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TOWARDS A HISTORY OF DANCE FILM IN THE PHILIPPINES

BY REGINA BAUTISTA

To write about the history of dance film in the Philippines is to acknowledge that the exploration of dance and film in the country has been happening long before the whole world became entrenched in a virtual space. To start to write about this history foregrounds the interconnections and cross-currents between dance and film. 

To write about the history of dance film in the Philippines is to acknowledge that the exploration of dance and film in the country has been happening long before the whole world became entrenched in a virtual space. To start to write about this history foregrounds the interconnections and cross-currents between dance and film. 

 

When we think of dance, we could imagine it on stage, on the streets, and/or in studios. Erin Brannigan distinguishes staged and filmic performance in order to point to a definition of what dance film is. Often, staged and lived performances are regarded better over a filmed work. However, Brannigan argues that the two are different in the kind of effect it gives the viewer. While both are ephemeral, dance film evokes a cinematic presence and “dancerly” presence — a corporeality that would not have existed without the film or digital medium and technology to capture it.

 

As we trace the history to see the influences of dance films in the Philippines today, the writing of this history is by no means exhaustive and only creates more gaps to be filled by dancers, choreographers, and writers. Many questions need to be addressed: Who first decided, or happened upon the opportunity, that a dance, a moving body, must be captured? How to frame dance films as particular to the Philippines?  What kind of history are we to write for dance film? 

Who first decided, or happened upon the opportunity, that a dance, a moving body, must be captured?

“Purely made on/of dance?” Basilio Esteban Villaruz asked when I emailed him about this. Choreographers in the 60s had choreographed for singers in television shows. National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes choreographed for Time Out with Lyn or The Lynn Madrigal Show before focusing on Ballet Philippines. Dance Theatre Philippines’s Julie Borromeo choreographed weekly for Pilita Corrales in ABS-CBN, and many of the DTP dancers danced for her. Al Quinn had choreographed for Carmen on Camera. ABS-CBN also set up their own dance company with Lito Calzado as its permanent director and choreographer. There were also many ballroom-dancing shows such as Dance Time with Chito, and Penthouse Live (CCP Encyclopedia p. 76). Later on, Douglas Nierras was one of the popular choreographers for TV. Actors on TV were also known to be dancers, perhaps as a continuation of Vaudeville-type programming for entertainment. The late great comedian Dolphy was also known to be dancer, as well as Bayani Casimiro.  

 

While not particularly filmic or cinematic, television dances broadened the scope and access of dance. Technologies required for filming were also used for television. Techniques for framing could also be similar to cinema, such as special effects, tracking, dolly, pan, circle, and zoom (CCP Encyclopedia p.760).

 

Film and video also lent itself to dance on stage. Denisa Reyes with her NeoFilipino highlighted collaborations between dance and other art forms. Her “Undress the Icon” (1997) made in collaboration with video maker Tad Ermitano is what Paul Morales described as “the most seminal work that heralded multimedia dance in the Philippines” (Adobo Magazine). “Sama sama: dance & video” in 2001 featured video collaborations with film makers Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, Nonoy Froilan, Butch Perez, Tad Ermitano, Mark Gary, and Olivier Rochot. The 1992 version of Cock vs. Cock included videography by Nonoy Froilan. It’s recent iteration in 2019 had a cameraman and livestream of the camera footage behind the performers. Reyes herself also made non-dance films such as Hubad with partner and filmmaker Mark Gary.

While not particularly filmic or cinematic, television dances broadened the scope and access of dance.

In 2020, as expected, numerous dance initiatives focused on digitizing dance and choreographers. The CCP Choreographer Series’ WifiBody [Virtual Body] 2020 Choreographers’ Competition premiered new works by 10 Filipino choreographers from all over the Philippines. This was followed by Program 3, which presented lengthier dance films by choreographers Erl Sorilla, Buboy Raquitico, and Byutii Balaga, who are more known to choreograph works for the stage. FIFTH WALL FEST, as the first international dance film festival, thus becomes the perfect meeting point for these initiatives.

 

Taking off from FIFTH WALL FEST’s ethos of interdisciplinary practices, this article focuses on two dance films that were the product of two Choreographers’ collaborations with filmmakers and as filmmakers: Sari Dalena’s “White Funeral" in collaboration with Myra Beltran, 1997; and Paul Alexander Morales’ “Clytemnestra-Manila ‘58,” 2009, which also featured Beltran as a dancer.


