Arts & Leisure

By Pola E. del Monte, Multimedia Editor

Hong Kong’s swans

Posted on August 09, 2017

A SHARP drizzle falls on the bustling modern metropolis that is Hong Kong, soaking the folded cardboard boxes on which overseas Filipino workers idly crouch on their day-off. With backs bent from scrubbing bowls in cramped toilets, they chatter their woes away in their small window of rest, feeding on lunches packed in reused ice cream tubs.

SAINT BENILDE Romancon Dance Company dancers Red Arboleda, Mark Juelar, Jaydee Jasa, Lois Laylo perform “Little Swans,” a dance choreographed by Christine Crame.
Elsewhere though, Filipinos are swans.

On a late lazy afternoon, craning long necks and tapping webbed feet on fresh water, they can stretch their large powerful wings and soar from their harsh domestic realities. There is no grime on their pristine white feathers. The black around their eyes is natural and beautiful, as they face an endless horizon.

In dingy theaters and man-made canals not too far away from where the domestic workers spend their Sundays off, other Filipinos assume these fantastic roles in performances.

“Little Swans,” a dance choreographed by Christine Crame and performed by the Saint Benilde Romanšon Dance Company, is one such example. It won overall best dance performance in late July at the Y-Theatre, Youth Square Chai Wan where the Hong Kong Dance Cup Challenge Competition took place.

The dance troupe, along with other representatives from their home college, the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (CSB), flew to Hong Kong to enter the jazz category of this competition, pitted against dancers from countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia in any jazz style: hip-hop, modern, lyrical, contemporary, funk, or musical theater.

Unlike Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, which tells the story of a princess turned into a swan, this version follows four little swans who wake up one morning without their mother.

“Ms. Crame wanted the routine to be the complete opposite of the original ballet piece where everything was so linear and beautiful, so she choreographed it with ugly lines and peculiar steps,” explained Ghian Red Arboleda, who flew to Hong Kong along with members Lois Andrei Laylo, Jon Daniel Jasa, and Mark Aldrich Juelar. Dressed in tight-fitting pearl white shorts, a matching cap, and sleeves sewn with “feathers,” the four dancers startled with their strong mastery of technique, swooping, flowing gracefully in and out the spotlight, performing what was that night’s most remarkable number among more than a hundred others.

Solo and duo performers from CSB also reaped medals. Martha Lelis of the AB-Dance Program won silver. Michael Patrick dela Torre won Gold. Duos Nicole Gutierrez and Ralph Nuguid, and Jaydee Jasa and Mark Juelar, won gold medals.

Another Filipino group called RIO also broke the monotony of the first few performances in the Jazz Ensemble Age 13-19 category. Where most other kids wore outfits like ghetto-style magenta pink braids, and cheongsams paired with denim shorts, the young Filipinos entered the stage in bright red bird-like costumes, their radiant smiles reaching the proverbial old woman at the last row. And even though they all represented different dance schools, the Filipinos that night owned the stage, soaring on a wooden sky whose only limit is a red curtain.

“Promoting Filipino artistry is also proving on that stage that we are no longer underdogs,” Mr. Arboleda reflected. “On stage, we are able to show what the Filipino artist can do.”

How long can the effect of five minutes of fame actually linger? After the curtain falls, where can Filipino artists spread their wings?

Salty waves lap the bottom of the ferry going from Hong Kong to Macau, another autonomous region 45 minutes away. Macau is known as the casino capital of this side of the world, but what few people know is that this gambling mecca has also become the playground of alumni of some of the Philippines’ most renowned choirs such as The Philippine Madrigal Singers, the University of the Philippines Concert Chorus, the University of Santo Tomas Singers, and the University of the East Chorale. Here, singers who have taken their final onstage bows are reborn as gondoliers.

Philippine Madrigal Singers alumna June Gonzaga, an alto, is one of those. She lined up when a casino held auditions in Makati City in 2012, scouting for Filipino talent who could make their illusion of a famous Italian landmark more authentic. On a copy of Venice’s Grand Canal, she now proudly paddles as a gondolier, singing three songs per boat ride. She takes 10 rides daily -- a full-time job that she has been doing since she arrived to Macau.

On the boat she assumes a different identity. She is Brigitta, an Italian who has a Filipina mother, and sings classic Italian love songs from one canal’s end to the other, and back. Rowing is a separate skill that gondoliers have to learn -- they train for two to three weeks so they can steer and paddle while singing a repertoire of classical songs like “’O sole mio.”

Once, she recalls, she sang “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a popular Mandarin song, to an elderly, mild-mannered Taiwanese couple, who were accompanied by their child on the boat. Ms. Gonzaga had observed that Chinese couples do not display their affection in public, making it a rare occurrence for them to follow the custom to kiss under the bridge. However, that day, perhaps drawn by the song and the romance of the place, the Taiwanese couple kissed. It was a gesture that their teary child thanked Ms. Gonzaga for after the ride, saying, “We’ve never seen them kiss our entire lives. Thank you.”

It is this impact that Ms. Gonzaga now lives for. “You centralize your singing to your passengers. It’s not about the money, honestly. It’s a bonus,” she says. “But more than that, it’s the joy that you get from your job. You’re grateful that you’re here.”

Her powerful, operatic voice has drawn comments, and it is not uncommon to be told by her passengers: “Why are you here? What are you doing here? You should be singing on stage!” To which her response is always, “It’s different. It’s more personal. It’s like giving yourself totally to what you’re doing.”

In the Philippines, a country where such performances are considered high-brow, and what dominates television screens are gyrating scantily clad dancers and matinee idols passed off as recording artists, there is only a small niche that appreciates classical dance, opera, and jazz music. For college performing groups, international competitions provide a much-needed validation that Filipino audiences are rarely able to provide.

While Hong Kong remains a place where Filipinos bow down to their employers, it is also the recipient of a new kind of export: in the form of a song or a dance. On a wobbly gondola platform, or a high stable stage, this society’s ugly duckling becomes a swan.