Cultural Performance in/and Performance Studies

This essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming publication, Panata, Pagtitipon, Pagdiriwang: A Preliminary Contextualization of Cultural Performances in the Philippines by Sir Anril P. Tiatco.


The discipline of performance studies is a significant epoch in the formation of cultural performance as an important subject and an observable unit in the study of culture and society. The birth of cultural performance as an idiom beginning in the social science, particularly in anthropology and folklore studies and now in the humanities, especially in theatre and performance studies paved for a dictum, which throws off earlier habits of using culture as a noun and to come to terms with the complexity of recasting it as a verb. In Anthropology of Cultural Performance, J. Lowell Lewis is rightfully convinced that the birth of performance studies highlights the understanding of culture based on social activities, cultural events, ceremonies and the likes; therefore, thinking of culture as a grand performance against the typical anthropological agenda of a grand (textual) narrative based on formal functions and structures.

In Perform or Else, Jon Mckenzie notes a comprehensive picture of what cultural performance is vis-à-vis in the development of performance studies. In relation, McKenzie adds that at the heart of its movement of generalization, performances studies scholars have constructed cultural performance as an engagement of social norms, as an ensemble of activities with the potential to uphold societal arrangements or, alternatively, to change people and societies. In short, cultural performance produces efficacy. In simple terms, efficacy is its commanding authority to produce an effect: something which transgresses in the case of religious cultural performances and subverts, in the case of public demonstrations and political protests. In Performing Catholicism, I argue this direction of efficacy as a “site for discourse on deterritorialization, reterritorialization, displacement, power struggles, identity politics, politics of difference, to name a few of the most crucial junctures in performance studies nowadays” (15).

John J. MacAloon provides another critical annotation on how cultural performance is understood in the anthropological circuit, following Milton Singer’s earlier proposal of it as an observable unit. In his 1984 anthology Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle, the concept of cultural performance is rehashed from an object of ethnographic data into a potential theoretical frame. In the introduction of the volume, MacAloon cites its renewed definition provided by Barbara Babcock, Barbara Myerhoff and Victor Turner during a symposium they organized on the paradigmatic proposal of an anthropology of performance through the study of rites and festivals. The citation notes that cultural performances are “occasions in which as a culture or society we reflect upon and define ourselves, dramatize our collective myths and history, present ourselves with alternatives, and eventually change in some ways while remaining the same in others” (1).

Generally, scholars have been attributing cultural performance as a cultural fact and a cultural lens for the understanding of personal identity and communal belonging through what McKenzie calls “the dramatization or embodiment of symbolic forms” (31). Moreover, a cultural performance is believed to be “imperative of social efficacy, theorists have largely concentrated on performance’s transformational potential” (ibid).

But what accounts as cultural performance? The safest direction is to think of its components. In When Tradition Modernizes, Singer writes “the performance became for me the elementary constituents of the culture and the ultimate units of observation. Each one had a definitely limited time span, or at least a beginning and an end, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, an audience and a place and occasion of performance” (70). Looking at these components, it is remarkable that these are the same vocabularies traditionally used in the theatre. Jon McKenzie explains “theatre thus provides the human sciences with metaphors and tropes which are developed into conceptual tools for analyzing other activities, and those tools may then pass back to humanities scholars and become applied anew. From theatre to metaphor to analytical concept and back to theatre and other performances” (35). Nevertheless, if these are the markers constituting a cultural performance, then how different are these performances from the performances attributed as staged and live performances of the theatre?

Combining perspectives from anthropologists, folklorists, performance scholars, and even remarks from the informants encountered in the field, the following are probable identifiable markers of a cultural performance. First, the relationship of cultural performance and folklore has a special place in this attempt toward a definition. Folklorists were the first to embrace cultural performance as an important idiom for the understanding of culture and society. In this regard, a cultural performance has a folkloric value in a sense that it is also “an artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos 14). In relation, Kapchan equates folklore to cultural performance because both are repetitive aesthetic practices whose repetition “situates actors in time and space, structuring individual and group identities” (479).