Dalena is an award-winning Fulbright scholar, filmmaker and educator, whose films have been screened in renowned local and international film festivals. Beltran was part of Alice Reyes’ Ballet Philippines and would later be known for opening an independent space for contemporary dance, DanceForum, which hosted the Wifi Body Festival from 2006 to 2015. With the Contemporary Dance Network Manila, Beltran’s festival also included dance film festivals. Morales was Artistic Director of one the first contemporary dance groups, Airdance, which was at some point housed in Beltran’s DanceForum and a staple group in CDNM. A festival director for the 5th Wifi Body Festival, Morales would later become the Artistic Director of Ballet Philippines. Discussed are their thoughts on dance films below through “White Funeral” (Dalena and Beltran) and “Clytemnestra-Manila ‘58” (Morales). "White Funeral" premiered at CASA San Miguel, and "Clytemnestra" won Third Place at the Martha Graham Dance Company's dance film competition.

Although the film was not originally conceived as a dance film, it would evolve into an experimental dance film with the fusion of movement, stop-motion animation, installation, sculpture, literature, and archival footage.

Q: At what point in your career as choreographers did you make the film?

Myra Beltran:  I was an artist in residence at Coke Bolipata’s CASA San Miguel 1995-96, a few months after I produced my first full-length concert “Women Waiting”.“White Funeral” came after I premiered my solo work "Birdwoman" also at CASA San Miguel in San Antonio, Zambales. I knew and had worked with sculptor Julie Lluch (Sari's mom), and filmmaker Sari Dalena came up for the premiere. We shot “White Funeral” in Zambales around June-July '96, and it premiered at CASA in April '97. Between the shoot and the premiere, I opened DanceForum in Quezon City as an alternative performance space.

 

Paul Morales: Growing up I was influenced by watching Dolphy, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. All that Jazz was my favorite movie. 

 

“Clytemnestra” was just one of those things where in a sense it just came together. It was 2009 so I had done two feature films at that time. I had done my Concerto the year before for Cinemalaya, which is my major first solo feature. It was a period film about World War II — my family’s story, and Nonoy Froilan is in it and he choreographed a little dance for the film. Before that I had done a few other shorts like “QC Scandal” exhibited during the Wifi Body Festival, and a longer work “Contre Temps” (with themes on LGBTQ), which screened in a dance film festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. They had many other up and coming artists there and the Indonesians were becoming very well-known abroad as choreographers and it also translated very well in their films. At that point I saw more into the many possibilities of dance film.

The idea came up while Airdance was staying at Myra’s Dance Forum and we just saw this announcement for a film competition by the Martha Graham Dance Company called "The Clytemnestra ReMash Challenge". So we just read about it, decided to do it, shot it in one afternoon with Myra as the dancer, and entered the competition. We ended up winning Third Place.

Q: Did it start with script, the music, or the dance?

Sari Dalena:  In 1995, I was developing a story for a 16mm animation workshop at the Mowelfund Film Institute. The story draws parallels between Biblical imagery of the devastation inflicted on a nation gone astray with the volcanic eruption that buried central Luzon and drove the Americans out of Subic Bay Naval Base.

 

Like many things, it was all about timing. I had the chance to watch Myra Beltran’s powerful “Birdwoman” at the CASA San Miguel in Zambales. Inspired by Myra Beltran’s choreography, the laharscape of Botolan, and Maya Deren’s ideas on choreocinema, I asked my father (artist Danilo Dalena) to draw a full storyboard.

 

In 1996, we started filming under the auspices of Coke Bolipata’s CASA San Miguel artist in residence program for that year. The collaborative process with Myra as the film’s protagonist who is on a quest for spiritual identity in three iterations: as bride, harlot, and deity was born out of her previous works and the camera’s inherent intervention in framing the body. Myra placed her movements — some pre-existing in her other choreographic works — into a new context, helping create a new narrative and feeling in conjunction with the camera and editing. In so doing the dance seen in the film is its own particular artistic expression.

 

MB: Sari was developing a script for film and the images in my work galvanized it as a work for her. The main images I portrayed arose from existing dances, this time placed in a new context. Some images are from “Annunciation”, and “Tau-tao” (both done in collaboration with Bob Feleo). The other images were from a solo of what I would later call "Becoming". “Becoming” was made as a solo but performed as a sort of duet between a woman and a half-bird. That duet became part of the image of bride and sister.

 

Of course, I had already seen her work (I saw the premiere of her "Asong Simbahan") and there was trust in that process with her aesthetics.

