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Passion and art: Balag at Angud

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ONE OF the toughest choices people have to make is choosing between work they love despite that offers little compensation or a job they hate but which pays the big bucks. What would you pick?

While the question can apply to anyone, it is especially apt for the proverbial “starving” artists — painters, writers, photographers, theater actors, sculptors, etc. — who are essentially compelled to choose between love and money, and are often challenged with the question: “Can you eat your art?”

This dilemma is one of the issues highlighted in Tanghalang Pilipino’s Balag at Angud, an original Filipino musical about the life of revolutionary Filipino artist Luis Yee, Jr., better known as Junyee.

Written by Palanca Award-winner Layeta Bucoy, Balag at Angud tells the true story of Junyee’s life in Agusan del Norte and as an artist, and his art including the 2007 outdoor protest installation called Angud: A Forest Once shown at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s front lawn.

The musical’s name comes from two of the artist’s works. Balag is a Visayan word for “trellis” or a framework made of bamboo. It was also the name of Junyee’s first open-air one-man show in the 1970s. Balag — installed in UP Diliman where he was studying Fine Arts — was firmly bound by ropes and strings on which protests, poems, and letters hung. At the time Junyee was studying sculpture under Napoleon Abueva, who was not yet a National Artist.

Meanwhile, angud is the term used for the part of a tree trunk where holes are drilled in order to haul the log from the mountains. That part where the hole is located is later chopped and discarded, considered junk because it no longer has no purpose and cannot be sold. A visual argument against illegal logging in the country, Junyee’s piece Angud: A Forest Once represents evidence of how we abuse Mother Earth.

Playwright Rody Vera takes on the title role in the musical, with actors Dune Michael Garcia and Paw Castillo playing Junyee’s child and teenage self.

“We live in a country that ignores the conditions of artists. My whole admiration for Junyee comes from how he was able to remain uncompromising in the face of daily doubts. ‘Bibigay ba ako?’ (Will I give in?) I often ask myself. Pero itong mga pinili niya ay klaro at singular (But what I have chosen is clear and singular),” Mr. Vera said in a statement.

Like many other parents who pressure their children to get a job that pays well, Junyee’s father, Luis (played by Jonathan Tadioan), did not approve of his son’s life choices. A Chinese immigrant, he wanted his son to take over the family business. Junyee tried, working at the Palace Hotel in Agusan which his father asked him to manage. Then 17 years old, he put up an original piece of art he had made at the hotel’s lobby — but the customers did not like it and called it trash. Luis got rid of it, leading to a heated argument between father and son which prompted Junyee to leave home and pursue his true passion: art.

While focusing on the life of an artist, the musical is meant for everyone who has had doubts about their life.

“This musical is not just about one artist’s journey of becoming, but a familiar story of countless others long before Michelangelo’s agony and ecstasy defined his life,” wrote Junyee once.

“I can imagine the feeling and struggle of the first caveman who drew on the cave wall for other cave dwellers to appreciate. ‘Look, look’ he must have said excitedly. ‘This is the deer that we killed yesterday!’ I can imagine his cavemates saying, yes that’s a deer alright! And for sure somebody will say, ‘so what? Can you eat that?!’ So this musical is a story of countless others who struggle to express themselves in their own peculiar ways before my time, and the many others of my time,” he said.

After Junyee left home, he landed a job as a makeup artist in a funeral parlor. One day, he received news from home that his father had died. He went home and applied the makeup on his father’s corpse. Then he enrolled at UP Fine Arts, which is where he met Napoleon Abueva, which led to Junyee’s first creation, Balag.

The musical’s playwright, Ms. Bucoy, said in a statement: “I am hoping that this story would both inspire and pose a challenge to the audience through following the life of an artist ahead of us who struggled for his beliefs in his art and triumphed.”

Kung ang sining ay kalat, basura, walang silbi, walang kwenta sa paningin ng iba, tutuluyin mo pa ba? Iyan ang ng tanong ng dula (If art is scattered, garbage, useless, has no worth in the eyes of others, would you continue? That is the question posed by the play),” she added.

The cast includes musician Bayang Barrios as Musa or Junyee’s muse; Astarte Abraham, Mia Bolaños, and members of the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors’ Company in the ensemble.

The musical is directed by Audie Gemora, whose previous work with Tanghalang Pilipino includes Noli Me Tangere: The Musical and Pangarap Sa Isang Gabi Ng Gitnang Tag-Araw.

“What is so beautiful about Layeta Bucoy’s story is how she personified art: it is as if there were a love story between Junyee and his art which is personified in Musa. I want our spectators to know that if you go after what you were designed to do in this world at all cost, it will pay off. That’s exactly what happened to Junyee,” Mr. Gemora said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Patatag’s Dodjie Fernandez wrote the music, while Upeng Galang-Fernandez is in charge of the musical direction.

The musical’s set design is by artist Toym Imao who is assisted by Marco Viaña. “The set will take inspiration from Junyee’s actual installations, reinterpreting them using materials like bamboo, leaves, and seeds. It’s going to be an art environment where audiences can immerse themselves and get a glimpse into Junyee’s works, while also telling the story on stage,” said Mr. Imao in a statement.

Balag at Angud will run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 16 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater).

Tickets are P1,000 for VIP seating and P800 for Orchestra Side seats. For ticket reservations, group sales, sponsorships, and special performances, contact Juan Marco Lorenzo at 0999-884-3821 or 832-1125 local 1620/1621. Tickets are also available at TicketWorld and the CCP Box Office. Visit https://tanghalangpilipino.com/ or e-mail info@tanghalangpilipino.com for more information.— Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman