch – the dance of the Souls, the rescue of Bantugen by the Bird, Magali and Mabaning, and the courtship dance between the Angel of Death and Mabaning dressed as a woman, played so brilliantly by Anatoly Panassiukov and Peter San Juan respectively. We never get tired of watching this ballet, even if we perform city after city, every other night. The choreography, by Gener Caringal and Ron Jaynario, steps up to the demands of a full length ballet, and is worthy of the Maranao epic, even according to native Maranaos themselves. The dancers, meanwhile, including myself, are just having a superb time performing, that costumes falling apart is really a minor item.
When kids visit the dressing rooms after the shows, I always ask them, “Aren’t you glad that they got Bantugen’s soul back?” They all respond enthusiastically, but one child replied, “Oh yes, it means we are all safe again.” It seems then that the love the Maranaos had for Bantugen all this time has transcended borders, giving the rest of the Philippines a new hero. More importantly, he is our own hero, one we already have had for centuries.
I personally hope that they keep this ballet alive, and take it to more places in and around the country, inspiring more and more people with its majestic beauty and noble heroism. If they ask me to dance, I would not hesitate to do it over and over again. But I’ll be ready with extra zippers, though.
I wrote this at Tracey’s behest for the souvenir programme of the restaging of Darangen ni Bantugen at the CCP in 2009. I wasn’t able to dance in the show (as Mac says, “Pang-tour ka lang, Ate.”) but was glad Tracey asked me for this essay. We shortened it for brevity for the programme, this is the original draft.
Came across this while writing my paper, The Universal Embodiment of a Hero: Translating the Darangen as a Ballet, which I am delivering this afternoon at the 6th Asian Translation Traditions Conference at the University of the Philippines. I referred to it, too. Just felt like sharing. 🙂