PM: It started with the dance. If you look at it it’s really more of a cinematic study. The choreography that we do is actually Graham’s deconstruction of her actual steps. The way the film is edited is if you play it next to Graham’s actual dancing with Myra’s, they’re both in sync. The accents happen at the same time. 

 

The film is really reimagining the dance narrative in a more realistic narrative. Clytemnestra is a woman who had to killed her children. Greek tragedy involves drama, but here it’s tongue in cheek because of the music and the interplay of tragedy. It doesn’t really purport a reality; the violence is only implied.


I also considered the location (Myra’s house), and to establish a sense of nostalgia. We didn’t even have a script, it was all in my head. Unlike Concerto, in this film the flashback is in color, which is her playing with the children, and then everything else is in sepia. The look of the house with the sepia alludes to the mores of society at that time, which subjugated women, motivated her to become such a tragic woman. So it was a mix of the elements of the choreography with cinematic techniques, such as montage (editing), and the pacing of the editing as a choreographic element. 

Q: Did you intend it to be a dance film or a film medium?

SD: I was preparing to make an animated film using pixillation (stop motion) techniques on human figures against sand, using rhythm and ritual — like a celluloid sandbox. Although the film was not originally conceived as a dance film, it would evolve into an experimental dance film with the fusion of movement, stop-motion animation, installation, sculpture, literature, and archival footage.

MB: While it wasn't deliberately thought of as a dancefilm,  Sari showed me films of Maya Deren (in VHS!) as a way for us to talk about what she wanted to achieve. Sari wanted to explore the same continuity in Deren's work in her filmography, as far as I recall, or that Deren's work spoke to her in what she wanted to explore in film. So since Deren is important in dancefilm, I guess the genre came as a consequence. 

 

PM: The competition called for a re-mash of a dance on video, but I considered making  a dance film without using the video material. It was a re-mash of the choreography as a film. I realized that dance on screen is a way to reach an audience — it’s actually where the audience is. And that was something the Graham company saw in releasing the competition on line in 2009.

Q: How did working with film influence your choreographies?

 

MB: Actually, I was curious about the translation into another medium of my work. It affirmed my work thus far and I was free to go on to do other things. I wanted to resonate with other artists because mostly, in my career, there was no one to resonate with. I was mostly alone in my explorations so connecting with other artists and other art-forms — this was so natural for me then and it determined how I conducted my entire career subsequently. I had already been collaborating with visual artists by that time and was already familiar with independent film.

 

I think, at that time, it wasn't the medium per se that interested me but the independent process of doing things, an independent aesthetics in whatever art-form I had  chosen to engage with.

 

Of course, filmic language has already seeped into contemporary choreography (even as in its early history, the reverse was true) and we inherit that legacy already as  contemporary choreographers. For example, in Pina Bausch's works, which are already influenced by film, have choreographic devices she developed with filmic language in mind. The was already part of the norm in contemporary choreography - montage, framing, dissolves, use of light, etc. So, in that sense, we, as contemporary dance choreographers, have imbibed some of that language already. 

 

PM: A lot of my choreographies have incorporated cinematic language. Like in my “Lakambini” duet from Rock Supremo, there is a flashback that’s very cinematic. There’s a part where there’s a dissolve: the happy past and the sad present, together. Cinematic but also theatrical.

 

Even how I wrote my librettos (Crisostomo Ibarra and Simoun) is like a  script for film. The first scene for example is from Ibarra’s point of view, a psychological closeup that you don’t get in the novel. What Ibarra is thinking is done cinematically/theatrically. Another example is how I invite the audience to zoom in on Maria Clara as she takes off her earrings and puts down her hair. I focus on small and natural movements. 

 

In Rock Supremo there is multimedia. There’s so much more you can do with using live video. 

 

In Airdance we also used live cameras as part of the show, Love Potion no. 9. We were playing with the idea of occlusion. So you stage things so they come with a particular perspective on the camera. But when you see it on the stage you can see the whole thing, not just the camera’s close ups. The other parts of the body could be doing other things aside from what the camera can see. So the whole show utilized that idea. There was a live camera and there was projection. So it is about what you present and what you do not include.

Q: What makes you decide which of your choreographies or concepts are best for dance film? What are the factors that inform your creative output?

 

PM: The mode of production: “may budget ba ito” (Is there a budget for this)? Dance films I would say are shorter and more compact, because of people’s attention spans. It would be great if we could do a full-length dance film — nobody has really tried that here. My longest is “Contretemps,” which is about 30 min. It’s more of the possibilities and the support available. 

