Point counterpoint & the questions one dares to ask

17 October 2011

On House Bill 4260 and Senate Bill 2679
By Myra Beltran

In February 2011, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. filed Senate Bill 2679 seeking to “designate Ballet Philippines Foundation Inc. as the Philippine national ballet company.” Listed therein was the scope of its mandate and its privileges as would-be national ballet company. Hearing for this Senate bill was postponed twice and has not commenced as of this writing. In the meantime, on Aug. 16, 2011, the Committee on Basic Education and Culture of the 15th Congress of the Philippines, headed by Rep. Salvador Escudero, passed on first reading a bill authored by Rep. Antonio Lagdameo Jr., in the same spirit [1] as the Senate bill making Ballet Philippines a national ballet company, known as House Bill 4260. Unlike the bill filed by Sen. Marcos, the latter bill and its subsequent hearing were not known by the sector of the dance community who were known to oppose the bill filed by Sen. Marcos, learning of it in late September through the newspapers. Thus, the House Committee passed the bill without dissent.

Note: On Oct. 10, 2011, the Committee on Basic Education and Culture held a meeting in order to hear out those who opposed this bill since it learned that notice of the previous meeting had not reached these parties. The major part of what follows was written before this meeting. An update follows at the end.

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This move, initiated by Ballet Philippines, is certainly a hard tackle. Hard, because as one writer put it, [2] it has “opened old wounds.” To the general public, it is much ado about nothing, with one writer saying that the dance world is “characteristically fractious” [3] “anyway” or that dancers would keep on their “tippy-toes” [4] “anyway” and that, perhaps, all this opposition is sour-graping, and that the track record of Ballet Philippines speaks for itself. It is hard because I, myself, used to be a member of Ballet Philippines but my first mentors, the ones from whom I first learned the art of dance and who sparked this love for dance inside me, generally belong to the side that “opposes” this move. So, actually, my personal history puts me in a “grey area.” But this is precisely why I wish to thresh out this position because this area of the “in-between” and the acknowledgement that this “grey area” does exist might elevate the level of the debate on this proposed bill.

To my mind, it might be productive to focus on the assumptions of the bill and proceed from there so that one could “classify” the arguments. I wish to place these assumptions in the light of the 21st century, amidst its current political and cultural trends, since after all, something that is ratified into law has a structural effect that can be long-lasting, and one must imagine the scenarios of the future to get a grip on the present’s decisions.

Ballet Philippines has a forty year history and track record, which has dominated since the 1970’s. With a style anchored on the “modern dance” tradition, the company toured extensively in the 1970s, inevitably carrying the label of “national” in its international tours, being as it was (and still is) the resident company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It was then known as the CCP Dance Company (from an earlier Alice Reyes and Modern Dance Company). Later, for the sake of clarity and recognition internationally (its initials were similar to other institutions in the Soviet Union), the name was changed to Ballet Philippines.

In those years when the company developed and acquired the major part of its repertoire, in a time and season most fondly remembered by its pioneering members as “the best of times,” I sense that the excitement experienced during those times, a time its dancers have very real nostalgia for, had been generated by a growth which at the same time had been largely possible because of the “fit” between government and artistic vision – the company’s development and “career path” fit squarely into the notion of the “modern nation-state” that was the impulse of the 1970’s under martial rule in the Philippines. It was a good “fit”or a timely “sync” – the projected image of modernity with Filipino sensibility, and the modern in dance with themes that were local, fed off each other. This “sync” was different and more forward-looking in comparison with the other countries of Southeast Asia who were generally more conservative and who derived their impulse from the traditional / folkloric. This impulse sustained the company till the late 1980’s when the Cultural Center of the Philippines “opened its doors” post EDSA and, in addition to the modern repertoire, the company had renewed vigor when full length ballet classics with an all-Filipino cast were successfully staged. The modern impulse stretched to the early to mid-1990’s, when globalization was taking hold and alarm for the “sameness” that it threatened to bring by increasingly open borders was, at the same time, countered globally by specific cultures highlighting their ethnicities.

Enter the 21st century. With the unprecedented rise of the internet and abundance of information, where there are more porous borders and the “national” is less apparent than the multi-cultural, where ethnicities blend in the same spaces while, at the same time, occupying different “historical times,” so to speak, where an infinitely more chaotic, culturally simultaneous world is more the norm than the exception, what would be the meaning and role of a “national ballet company”? To whom does this “national ballet company” speak? In whose behalf is it speaking?

