It’s been 120 years since Spain moved out of the Philippines and gave the Southeast Asian country its well-deserved sovereignty. The Philippines continues to celebrate its independence year after year – always remembering the people who fought for the country’s ultimate freedom. As part of this year’s grand celebration, Philippines sent Bayanihan, its national folk dance company, to showcase the culture and arts of Philippines in Phnom Penh. The visit also serves as cultural exchange between Cambodia and the Philippines – paving the way for tighter and closer ties between the two storied nations.
Rama Ariadi witnesses the dance performances in Phnom Penh.
In some parts of Asia, many kinds of art forms are institutionalised to certain extent — every etch of a bas-relief, a mural, even dances, are not created or performed simply for the sake of performance. Dances are especially ritualised — every movement and every gesture has a meaning behind it, telling a story or a myth of how people or a nation came to be. And Cambodia is no exception to this rule — its folk dances and royal ballet repertoires are not simply performed for entertainment’s sake. It is reflective of how the society is organised. In the case of Cambodia, it reflects the rigidity and the hierarchical nature of the society’s superstructure, where traditionally, social mobility is rather limited, and climbing the ladder of the superstructure is akin to climbing the peaks of the mythical Mount Meru.
So when the world-famous Bayanihan, the Philippine’s national folk dance company, came to Phnom Penh to present well-preserved traditional Filipino dances, one should be forgiven for asking — what are the benefits and relevance of this cultural exchange? As it turns out, as far as relevance goes, it is indeed, very relevant to the realities of Cambodia’s present day predicaments.
“Everybody knows that the Philippines was influenced by so many external influences, and it gives rise to the question — what makes a Filipino, and more importantly, who are the Filipinos?” said the executive director of Bayanihan Troupe, Suzie Benitez. “While we were colonised by the Spanish and the Americans, we were neither Spaniards nor Americans.”
“Since its inception in 1957, the spirit of Bayanihan is that of self-discovery,” she continued. “Throughout the years, these influences become adopted and indigenised by our ancestors.”
Ms Benitez has a point. Upon first glance, none of the accompanying musicians seem to be holding instruments that is unique to the Philippines. Classical guitar? Check. Castanets? Check. But upon closer inspection, these are no ordinary guitars. What seemed to be a oversized ukulele is actually an octavina — an indigenised version of the Spanish lute. Next to the octavina was another guitar-shaped instrument, the bandurria — which is still commonly played across Spain and its’ former colonies, except that Philippine bandurria are generally tuned a step lower than its’ Spanish forefathers.
The similarities do not end there. If one were to shut their eyes when the troupe performed three folk dances from the island of Luzon, the audience may be forgiven for thinking that they’re listening to a variation of a Malagueña or the flamenco. But as one opens their eyes, it became immediately clear that it is, in fact, something that is distinctively Filipino.
First on the rundown is Konan — a folk dance that is originally derived from a children’s game that involves balancing a silver coin on the top of the performers’ foreheads. Then came Lerion — another folk dance from Marikina that regales the audience through its festive movements, of the close relationship that the indigenous population once enjoyed with their region’s natural bounty.
Last but not least, the Bayanihan troupe performed the Subli. Male and female dancers perform in pairs, only to break into various formations before returning to dance in pairs, all the while accompanied by the frenetic beating of a traditional drum and interspersed with the constant rhythmic clacking of the castanets. In a way it is a form of perfect synthesis — a balanced mixture of the primordial customs of pre-colonial Philippines and the influence of the earlier Spanish settlers and the customs that they brought along with them.
“All of the repertories that the troupe demonstrated was chosen because of one thing — it encapsulates what I believe is the Filipino spirit,” said Bayanihan troupe member, Petra Elepaño. “Patriotic, and perhaps more importantly, festive!”
The question that remains unanswered to this point, is the matter of the relevance of this cultural exchange — especially if one is to take into account the gaps in development, how the society is structured in the past and in the present, and consequently, how arts are perceived as a part of daily life.
The answer came from the Vice Rector and Dean of Choreographic Arts for the Royal University of Fine Arts, Ms Sam Sathya. “By having cultural exchanges like this, we hope to expand the horizon of our students to explore the limits of performing arts in Cambodia,” she explained. “There’s this misconception that Cambodian arts cannot progress beyond the traps of ‘tradition’ and onwards into the realms of the contemporary movement,” she continued.
“The Bayanihan troupe’s achievement is an outstanding example of how folk arts and modern interpretations of traditional culture can co-exist side by side — that by virtue of progressing into the contemporary realm, it does not necessarily translate to the loss or degradation of traditional values and meanings.”
And though Bayanihan’s visit to the kingdom is part of the celebration of the 120th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Philippines from the Spanish colonisation, the cultural presentation and exchange between the two countries are bound by their mutual love and respect for the arts, traditions, cultures and histories.