Archival Photo of Silayan Dance Company featuring dancers Sandy Mendez and Mandy Burgos from article on “Filipino Life”, Los Angeles Times 1986
(Costume idea for Tikling Bird Goddess in “BIHAG” – look at male dancer in the back)
I write in my pajamas in this late bright sunny afternoon wondering why I haven’t changed since the morning. I hesitate; feeling deeply exhausted from last month’s activities, I am slow to recuperating. I keep having to convince myself that being creative is a fun, engaging process. Deep inside, I think it should be. As an creative person, I have always felt that art is a way to investigate life around us. It makes us truly connected to each other through our movement, our songs, our dances, our poetry and the stories we create and offer to the world we live in. It is this search for truth and beauty that become my driving force, pushing me onward and forward to continue my work. I have a bittersweet relationship with it now. It is the only offspring I know, having none of my own. Imposingly born into the light of the glittering stage on opening night but tragically stillborn in the morning.
Last week, I lost three important performers because of injury and schedule conflicts. Fearful, I recall the four people that came to my audition after many dance department, community, and Facebook postings. What is really going on? Is it a lack of interest or lack of interested dancers within my Filipino community? Is arts and culture relevant or irrelevant in this day and age? Is it my subject matter? Are people just too busy and bombarded by so much information to start to bother? Perhaps I ‘m too “modern” for the folk and too “folk” for the modern. What is it…really? I am feeling a sense of apathy around me.
As a result of having to manage the day-to-day activities of pushing paper, writing grants to create funding, making phone calls, dealing with my cluttered workspace, emailing, texting, auditioning, preparing (always preparing), managing dancers with schedule conflicts, putting in time for weekly rehearsals, conceiving and designing stuff in my head, worrying (always that!), creating possible collaborations to support the new life being created within me, I sit mentally drained, fatigued and perplexed about how I can find the energy to lead or inspire an almost new cast of extremely talented, spirited people who I have now assembled. They are creatively hungry to perform.
I (again) created an epic in my new work entitled BIHAG (meaning “captive”). I cannot seem to get away from that…………….no sense in scolding myself for birthing another amazon. And warrior this child is! Exquisitely beautiful and feminine – but imposing like the woman she will become. Like thunder, she wakes me up in the middle of the night. I now have to sleep with a notepad next to my bed.
Though I complain about taking on big challenges, it is the very thing that makes me feel alive and purposeful. I am now bamboozled and confronted by the necessity of creating monies and building support for my new incubation; this dimension is not art, but is a huge part of art and the business (“busy-ness”) of making art. It is the ugly face behind the beauty and idealism that you see on the stage as an end result to an art product- the recognizable face I abhor. This is what tires and drains me. If I had known I was going to work this hard every time to create a new piece, would I still be a self-producing artist? This is the question that replays itself in my head. I hear my late mother’s words shouting at me from 25 years ago. At 22, I told her I was going to the East Coast to graduate school for Dance. She scoffed. “How are you going to make a living?” I didn’t have any answers then so I went anyway despite her inability to support me.
This new work is a complex dance drama incorporating 11 dynamic performers – dancers who act and actors who dance. It fuses hip hop, indigenous dance forms with modern dance, theatre and powerful storytelling with the visual impact of tall bamboo poles serving as set design for a forest, traps, walls, rooms, pathways and weapons. It brings together a myriad of dancers with various levels of training. Some are only Philippine dance trained. Some are modern dancers. Some only do hip hop. Some are actors. I chisel away at my creation in anticipation. I envision the reconstruction of stunning bird costumes (crossing my fingers that I get my grants!) with expansive wings and real feathers, like the one pictured above. BIHAG’s movement vocabulary relies on human gestures and intimate personal stories. Its message delves into the question of cultural survival in the form of a Tikling goddess – a legacy bearer. In order to promulgate, her important role (in my make-believe storybook jungle of ancient Philippines) is to teach her young to avoid deadly bamboo traps. BIHAG paints a powerful portrait of culture focusing sharply on its fragility and endangerment. Life, death, grief and violence are an integral part of this large and dramatic work. Juxtaposed between two contrasting scenes (the natural and city worlds), the work is informed by the malfunction of urban society. I create it now as a mid-career artist questioning the world I live in, the artistic legacy I am part of, and the relevance of the Filipino ancestral culture I was born into. It is not my place to judge the work right now. What I need to do is simply continue to create it and place it on the stage for exhibition for other people to examine & experience.
My mom was right. I have not made a living at my art. That is the one thing I am still trying to figure out. I guess in the end, she knew what she was talking about. In this changing and challenging economy where people are struggling to find jobs and security, I inspect my own position in relation to what I am creating now to justify my place in the world.
Recently, I opened a book at the nearly Tribal Cafe in my Historic Filipinotown neighborhood to read this:
“God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers. And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face. A gauntlet with a gift in’t.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The drive to be a creator is strong, commanding and inexplicable. So, I continue. A gift, a gauntlet, perhaps both. Despite of uncertainty, tumultuous unsteady ground is where I have always stood amidst a Philippine backdrop. It is here where I will continue to stand. And it is here where I will rest……to start work again tomorrow.
I long to come full circle.