LaMaMa is the most extraordinary place. Our country may have no Ministry of Culture (except, unofficially, for ITI and the NEA) and no ongoing governmental commitment to the arts, but we have and have, for some time, had LaMama, where international boundaries of culture and tradition vanish, where the late Ellen Stewart was historically able to bring all manner of extraordinarily financed and visa’d artists to these shores, beyond the pale of what we all knew to be commercial or even commercially viable. The tradition continues.
The Kinding Sindaw Melayu Heritage group is an ongoing resident artist group at LaMaMa ETC, founded over 20 years ago by Artistic Director Potri Ranka Manis to assert and reclaim her indigenous culture and empower and educate Filipinos through the use of ancient art forms. New to me, but clearly noble; you can tell. And at the end of the evening, after Director Manis herself makes a celebratory speech, acknowledges the sponsorship of the health-focussed Kalusugan Coalition, treats us to a delightful historical lecture about the percussive instruments used in the show and introduces the General Consul for the Phillipines, she yields the floor to a spokeswoman for a number of vital legal actions (opposition to the Open Mining Act, TPS relative to Filipino immigration here, etc.) and a particular evening vigil for the National Alliance of Filipino Concerns. So, you see, this show isn’t about whether the show is “good” or not, at all. This show is about bringing a people together for community and empowerment. The show is a visible marker for all that.
The ancient myth upon which this dance piece is based has been tweaked. The interloper who unseats the traditional king, through the machinations of an evil woman, is himself meant to embody the non-indigenous profiteer (the ancient Spaniard, the multi-national robber baron), and the banding together of the women’s chorus does eventually restore justice to the land. You can follow the story easily enough. There are program notes and the arch-villainess is fun (Rose Yapching) and her impatient arrogance is easy to identify. There are the expectable, dazzling yellow and orange and crimson and green patterned silk costumes, ritualistic synchronized movements, a be-jeweled umbrella under which the king walks and the traditional, long, undulating swathe of blue silk to represent the river. The masterful musicians, in plain sight stage left, play a number of percussives and gongs, which are all stunning, hypnotic and historically resonant as well. The music’s magic carries the whole evening. As Mark Rylance and his troupe did for the Elizabethan stage at the Belasco, with that archeological insistence on authenticity for textile, gesture and fabric, so here, equally deserving of praise, for the Phillipines.
This is not a performance that should be compared with the high-end bravado and professionalism of consumer-entertainment. No Stroman-Villella-McKechnie razzle-dazzle here. In fact, it’s refreshing to watch a chorus of 12 or so maidens who are not cookie-cutter perfect, who aren’t shaped like the 24/7 dancers on Broadway or at the ballet. These women (and men, too, but it’s the women who dance the most and must synchronize the most) have put and are putting extraordinary attention into getting all this right, and it’s not just second nature to them to do so. There is a particular community-driven motive that permeates everything. You feel the community in community theatre here, not in the sense of it being less than adequate, but because it’s about a different esthetic and a different purpose than we’re used to in America’s cultural landscape. This is a performance of the people, for the people and by the people. It’s a pretext, and a lovely one, and it’s not just for rallying politically afterwards. It’s to continue to forge a bond and remind this people of what they’ve lived through and what measures it is necessary to step up to. Especially recommended to anyone with an interest in any indigenous people, for theme and for context.
Dance Company, KINDING SINDAW (Dance of Light), in PAGABABALIK (Tracing the Path Home), Conceived, Choreographed and Directed by Potri Ranka Manis, with Silat martial arts movements choreographed by Guro Frank Ortega, Lighting Design by Federico Restrepo, Sound design by Tim Schellenbaum, Set design by Mark Tambella. Performances at Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMaMa ETC, 66 East 4th Street, April 24 through 27 (Thursday-Sunday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm). Box office: 212-475-7710 or www.lamama.org or firstname.lastname@example.org (approximately 60 minutes, no intermission)