 

With “QC Scandal” and “Clytemnestra,” I have a thing about utilizing the technology that is available. My production company Digital Spirit means trying to find a spiritually conscious process but also about maximizing technology. I’m on the cusp, I was one of the first few people to present a digital film in the Philippines. In 2000 at the CineManila festival, there were  only 3 digital films. That was a time when you could already edit your film on a computer. Before that in 1998, my short film for Mowelfund which was also with dance, was shot in 16mm. It was really on film — I had to literally cut, paste, and develop the film. The “QC Scandal” was showcasing the idea that “Hey these cameras are really okay.” We were using the first generation of camera phones. It was prescient in the sense that we foresaw that scandals are bound to happen because people would have more means to film themselves. There was not much at that time, and now it’s a normal part of life. It was maximizing the camera, it was also about equipment.

 

For “Clytemnestra” we used one of the first DSLR photography cameras with the capability to shoot video. It had both strengths and weaknesses so it gave the film a specific look, feel, and size. As technology progresses so does the capacity and possibilities for digital space.

 

MB: Frankly, I think one conceptualizes for the camera primarily if one is supposed to do dancefilm. It’s a misconception by choreographers that they have a privileged position in the making of a dancefilm in the same way they do in the theatre. It is totally different because both the choreographic and the filmic language should marry. I don’t really have my own body of work in dancefilm, mind you, so I don’t actually know if I have the authority to answer, but that’s what I believe in.

 

SD: Lending from Maya Deren’s concept of the camera as an “active participant” in the creation of her cinematic dances, the camera becomes an extension of the body. For Deren, filmmaking was dance. This was an idea that I took to heart and was set on exploring. Contrasting the exaltation of dance against the lahar-devastated region to echo the feelings of displacement from the Aetas who fled from the hills to evacuation camps during the Mt. Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991, the filmic medium played an important factor in the conceptualization of “White Funeral”. In other words, “White Funeral” could not exist in another form except as a piece of cinema.

 

But working with film, you always meet technical limitations — 16mm Bolex cameras have their peculiarities as a recording apparatus to capture Myra’s dance and choreography. At that time, there were no digital cameras yet that can record for as long as 60 minutes of footage. The workshop provided the Swiss made Bolex camera that could only accommodate 100 ft of film (equivalent to 3 minutes and 11 seconds) for a single, long take. What made it more difficult was one had to hand-crank the winding handle when the spring motor is uncoiled. So even if you had 3 minutes of film in the camera, a take may only run for a minute. The film magazine that could carry a full 400 ft load and the battery unit for longer takes unfortunately wasn’t available. This doubled the physical and emotional demands for Myra as she had to adjust her movements within the technical limitations of the camera, not to mention doing all this in a harsh environment. Working on “White Funeral” changed the way I make films – the collaborative nature of film reminds me how much it is like a carnival of creativity: Myra Beltran’s powerful choreography, the spontaneous, soulful performance by fellow dancer Hayuma Habulan, cinematographer Regiben Romana’s mastery in dancing with the Bolex camera around the dancers, cacti sculptures by my mother Julie Lluch, bone installations from Robert Feleo, old piano installation from Coke Bolipata, condom sculptures from my father Danilo Dalena, intricate costumes by Kiri, clay animation by Aba Dalena and Vivian Limpin, music by Vivaldi, Pinikpikan, Grace Nono and Joey Ayala and the memories of life before the Pinatubo eruption from the Aeta children - this amalgamation of sources shaped this film meditation.

Q: Is it useful and productive to use terms such as dance film in the Philippine context?

 

MB: I use the term dancefilm (one word) as Erin Brannigan defines it in her book and I think it is useful because it has a more inclusive scope, though the dance documentary is not part of this term "dancefilm" as one word.

 

PM: For me, dance film is meant to bring dance to a wider audience. The thing about film is it also depends on how you see it. When it’s projected on a big screen, you get more of the immersive filmic quality. When it’s on video, something else could be happening in the periphery. You don’t get so immersed and you don’t have control about the sound quality. As a film maker, you’re really concerned about how its projected, how the sound levels are…The film itself is still a performance and it changes depending on how you perceive it. It’s fascinating with me how for example Royal Ballet started doing vertical videos. It’s always about reaching outward and the boundaries and forms are always moving.

 

I think it’s fine, the defining, and even the confusion. What evolves and what becomes popular is also a cultural thing. It’s diasynchronatic, it will evolve. Dance film is used because it’s a global concept. Some dance film festivals are very specific in their guidelines of what dance film entails, such as no documentation of a live show, etc. Screen dance is also a term used. For example, I quite enjoyed WifiBody [Virtual Body] 2020 as dance films. I enjoy even the snippets of dance we see now on Facebook. As a viewer and as an artist you get to see something inspiring that can be viewed, reacted to or explored. It’s social media dance. In a sense they could all be dance films. The future will put them in their right place.

