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The redemption of Chris Millado

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TRIXIE DAUZ

By Giselle P. Kasilag

Theater Review
Ding, Ang Bato!
By College of St. Benilde’s
Arts and Culture Cluster’s
Dance Program

IN 2003, Chris Millado directed a highly anticipated dance performance of the iconic Filipino superhero, Darna. It had all the elements of success: the country’s premier ballet company, a high-tech “flying” system, an award-winning actress to play the villain, and the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines as the stage for what was marketed as an epic theatrical experience.

Ten minutes into the production it was clear that while Darna was airborne, the production itself was not taking flight. Ironically, the very elements that were supposed to ensure that the production was a hit were exactly what made it an unwieldy experience for the audience to watch.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Millado took another shot at Darna. Ding, Ang Bato! — a dance musical by the College of St. Benilde’s Arts and Culture Cluster’s Dance Program — was the Darna production he should have made 15 years ago. With this university production, he found redemption.

Ding, Ang Bato! is clearly a dance production. Its first 10 minutes are spent in relative silence with the back story of the magical stone finding its way to Narda (Stacy Abarca) told only through dance movements. No dialogue is necessary. And even the music is kept to a bare minimum — mostly sound effects for embellishments and always at the right moment. This is supported by the wonderful graphics projected either on the background or the sheer screen that rises and falls as needed.

Soon it becomes clear why this was so. Ding (Carlos Serrano III) is a deaf-mute. When his sister Narda enters the picture for the first time, she is signing to communicate with her brother. And then the movements take an innovative twist: sign language is seamlessly incorporated into the choreography. The movement literally became the dialogue.

Choreographers Denisa Reyes (who was also part of the 2003 production) and Ernest Mandap infused creative movement into sign language to make this unique composition that is beautiful and functional. The College of St. Benilde has a program for the deaf-mute and this technique allowed the production to be more inclusive. It is art but it has a purpose.

While the dancers were clearly not professionals, their enthusiasm made up for the gaps in their technique. Indeed, it was precisely because this is a university dance production that allowed Mr. Millado along with Ms. Reyes and Mr. Mandap to be more experimental yet more grounded in their approach. The students were very eager to absorb instruction, and clearly had complete trust in their mentors. The result was a playground for creativity.

Immediately, one would recognize the genius of the set design. It is a very simple, stylized structure that could easily — and believably — convert into a mountain or a stage. Production designer Tuxqs Rutaquio, projection designer Jose Mejias, and lighting designer Joaquin Jose Aranda not only brought their A game but worked harmoniously in creating this magical multimedia display that pulled from various sources including traditional shadow play, comics, and digital illustrations.

The title is true. In Ding, Ang Bato!, Ding is truly the heart and the core of the production. He is the pure soul whose actions ensure that the magical stone reaches the hands of the right person. Because of him, Darna (Christine Crame) is able to fly.

And Darna flies! With no clunky harness to obstruct her movements, she is free to roam from one end of the stage to another with four anonymous men in silver gray serving as her wings. This seemingly “low-tech” method also allows her to dance, kick, leap, and, most of all, interact with the other characters on ground level. Darna is not a god, as Ding points out in the middle of the show.

As Ms. Abarca’s Narda turned into Ms. Crame’s Darna, Lea Roque’s Tina also turned into Natasha Cabrera’s Valentina. Each set has a singing and dancing version of the character and the bold decision to prioritize talent over synching the physical attributes paid off wonderfully.

Ms. Abarca’s voice can draw tears from the hardest of hearts. Composers Ejay Yatco and Jef Flores provided her — and the rest of the cast — with honest and heartfelt music. “Nag-iisa” and “Naniniwala Ako Sa Maligno” are earworms that could fit in any radio playlist.

Admittedly, there was a bit of a meltdown in the first part of the second half. The underlying theme of Mars Ravelo’s Darna has always been social justice and anti-oppression — the essence of every superhero. Audiences coming in would know to expect that any updated version would include current political issues. Many of these were already creatively presented in the first half of the production which touched on issues like the narcissism of the digital age, bullying (cyber and otherwise), veneration of heroes, etc.

When the second half rolled in, it was as if a different director took over and threw in all the political clichés they could find. We lost Mr. Millado for a good 15 minutes before the production was able to pull back and return to Ding.

It is the subtle approach to issues that is more effective in rousing the audience to question the current political state. The twist on how the conflict is resolved addresses concerns on governance, accountability, misinformation, and the climate of misogyny. The characters are more nuanced and sympathy is not difficult to evoke. It would be interesting to see a “10 years later” scenario on how the main characters develop after the glow of victory has dulled and realities have set in.

There were notable lapses in acting. One could see the actors waiting for lines and cues at the beginning of new scenes. But once the awkward transitions passed, confidence returned and the delivery of lines were more natural and conversational.

Apart from that, it is easy to forget that Ding, Ang Bato! is technically a school production. This is the Darna production that Mr. Millado was meant to make, and dance theater is now a far richer landscape for it.

THE FINAL performances of Ding, Ang Bato! are today at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., at the De La Salle — College of Saint Benilde, School of Design and Arts Campus, 950 Pablo Ocampo St., Malate, Manila.

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