by Patti Trimble
The day before I spoke to Rudi Soriano, artistic director and founder of LIKHA – Pilipino Folk Ensemble, I read this sentence on the UNESCO World Heritage site: “The growing tendency to embrace mainstream lifestyles represents a serious threat to the survival of this ancient form . . . “ And I thought that quote could refer to so many dance and music forms, in so many countries.
I also thought how true it is that each traditional-dance choreographer, researcher, producer, and performer has to determine which gesture or step or suite to save, how to save it and translate it, and how to keep it alive with heart, and with utmost respect for its origins.
Rudi Soriano emigrated to the US in his early thirties, and he now lives with his heart in two worlds: the Philippines, and the Bay Area. Whenever possible, he travels to learn dance forms from indigenous groups in the Philippines, and then he brings them back to the Bay Area—preserving Filipino dances, translating them, and presenting them to American audiences. I asked Rudi about his travels and research and the effect his dedication has had on both of his two cultures, and realized it was best to let him tell his own story.
Rudi told me, “Years back when I was still in school they had this Philippine folk concert, during Marcos’ time. She brought out many indigenous tribes. Many Filipinos don’t know anything about the smaller tribes, and people couldn’t believe it. We saw our diversity, and said, oh this is really us, this is Filipino culture.
“These days, when I do dance research in the Philippines, I find a guide for the places and groups I don’t know very well. In my home town, I talk to my relatives and friends and also I become the guide. Things are changing there so fast, you have to hope you can help preserve the culture somehow.”
In 2004, Rudi’s research centered on the southern island of Mindanao, where he learned dances from several indigenous groups. The following year, he led a research trip to Palawan, the Cordilleras, and Manila. As soon as he arrived, he began asking questions, waiting as one connection spoke to another until he was considered trustworthy. “It’s like a channeling from one person to another, getting an approval, the leaders we have to talk to. If one agrees, then it goes to the next person.” This chain of introductions led him to Narino, a Batak leader or chieftain of a small semi-nomadic group from the jungle regions near Santa Maria. The poverty is hard there, and the groups remain small, surviving by hunting, fishing, and buying a few necessities in local towns.
Rudi says, “When we first met Narino, we told him, ‘We are from the US, we ‘d like to learn your traditions and put the dances on stage,’ and he said they were okay with that. Some of the other leaders were afraid to be commercialized, and we are very aware of that, so when we present these dances, we write the history and explain what is really happening to be sure it is not commercialized. We learned dances from Narino’s group, and when I got back to the states, I found out I could bring some of them to the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival that year. I called to invite Narino, and he was very excited— his first time out of the country.”
Of course, the Philippine jungle and urban America are two distinctly different worlds, so how can a dance translate between the two? Indigenous Philippine dance can be an invocation, a celebration, and a necessity. Rudi says; “When I did the research on the Tausag (my own people), I found the place a little scary even. You can hear all the gongs all the time, and then another gong will answer, so there is all this music in your ears, and I asked ‘What are you doing? What is happening?’ And then the following day they were playing music and dancing again. Also, when you are doing indigenous dances, it’s usually just one or two movements, the same thing over and over, day in and day out, sometimes all day for a week, with singing at night. They get lost in the dancing and the music, and anyone who wants to will dance: it’s not a show.
“There are many things urban Filipinos can’t understand about the old ways. For example, if you change the slightest little thing in a dance, you have to go back immediately to the right movement, or the tribe will criticize you. It’s tiring to dance for hours, but it’s all about the group. Some dances you have to be in a trance, and when we were there this time with Narino, he was staring at something for a long time and he didn’t move. I wondered what he was doing, not talking. And then, in the house, a man and a woman made an incense offering and waved incense at us. We can do the dances, but we just don’t understand some things.
“And then, if you are going to mount it on an American stage, some audiences want it to stay absolutely traditional, and some want much more excitement, so I try to go in between. It’s the same with the (Filipino) Spanish dances, the fandango and waltzes— you really need good staging to help people see their beauty and style.
“I want to show the beauty of the dance, the way people move, and so I need extra flair, more drama on the big stage. So I sometimes exaggerate the movements or the costumes for the big stage. I want people to have that intense feeling of the jungle, to feel how many of these indigenous people live with music and with dance, and with the animals living all around them. I do change things. This year, in LIKHA’s 2013 EDF performance, I made a more exciting story, and I also exaggerated the eagle’s movements and its costume—to show it better. And some of the elders—like Narino—are happy to share their culture on the stage. When Narino first came to San Francisco, I actually couldn’t figure out what he was thinking, was he sad or happy? His expression remained the same, even though I knew he’d never been in a place with so many different kinds of people, but eventually I learned he was very happy to bring his culture here. And, he did on the EDF stage just what he would do at home: he sang an invocation to bless the place, including the names of America and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and California.
This June, (2013), Rudi reconnected with Narino on a short trip to Mindanao. He said, “Narino was happy to see me. Since I was last there, he had moved to a little bit nicer place, a little cleaner, near the jungle but not in it. It’s a boat, like an ark, turned into a small cultural center. This change in his fortunes was because of our first meeting. When we wanted to bring Narino to the states, we had approached the Palawan mayor and Palawan governor, to praise Narino as a master of Batak dance, and to ask for their help getting him a visa, writing letters. This raised Narino’s status in their eyes. People became aware of his importance, and now the governor and the mayor give him some support for his cultural center. He is still the leader of his small group of about 20 (there are many small groups in the area), but now, the mayor calls Narino when a tourist or research group arrives, so he can assemble six to ten dancers and perform dances for them. When we were there last week, he had a group coming. It’s very important for the Batak to share this rare Filipino culture, there before the Spaniards arrived. The center improves the image of the tribes and increases respect.
“Of course, both in Narino’s tourist job, and in his life in the jungle, he dances the same dance: this is the nature of the form. So when I saw him, he wanted to know if LIKHA was doing that Batak dance in the Festival this year, and he was disappointed we weren’t. I tried to explain that we had done it twice already, and that Americans like to see something new.”
The island of Mindanao (roughly the size of Ireland) is home to many indigenous tribes. Rudi tells me, “I would like to live with some of these groups, or in other parts of the Philippines, to learn their dances and cultures. I am going back again, in the summer. There is a vanishing tribe in Mindanao, down south, and hopefully I will be able to visit and learn from them. They live in the lowlands in the dry season, and during the rainy season, they move up into the hills, to live in natural caves, one level caves. In Tagalog they call these people tao bato, or stone people. In the museum, I saw a replica of their cave dwellings. Someone will take me to meet them, and he says there’s a lot of hiking to do to get there. There are said to be only 200 of the people left, but no one is quite sure.
“I live in both worlds. In the US, I have more leisure and can learn more, and I live a more comfortable life, but at the same time, I need to keep going back. People say it’s getting better there, and I’m not sure I see that part, but still there’s no place like home. Of course with us, (American Filipinos) you have the culture always next to you and always in you and you never lose that. But I want my kids—my dancers—to know it’s different there. In the rural areas, there are so many poor people, people with no jobs, but in those smaller villages it’s laid back— like in the 1800s, so slow, and not stressful. People don’t have to try hard to figure out their place in things, and they really do seem so happy. I tell my dancers, ‘I know you didn’t grow up there nor were born there. If you go there you will see how much better off we are here than our forefathers, with education and health care. But also I want you to feel the Filipino in you.’ And that’s hard to inject unless you were born there or grew up over there to around ten or eleven years old. But here, we also dance a lot, and when we dance, we can feel it.”
All photos by Rudi Soriano and friends