 

Even if it’s not film — everything’s technically video now, deeper than that it’s all digital — to call it “film” puts a work in the cinematic framework. So you see it through the lens of film making — the qualities, and the language. 


I was able to show National Artist Alice Reyes’ 2012 version of Rama, Hari on the TV and at the ABS-CBN digital platform for weeks so a lot of people, who probably wouldn’t have gone to the theater, got to see it. And we were able to prepare it well. We had 5 cameras, we had a dolly, and I edited it for a month. The art of cinema for dance I think is really the consciousness of it, thinking, “This is the part of dance I want you to see.” It’s a deliberate framing and I directed the video as a way to show the choreography on TV. Maybe not a “dancefilm”, but it was good documentation and I wish we could do it for every stage work.

These three films are not only what we would now consider “dance films,” but also serve as documents of bodies and expressions moving within a frame through a particular time and space.

Today, many more roads in dance film have been done. Some filmmakers known to create works for dance or with choreography in film, are Sherad Anthony Sanchez, Romana, and Ruelo Lozendo. Lozendo has “Udlot-udlot” and Roxlee’s experimental short “Juan Gapang'' could also be considered a dance film. Beltran also directed her own dance film “Daddy” in 2013. Others coming from dance have also made in-roads: Raffy Froilan and Mika Fabella’s Mananayaw, Patrick Alcedo’s Dancing Manilenyos, Madge Reyes’ “Lucid,” and Tin Gamboa’s “Kariskis”. While other young filmmakers have also included dance in experimental films such as Kyle Nieva’s “Cinematique”, and Antonne Santiago’s “Juana and The Sacred Shores” (in collaboration with Aisha Polestico).

Perhaps to reach somewhat of a conclusion, Beltran, Dalena and Morales’ insights above tell us that the history of dance film in the Philippines are shaped by conditions of how dance artists continue to collaborate with other artists and mediums, to find ways to share dance to the publics, (to ensure its economic viability), to utilize it as a medium that is an integral part of their dance-making process, or to see it as an artform in itself dependent on technologies available. In terms of history, perhaps the fact that concert dance came about the same time as the American cinema in the Philippines, the relationship between dance and film as art form and entertainment has more cross currents that need to be looked further into. Today, these three films are not only what we would now consider “dance films,” but also serve as documents of bodies and expressions moving within a frame through a particular time and space.

Notes

Watch “QC Scandal” and “Clytemnestra” through these links. 

 

“White Funeral”, “Mananayaw”, “Dancing Manilenyos”, and “Juana on the Sacred Shores” were screened at FIFTH WALL FEST 2020. The WifiBody [Virtual Body] 2020 Audience Choice Winner “Sa Silong” by Gerard Hechanova, and Program 3’s “Wom(b)man” by Erl Sorilla were also screened.

 

Denisa Reyes’ 2019 version of Cock vs Cock, and Paul Morales’ new work in collaboration with Paw Castillo, premiered virtually in NeoFilipino 2020 on October 28-30.

Works Cited

Brannigan, E. (2011). Dancefilm: Choreography and the moving image. NY, New York: Oxford University Press.

Morales, P. A. (2019, March 06). Dance of Light: Paul Alexander Morales, artistic director of Ballet Philippines, gives a personal perspective into how contemporary dance has been shaped by evolving video technology. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://www.adobomagazine.com/the-magazine/dance-of-light-paul-alexander-morales-artistic-director-of-ballet-philippines-gives-a-personal-perspective-into-how-contemporary-dance-has-been-shaped-by-evolving-video-technology/

Villaruz, B.E.S. (1994). Dancing on television. In CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Vol. V (p. 76). Manila, Philippines: Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Special thanks to

Aisha Polestico (Research Assistant)

Myra Beltran

Paul Morales

Sari Dalena

Basilio Esteban “Steve” Villaruz

Denisa Reyes

Biag Gaongen

Karl Castro

Jared Jonathan Luna

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Regina Bautista is a dancer, scholar, and educator. At York University, she was Dr. Patrick Alcedo’s Graduate Research Assistant and worked with him in Dancing Manilenyos. She currently manages the CCP Choreographers’ Series.

Elaine Forsgate Marden

Fernando &  Kit Zobel de Ayala