This week, I frantically drove to a graffiti exhibit and documentary screening in Downtown Los Angeles of the movie “GraffLife” directed by Randy DeVol. It follows the secret night missions and on the run daytime activities of urban taggers living in my home and city. I thought I was late; this was one of the first events that was going to serve as important sensory information.
I rushed to get to the venue to find a noisy bar where everyone was eating tacos and watching the anticipated Laker game. After killing some time eating sushi at a quieter Japanese Town spot, I returned to the gallery to see an amazing world of taggers painting colorful graffiti on walls and canvases of the restaurant. Art work was displayed to reveal the workings of an inner city society, one that secretly comes out at night to paint, express and create. Accompanied by a DJ who scratched Hip Hop music in the corner of the restaurant, there were several fascinatingly odd paintings which struck me – one of a skeleton dressed in a zoot suit (see image above), another was a vivid example of urban hieroglyphics similar to what I might see in my inner city Historic Filipinotown neighborhood.
Now and then in my alley wall at home, in nearby freeways and streets where I live, these “unwelcome” elements (now on display at the graffiti exhibit) would have caused me to dial “311” – the City of Los Angeles’ hotline for the Clean Up Committee. Having dialed it so many times and almost always annoyed that my clean white alley wall in my home was again hit by vandalism, I have memorized the familiar prompt. Tagging is rampant in my neighborhood. The familiar conversation with the City operator, the questions…………… “What are we going to do about this? Why does this continue? I have paid so much money in taxes this year to create the much wanted, bigger and better Police Department, why is this happening? We have to have better programs for our youth to keep them off the streets.” All this is part of my “responsible homeowner” identity, a hat I had hesitantly put on for many years when my parents became terminally ill or died; as a result, I inherited the responsibilities of owning property. My gypsy artist self battles with it constantly.
Throughout my young life being raised in the urban Temple Street corridor located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, I viewed graffiti as vandalism. Through this new work I will be creating for Counterpulse’s Performing Diaspora, I am forced to understand this culture, its H-E-A-R-T (emphasis on “heart” and “art”) and its meaning. For once, I felt like I needed to try to delve into a counterculture which I am exposed to but am unfamiliar with.
A sigh of relief….. I welcomed the wonderment that I was in the midst of. I watched with excited fascination and chuckled at the irony and enjoyment of seeing a gifted tagger at work. Much like a kid in wild abandon, he controlled how he filled in colors; thickly and thinly, he spray painted with brightly colored hues and created wonderful unusual penmanship. The can of spray paint became his crayons. While standing there in the midst of all this exciting activity, I had that familiar “Uh-huh!” moment. Sensory information? Yes, I was already starting to store all of it in my creative storage trunk……..for later use.
Research and field work are the steps I create in preparing myself to new work. For this residency and fellowship, I am excited (and perhaps slightly intimidated!) about accepting the creative challenge in store for me. The dance theatre piece which I am birthing, is an 8-10 member ensemble work based on the theme of Entrapment and inspired by the cultural phenomenon of the Hip Hop Tinikling, a fusion of vernacular dance and the traditional Tinikling – the national bamboo dance of the Philippines. Tinikling is named after the tikling bird preying on the rice stalks of native farmers. The farmers try to catch the birds using bamboo traps. (See link for an example of the traditional Tinikling dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5eXBNXibZI)
I am fascinated by its modern day counterpart as I watch young Filipino-Americans fuse both traditional and contemporary worlds in the Hip Hop Tinikling. This leads me to choreograph my newest creation entitled “Bihag”, a word that means “captive” in Filipino. Pronounced “bee-hug”, it can literally refer to a person who is being held hostage or prisoner. This word can have psychological, physical, mental, and/or emotional implications. The perfect example is the spider and the fly. The fly is the “bihag” as he is entrapped in the sticky fiber of the spider’s web. Metaphorically or romantically, it can also refer to the state of being so enraptured that you are voluntarily entrapped, as in being held captive by the great beauty of someone or something. An example of this is Paris, Helen and the great Trojan War.
While working at community centers where I teach Philippine Dance, my students have mentioned their excited participation in the Hip Hop Tinikling at their schools and community events. This triggered my curiosity and started my computer adventures in the You Tube search box for examples of this contemporary and native fusion. As I watched, I wondered how I would handle this rhythmically complex and challenging material as a Philippine-American choreographer, and welcomed the possibility of how I might produce this work if given the opportunity to try. (See link for an example of Hip Hop Tinikling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZD9yv9LmDbM)
For most of my larger creations, I have always gone out in the field to glean important information as a sort of prologue preparing me to start to work on a new dance; whether it be staying with Philippine tribal peoples to deliver the island freshness and vibrancy of my native home or recreating the smell of sulphur while at the bedside of a dying mother, these sojourns, adventures or autobiographical life lessons are materials that dictate and inspire my text, my narrative, my direction and my choreographic choices for my next new piece. This is crucial for me as a dance storyteller since I conceive, design, direct, choreograph and perform in all my dance dramas.
For this new work, I am immersing myself in the culture of my urban environment as this will be the backdrop and breath of Bihag. I am not a hip hop dancer; I am a trained Modern dancer whose roots began in traditional Philippine dance. Hip hop is not a part of my generation or experience and for me, this makes my choreographic task more challenging. As I continue my creative journey, I have discovered that hip hop is not an isolated dance form. It is part and parcel of the larger picture of urban life and art. In creating the storyboard for my piece, I decided to start at the heart of the work and focus on the tropical green jungle where the main character of my mythologically inspired dance drama lives – the elegant Tikling bird. A figment of my own imagination, she is a beautiful tribal goddess and the epitome of Philippine culture. Her purpose is to promulgate cultural traditions by showing her young how to skillfully maneuver in and out of bamboo traps. In order to bring in urban elements as contrast, I have also created a subplot – a neighborhood filled with people entrapped in the story of their personal lives and living in an oppressive violent urban jungle.
This month, I am going to plunge into something radically different. A friend challenged me to think outside of my box. Next week, I will be at J.U.I.C.E (Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy), a non-profit weekly hip hop arts program of Community Partners that seeks to develop youth leadership, creative expression and self-confidence through the artistic elements of hip hop, deejaying, and urban art. I plan to take Hip Hop classes – a first! I will put away my familiar red fans and rest my bamboo swift feet to awkwardly learn to move this way in middle age. I keep reassuring myself that it is just a rhythmic transfer. The sound of clashing bamboos can now be the rhythm of my percussive “locking” body. Who knows? Maybe I will learn to spin on my head without breaking my 40 something year old neck.
The Bihag adventure continues…….