I don’t suggest that these can be answered with finality but I do suggest that for the very fact that these questions can be posed now – in comparison to an “earlier” time when these were not subjects for inquiry but were assumed to be rather incontrovertible truths – signals a greatly changed environment that also signals that the bill can be examined in terms of its assumptions about the “national” and “culture” (Philippine culture). These are the discourses which inform the bill. These discourses summoned by the bill then imply that a deeper discussion on this bill apart from the one centered on who is “more deserving” or not, can be made and that it is no easy labelling of being “for” or “against” the bill. It does not seem to be as simple as saying or implying that that those who oppose this bill would probably not oppose if they had been the beneficiary or implementor of this bill – rather, part of those who are being dismissed as simply “against” truly mean to have a sincere inquiry as to who is speaking for whom in this bill, what is being spoken in behalf of the “whom,” and whether the answer to this should be enacted into law as a republic act. [5] I suppose those are also topics which also concern the entire arts community as all precedents do have a subsequent ripple effect.

A case in point is that one of the reasons cited by Ballet Philippines in seeking the status of “national” is the precedent set by the naming of the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company as the “national folk dance company” (R.A. 8626 by the 10th Congress) with the contention that others who oppose this current bill would do well to seek the same for themselves, “to work for it”, [6] as the Bayanihan bill itself provides. On this count, and if one were to proceed to “work for it,” the proposed bill also summons the notion and the distinction between a “national folk dance company” and a “national ballet company” as both representative of “Philippine culture”. And then after, if one indeed were to “work for it,” what kind of “national” entity would one be? The same question would be posed to one working for a “national theatre company” or “national orchestra” in the future. Thus, I believe this bill deemed to be simply concerning the dance community (when the general public are used to dancers not speaking anyway) could be productively discussed too by the general arts community for the reason of, as I mentioned, the precedent / domino effect it could set off. In terms of dance, would a “national ballet academy” or a “national contemporary dance company” or a “national choreographic institute” be desirable, or are these already “covered” by the mandate conferred on Ballet Philippines? One must look at the implications of the details and of the distortions these details might bring down the line in anticipation of those who might want (and who might have the capacity, including the political capacity) “to work for it.”

So, the discourses involve the (1) notion of the “national” (2) “culture” (3) Philippine culture (4) being representative of / “representation” of Philippine culture (5) the necessity or desirability of national representatives of Philippine culture in the 21st century and (6) the role of government in this aspect (the dynamics between the nation-state and the arts).

Wow. Who actually has time for contentious questions like these? Let’s just do the art, do the work, one could say, which is frankly, what most of those who oppose would rather be doing in this laissez faire environment in which only the fittest survive and one has to run so hard just to stay in place. And in fact, this is also probably what Ballet Philippines, as well, would rather be doing, and is the reason they are seeking this conferment in the first place. Perhaps, like everyone else and despite its 40 year history, it is struggling to exist in an environment greatly changed to which its own structure has had difficulty adjusting, given the nature of its organization and operations and the nature of its repertoire. In truth, it is seeking financial stability / security and here lies the contention, because in the same breath that it tells the “rest” to “work for it” (national status) the same could be lobbied against it of its need to have financial security – “work for it” like all the rest. In fact, in this laissez faire environment, it already has a headstart, a big advantage over all the rest in an already less than level playing field and here lies what has been labelled the “paranoia” or the “fear” of “the rest” – that everything shall be centered on one company due to the sweeping scope of the mandate (role, functions) of the would-be national ballet company, as specified in the proposed bill, and would thus be speaking in behalf of the entire dance community – the nuances of that community are lost in favour of the choice of the “one.” This then puts the focus, trains the lens on, who heads this “one,” the qualifications / criteria thereof, his / her length of tenure, or how the decision-making is made in the first place, and whether or not the organization itself exercises fiscal discipline given that it will be the recipient of endowments not due “the rest.” These details are pertinent because the bill assumes this much of its recipient – and some of those “against” qualify their opposition precisely due to the absence of those details, of responsibility and accountability.