Creation of a narrative is an artful accomplishment that in a sense is communicated consensually to community members. While there is consensus, this does not mean there are no tensions or conflicts among community members. This is especially true since narrative making is a complex scenario because stories from stakeholders are always arbitrary. In Anthropology of Christianity, Fenella Cannell explains that in the construction of narrative and meaning in many Christian-Catholic communities, participants creating the stories can be best described as being in tension with one another because “Christianity’s meaning is always undetermined by any single historical, social, or ideological context in which it is deployed; [..] it is deployed by power holders for the purposes of domination, and even if most of the potential interpretations of Christian doctrine inevitably remain unrealized in social action at any time” (43). In this sense, the consensual community narrative is a product of never-ending negotiations among stakeholders. Conflicts and tensions can never be avoided because a community is a conglomeration of different subjectivities.

The narrative becomes the base – the source of activities turned into performance, which according to Kapchan’s discursive provision, a cultural performance performed publicly even if the efficacy is often intended for a personal advocacy or intention. In Power and Intimacy, anthropologist Fenella Cannell notes that the public performance of a ritual is necessary because it adds to the efficacy of the personal: activating a sense of assurance that the Divine will reciprocate the performer’s intention via making the devotion witnessed by the public.

Cultural performance is also an intervening space between the past and the present; the self and the community; the state and religion; ornament and function; fact and fiction; celebration and solemnity; sacred and the secular; and other related intervening entanglements. In short, it blurs boundaries of the everyday life and special occasions, making cultural performance a liminal entity. Borrowing from The Ritual Process, Victor Turner’s seminal anthropological inquiry on ritual performance, a cultural performance may be perceived as entities that

[a]re neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by a law, custom, convention and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. (95)

A useful concept identifiable with liminal entity is entanglement, mixing and matching different elements together to a point these elements are no longer recognizable.

Finally, cultural performance is implicated as an important community narrative. Philip Zarili notes “performance as a mode of cultural action is not a simple reflection of some essentialized, fixed attributes of a static, monolithic culture but an arena for the constant process of renegotiating experiences and meaning that constitute culture” (108).

Since Milton Singer’s introduction of the term to the academic domain, cultural performance has evolved into an important observable unit in the study of the individual, society and culture. From anthropology and folklore studies, to communication and media studies, to theatre and performance studies, cultural performance is a significant lens which led to the throwing off of the earlier habits of using culture as a noun and to come to terms with the complexity of recasting it as a verb. In short, the idea of culture has transformed into a conceptualization that culture is a performance.

The simplest way to think of a cultural performance is to think of its components: time span, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, an audience and a place and occasion of performance.

If we combine perspectives from various disciplines that utilize cultural performance as an observable unit or as a phenomenon for the understanding of culture and society, the following may be used as its identifiable markers: first, it is an artistic communication in a small group. Second, It is performed before a public even if the efficacy is often intended for a personal advocacy or intention; Third, it is an intervening space between the past and the present; the self and the community; the state and religion; ornament and function; fact and fiction; celebration and solemnity; sacred and the secular; and other related intervening entanglements. Finally, it is implicated as an important community narrative.

Generally, the emergence of cultural performance as a social idiom beginning in the social sciences, particularly in anthropology and folklore studies and now in the humanities, especially in theatre and performance studies paved the way for a dictum, which as already stated earlier transforming culture into action. Going to the Philippine context, it is important to note that the concept of culture as performance is not a new thing to the Filipino people.

The Philippines is a nation of cultural performances – with all its regional festivities, religious and sacred rituals, political rhetoric in the house of congress and senate, and even with Filipino’s love for beauty pageants, boxing matches and basketball games.


Works Cited

Ben-Amos, Dan. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” Folklore. Ed. Americo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972. 3 – 15. Print.

Cannell, Fenella. Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999. Print.

--- (ed.). Anthropology of Christianity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.

Kapchan, Deborah A. “Performance.” Journal of American Folklore. 108.430 (1995): 479 – 508. Print.

Lewis, J. Lowell. The Anthropology of Cultural Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

MacAloon, John K (ed). Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984. Print.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Singer, Milton. When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Modern Civilization. New York, Washington, London: Praeger Publishers. 1972. Print.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London and New York: Routledge, 1969. Print.

Tiatco, Sir Anril P. Performing Catholicism: Faith and Theater in a Philippine Province. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2016a. Print.

Zarilli, Philip. “For Whom is the King a King? Issues of Intercultural Production, Perception and Reception in a Kathakali King Lear.” Critical Theory and Performance. Ed. Joseph Roach and Janelle Reinelt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. 108 – 134. Print.


Photos by Stephen Quizon, Kevin Saure, and Bryan Viray