Dancing a Nation: Philippine Contemporary Dance and Narratives of the Nation

This is an excerpt from Dr. Ruth Pison’s “Dancing a Nation: Philippine Contemporary Dance and Narratives of the Nation” (2013) published in the Philippine Humanities Review. This research explores how three Philippine contemporary dance companies have rendered their imaginings of the Philippine nation, hypothesizing that Philippine contemporary dance offers a space within which the narrative of the nation is created.

Access the full paper here.


In the age of intense globalization in contemporary Southeast Asia, when national borders have purportedly given way to the fluid movement of economic goods, peoples, and cultural practices, it cannot be denied that nations have constantly had to strike a balance between strengthening their identities and facing the demands of the ever-changing socio-political, economic, and cultural re-alignments around the world. Cultural practices are thus always implicated in greater cultural and political networks and find themselves caught in axes of conflicts that are manifestations of the still powerful idea of the nation despite, or because, of the controversial nature of the discourse on globalization. The reconfiguration of power relations among nations has precisely resulted, not in the “transcending of nations” but in the reassertion of national borders. Thus, the nation as a discursive practice continues to be the crucible of many cultural, historical, socio-political, religious, economic, gender, racial, and sexual discourses.

The nation as a discursive practice continues to be the crucible of many cultural, historical, socio-political, religious, economic, gender, racial, and sexual discourses.

So much has been written about the nation vis-à-vis other fields in the humanities, literature in particular. My interest in dance lies in its peculiar location within and vis-à-vis the discourse of the nation. An ephemeral form, dance has elicited various, and even contradictory, valuations; most of the time it is considered a mere form of entertainment. It is undeniable, though, that dance has articulated and informed our ideas of the nation and nationhood. Seemingly marginal to other forms of arts and cultural practices, dance has always been embedded in our daily lives, as performance or otherwise.

Folk dances are mainly aimed at public display more than for social expression. -- Basilio Esteban S. Villaruz

This notwithstanding, it has not been extensively “discoursed” about. Aside from the works on traditional Philippine dances as expressions of the Filipino identity—our folk dance groups have earned international recognition through the years—seldom have other dances in the country been extensively studied as performances of the nation. Also, historian, critic, and choreographer Esteban “Steve” Villaruz (a.k.a. Basilio) laments that “Folk dances are mainly aimed at public display more than for social expression” (2006, 222). I chose my area of study because contemporary dance in the Philippines, with choreographers who have created works that interweave literature, film, dance, history, and politics, has gained a stronger and more visible presence in the past decades.

In 2000, Villaruz observed that:

. . . now senior dancers see creative opportunities elsewhere. . . it seems after setting up the establishment, dancers dare to be themselves and find alternative angles about dance outside familiar expectations. . . [where in the 50s folk dance achieved worldwide recognition, the 60s started professionalization, the 70s ensconced activity at the Cultural Center of the Philippines]. . . This seems to be a new phase in Philippine dance, where artists let loose to unearth new viewpoints. . . Perhaps that is what artists now outside CCP’s stable seek for us—for the Philippines’ next dance thrust. (in Beltran 2005, n.p.)

Ten years hence, these contemporary dance choreographers have indeed “let loose” and embodied different viewpoints. One just has to see the number of works performed during the annual Wifi Body Independent Contemporary Festival and the Contemporary Dance Map, a performance-tour of alternative spaces for dance and what choreographers in the regions have been producing under the most challenging conditions. And in the last ten years, a number of articulations of these fresh perspectives have been renderings and imaginings of the Philippine nation. It is thus necessary to study and write about them as valuable contributions to our national discourse. “Discoursing” on dance, in particular Philippine contemporary dance in the twenty-first century, will yield a rich discussion on how it sees itself as an integral part of the stories about the nation and how this very dance form’s story of emergence and survival in the Philippines is likewise emblematic of an art form’s persistence despite the state’s lack of support.


References

Pison, Ruth L. 2013. "Dancing the Nation: Philippine Contemporary Dance and Narratives of the Nation." Philippine Humanities Review 15, no. 1: 3-50.
Itim Asu: 1719-2009. February 27, 2010. Performance Photos, Dance Forum.
October 9, 2012. Indios Bravos, Airdance.
June 28, 2015. UPDC - University of the Philippines Dance Company.
January 21, 2017. UPDC Team Building 2017, UPDC - University of the Philippines Dance Company.