What is glaringly clear is that DANCE needs help. This is a fact, notwithstanding the numerous regional festivals now occurring and even if, among cultural projects usually judged as having the most “impact” by its “numbers” (audience reach, number of participants, number of collaborative institutions), the dance-art reigns supreme. In fact, it is the queen, the one that is capable of bringing people together with excitement and joy, where big business joins in with the politicians to witness and judge the dancers dancing. But dancers as a lot are the most underpaid considering the amount of work they put in, with no social net to catch them past their dancing days. Recognition of the role dance plays in Philippine society is not articulated, just readily assumed like grass growing freely, yet dance is used almost exploitatively. Hardly anything trickles down to the dancer and dance-maker. Sustainability is a problem. The general disregard for dance underlies this move by Ballet Philippines. But is there a distinction between government subsidy for the arts and the conferment of “national” status? Is the latter necessary for the former to occur? Could subsidy be more attuned to the general climate in which dance occurs today, and how it wishes to go forward in the 21st century? Is this the first step or the death knell?

I wrote this for myself to clear my thoughts and because the “essentialisms” (such as the dance world being inherently “fractious” or that dancers should not speak, implying they are not capable of discourse) in the general public’s mind bothered me. If you are reading it, I have made it public already. And yet, I know that answers to all these questions I have posed, in the same manner and same intuition that all dancers have, have to be “fleshed out.” So I wish to locate my “grey area” with the hope that discussions on this can be fleshed out in more nuanced ways.

I was a member of Ballet Philippines in the late 80’s to early 90’s. Before I went abroad (late 70’s) to study and work as a ballet dancer (seven years), I was part of the “outside” focusing on ballet and performing with the Ballet Federation of the Philippines (whose members would mostly form what would later become, post EDSA, the other resident company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Philippine Ballet Theatre) with colleagues from other schools. We were an impatient lot who could not quite understand the labels attached to being part of a certain school or company and all we wanted to do was to come together and dance together in the classics, all of us ripe for the forming of a national ballet company with our revered Mr. William Morgan as ballet master, and we wanted it then. We had the talent and the skill for such a company but history was not on our side. A majority of us ventured abroad, risking loneliness to audition, to prove ourselves in an artistic environment that privileged the tall and white dancer more – if only to keep dancing. Post EDSA, quite a number of us came home, buoyed by the hope for new beginnings – I joined Ballet Philippines (where Mr. Morgan had transferred after subsidy from Ballet Federation of the Philippines ran out), while others guested with or joined Philippine Ballet Theatre. No matter. We meant to dance together, support each others’ shows, and cheer each other on (Ballet Manila’s Lisa Macuja Elizalde was CCP artist in residence then and we all shared the same stage). This “synthesis” was also reflected in our bodies because we had reconciled both the modern and the classical in our bodies. And now, dance world-wide was on our side, as European choreographers were as well either deconstructing ballet (William Forsythe) or gaining artistic dominance with dance-theatre (Pina Bausch’s influence had increased and was cementing internationally) – performance art had gained ground and the “modern” was losing some of its “rigidity” and accommodating ballet.

Our batch was an inquisitive lot who frequently questioned our superiors to their irritation, but not really to their condemnation – for they, too, had relaxed. We were concerned with our well-being – I remember rallying my colleagues to sign a letter I wrote to compel the Cultural Center of the Philippines management to clean the company room premises and install water fountains for us in strategic places. All signed this letter. We were also asked to rally in behalf of a bill creating the National Commission for Culture and the Arts – the bill that advocated plurality and decentralization, as opposed to the one that had a central Ministry of Culture, and rally we did with the entire Ballet Philippines board – they, still coiffed, and us in our 80’s shoulder pads pinned on the yellow shirts which all of us, including the Board, wore. Recalling that, in the face of this proposed bill, I appropriate and re-phrase the words of one blogger [7] who writes about the “Occupy Wall Street movement”: be careful of how you rally young people because what is rhetoric for you, such as “change” or “hope” (or in our case, “decentralization”), becomes mantra for them.

And so it is with me – in what I believe in, in how I have ventured to become, and how I have conducted myself as, an independent dance artist working in the medium of contemporary dance. I thought decentralization would work even if it takes time. I am also not convinced that a gesture such as this proposed bill that, in effect, centralizes, would eventually uphold or strengthen decentralization and I remain unconvinced that what this gesture will bring is a only a temporary, transitory state.[8] I know that all these signal a clash of shifting paradigms that echoes what is happening world-wide, and that this debate finds itself in one of those “cracks” or “fissures” where this country has not been able to bring to a closure its troubled dark past while struggling to exist in a rapidly changing environment. All I know is the history of the bodies of my generation have to be considered in this debate and I lament this move, this proposed bill, in the very least because it has brought back the rhetoric of the past and practically erased my generation’s efforts in the process. I thought that my generation, having contributed to “the company,” now could speak of “dance,” of the entire spectrum of dance, because in fact, we are all near mid-life, and have already ventured out on our own paths to nurture dance in our own ways.

As my own history shows, dancers are as fluid as dance is and dancers are shaped by the confluence of many things. I hope that any subsidy or enabling environment could take into account this fluidity. At this juncture, I grieve for a certain idealism, naïve though it may be, because in the face of all this, one realizes that really, despite bouts of spring, what lies beneath is actually a “Game of Thrones” where as one character in the TV series said, “When one plays, one plays to win.” In that case, it would perhaps be the only option, if one were not so disposed to play in this game, to be in the margins, underground, to risk it all and be “outside the wall,” if only to preserve that glint in the eye which those who truly love what they are doing, and have real fun doing it, still possess.

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October 11, 2011

Update following Oct. 10, 2011 meeting of the Committee on Basic Education and Culture: Amendments to the proposed bill are to be introduced and presented within two weeks after the meeting. Similar to what is written above, Ballet Philippines cites the Bayanihan bill allowing other dance companies to gain national status, and takes up the suggestion by CCP President Raul Sunico that wording of the bill be changed from “the national dance company” to “a national dance company” to give space to other companies to be conferred national status as well, with Ballet Philippines current artistic director Paul Alexander Morales enjoining Philippine Ballet Theatre and Ballet Manila to apply for the same and present their credentials. Rep. Escudero states that the request for funds [9] shall be increased for this to be a common fund since “all are deserving of the honor” and “all will be accommodated” and that he wished “unity.” There was no clear forthright answer if this action implied that the country could be conceived to have three national ballet companies (from a question posed by Ballet Manila’s Lisa Macuja Elizalde) or if the bill would foresee the naming of other companies in the future (from a query posed by Philippine Ballet Theatre’s Chacha Camacho.) Ballet Philippines founder Alice Reyes was present to thank the committee for the recognition and support it was giving which she believed could “open doors” for the other companies as well.

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Endnotes

[1] The House Bill filed by Rep. Lagdameo is not available online yet. The Oct. 10, 2011 Congressional hearing by the Committee of Basic Education and Culture suggests that it is indeed, “in the same spirit” as the Senate Bill filed by Sen. Marcos, as the presentation of Ballet Philippines President Margie Moran Floirendo showed and by the statement of Rep. Escudero, the Chair as to the amount of the yearly monetary endowment.

[2] Elka Requinta, “Ballet bill divides dance communities, opens old wounds” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lifestyle June 13, 2011

[3] Marge Enriquez, “Will Ballet Philippines become the national dance company?” Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 27, 2011, http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/4387/will-ballet-philippines-become-the-national-dance-company, accessed: Oct, 3, 2011

[4] Facebook comment, author unknown to writer

[5] In recent dance literature and international conferences, the recurring issue has been the conflicting role and sometimes negative impact of the policies of the nation-state involving dance. In at least two international conferences (World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific Conference 2005 and “The Mak Yong Spiritual Dance Heritage: Seminar and Performances 2011), the writer has attended, the various points have been discussed. This topic has not been discussed fully in the Philippine context yet. With this proposed bill, the finer points of difference between an enactment into law from, for instance, a Congressional initiative which support can be coursed through an existing government agency, or a presidential decree, might be productively discussed.

[6] Ballet Philippines current artistic director Paul Alexander Morales, in a conversation with the writer

[7] Juan Ruiz, “Why my generation should care about Occupy Wall Street,” http://open.salon.com/blog/jmruiz/2011/10/03/why_my_generation_should_care_about_occupy_wall_st, accessed: Oct. 5, 2011

[8] Ballet Philippines believes it is an important step, a breakthrough which can lead to more government support for the arts, and of awarding excellence in the field. See update at end of the article about the Oct. 10, 2011 Congressional hearing.

[9] Rep. Escudero stated that PAGCOR had already approved the amount of 10M pesos (the amount of endowment stated in the bill due the national ballet company yearly) but the Committee could / would request for a larger amount that would serve as a “common fund.”

 

 

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