By Sam L. Marcelo, Associate Editor, High Life
Abelardo, Cultural Center
of the Philippines,
Roxas BLvd., Pasay City
TRANSLATING Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana into dance is a feat not for the fainthearted. Composed between 1935 and 1936, the cantata is a beast of a piece that plays at piety before descending into medieval debauchery.
Based on a collection of poems of the same name written by monks, Orff’s 25-movement Carmina Burana (Latin for “Songs from Beuern”) opens with “O Fortuna,” a choral blockbuster and pop-culture staple that’s been used to hawk a laundry list of things — aftershave, beer, pizza, and chicken tenders, among them — aside from being included in scads of film and TV soundtracks. It’s right up there with Beethoven’s Fifth; once you hear it, you’ll probably recognize it.
“The music is iconic, overpowering, formidable,” said Alice Reyes, National Artist for Dance, who, in 2017, returned as artistic director to Ballet Philippines (BP), the company she co-founded.
To open its 49th season, BP is trotting out Ms. Reyes’s choreographic attempt at matching the monumentality (a word that came up often during BP’s season launch) of Orff’s magnum opus. Premiered in 1974, Ms. Reyes’s Carmina Burana is an athletic blend of modern and classical techniques that leaves its dancers in a state of rapt breathlessness. “I tried to get into the spirit of the songs, the medieval-ness of it. It starts with monks and goes into total sensual, sexual orgies,” she said. (Whoever doubts the monastic aptitude for letting loose should remember that monks are responsible for brewing some of the best beers in the world — and where there is beer, there is… life.)
Described as “very difficult” and “very physical” by BP members, Ms. Reyes’s choreography features jumps with a lot of ballon and verve. “You can’t just throw yourself around. You have to have the lines of classical ballet but, at the same time, the freedom of modern dance,” said danseur Ronelson Yadao.
Adam Sage, BP associate artistic director and ballet master, danced Carmina Burana in the 1980s and he knows the demands of Ms. Reyes’s masterpiece. “It pushes you,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to do because when you get to the end, you feel like you’ve accomplished something… And now, we’re at the point where we’re in the right place, not only physically but in the brain as well.”
Featuring sets originated by the late Salvador “Badong” Bernal, National Artist for Theater Design, and live performances by the Madrigal Singers and the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Gerard Salonga, Carmina Burana is one of BP’s most expensive productions, which explains, in part, why it has taken 15 years for it to return to the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. “You begin the 49th as big as you can,” said Ms. Reyes.
Company members are aware of how lucky they are to have the National Artist herself re-choreograph Carmina Burana to their bodies. The solo of Victor Maguad — originally created for a longer, taller dancer — was reworked to take advantage of his muscular build. A few more male sections were also added to show off the swelling number of danseurs in BP’s roster (there are 20).
“It looks very different,” said Ms. Reyes of this incarnation of Carmina Burana. “I fine-tuned it and I think it’s much stronger… The music is powerful so I had to make sure that the dance came up to that level.”
During open rehearsals, Ms. Reyes couldn’t help but exclaim “I love this music, dios mio,” as soon as “O Fortuna” cymbal-crashed to its abrupt end. “With music like that, it is a challenge. It has grown as I think I piece should grow — as long as the choreographer is still around to grow it.”
Revisiting this piece, now a 44-year-old classic, was a wistful process for the BP co-founder. “It’s very interesting in that I remember the older bodies,” said Ms. Reyes. She reeled off the names of the original dancers, including Edna Vida Froilan (her younger sister), Nonoy Froilan (Ms. Froilan’s husband), and Effie Nañas — all of them living legends, as is Ms. Reyes, in the eyes of BP’s 20- and 30-somethings who were barely even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when Carmina Burana was first shown.
The current company recognizes the historical import that accompanies this restaging of Carmina Burana, only the third or fourth (depending on whom you ask) in BP’s 49 years. “It’s a blessing. It was danced by former dancers of Ballet Philippines who we looked up to and are still looking up to,” said Mr. Yadao. “It’s really something special.”
Stephanie Santiago, a young recruit who just returned from her studies in the US, was floored by the choreography of Ms. Reyes. “She’s, for me, a genius,” Ms. Santiago said, hesitant but earnest in her praise. “I really think that the works of Alice should go on international stages because you won’t see anything like this. It’s amazing.”
Carmina Burana is but one of the 500 pieces in BP’s repertoire, which is so vast that Ms. Reyes compared it to a revolving museum where pieces are alternately placed in storage and taken out — hopefully — for all to see.
Standing in the CCP rehearsal hall, she waxed poetic about BP’s “tremendous choreographic thrust” and how it was in that very room that dance luminaries such as Gina Katigbak, Eddie Elejar, Tony Fabella, Edna Vida, Agnes Locsin, Bam Damian, and Steve Villaruz first started. “And so what I’m trying to do with this march toward the 50th anniversary, which happens very soon, is to continue showing off why we — Ballet Philippines — take such great pride in the company that we share with the country.”
(Aside from Carmina Burana, the program also features Brando Miranda’s Vivaldi Concerto, which premiered in 1983; Norman Walker’s Season of Flight, a piece that debuted in 1972 and was the first of five dances created by Walker for the company; and Sama Sama, a new work by Ronelson Yadao, who returned to Ballet Philippines during the 48th season after a stint with Cloud Gate Theater in Taiwan. For tickets to the opening of BP’s 49th season, call BP at 551-1003, Ticketworld at 891-9999; or visit ticketworld.com.ph.)
By Sam L. Marcelo, Associate Editor, High Life