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The Spirit of Encantada: A Reading of the Dance

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 24 April) — I’m no dance critic. I’m just a fan of the works of our National Artist Agnes Locsin, and I was in the audience at Samsung Theatre in Manila on Friday night of April 15 when Encantada premiered its third restaging. It was, again, a strong and winning performance that I saw, and when I communicated to Agnes the intensity of my experience blah blah blah, I was asked if I would like to write about it. I haven’t formally agreed to the request of my friend of twenty-three years but here I am now submitting myself to the page.

I watched Encantada thirty-one years ago at the CCP in Manila and have been enthralled even then by the spectacle I saw and the mostly percussive indigenous music I heard. I was impressed by the magnitude and gravity of her vision that covered the local, the spiritual, and the historical and was sustained in such towering works as Elias (1995), La Revolucion Filipina (1996), and Four Last Songs (1999), among many others. 

After I moved to Davao in 1999, I was introduced to her by a mutual friend, Margot Marfori, and soon I found myself reading poems that she had incorporated into her dance shows. I was to write “Continuing Love” for her A Love Story, a dance tribute to her mother Carmen (2007), a poem for Sanga (2012), and a suite of poems for Bunga (2015)—the latter two being parts of her environment-themed Puno series. And I became part of a handful of her friends asked over to preview her annual dance shows in Davao. There I witnessed the sharpness of her unerring eye for precision in the execution of her vision—her face mostly running through a gauntlet of grimaces announced by a holler when the curve of a raised arm or the spread of tortured fingers fell short of what was expected, or else keeping a vigilant plainness when the moves are how they should be. Discipline and correct motivation in execution are what she instils in her dancers with her steely gaze and varying pitches in her vocal eruptions. The results show all the time.

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Scene from Act 1 of Encantada: The kababaihan and the healing of Estranghero. Photo by JOJO MAMANGUN

This time, the encantada, danced airily by Georgette Sanchez-Vargas, descends and ascends the mountain like a lithe mass of white fire. The babaylan of Kris-Belle Mamangun interacts with her and the kababaihan sinuously yet variably as handmaiden now, then as leader of the group. The group dancing of the women and the guardia civil are always in unison punctuated by sudden variations every now and then, powered by the percussive music of Joey Ayala and Ang Bagong Lumad into powerful waves of rhythmic energies interacting with one another and weaving a story of a kind. Rare are the moments of rest, and one can only marvel at the intensity, strength, and stamina of the dancers who seemed to have internalized what they went through during rehearsals and finally found, however temporarily, release from Locsin’s (as well as the watchful restagers’) grip, and joy in proving to them and the audience the shine of their hard work, learnings, and worthiness. Ecstasy is the word for it—and it was fiery and infectious!

But it is to the narrative I’d like to turn to now because I felt it was telling me something new this time. Perhaps I had grown up the past twenty years in the island and have begun to rethink things in a different light.

I begin with opposites. They were all over the place; there was no hiding them. The reality of what is seen onstage and the wanderings of the imagination seeing what is there and overhearing the unseen. The plainness of the tall and winding Bernal staircase and the mountain that it is. The descent of the encantada at the beginning and her ascension at the end. The one and the many: the babaylan and kababaihan; the fraile and guardia civil; the Indio rebel named Estranghero and the taong bayan. The colonizing fraile and guardia civil, the colonized Indio rebel Estranghero and taong bayan. The defiance of the Estranghero and the submissiveness of the taong bayan. The tyrannical and oppressive authority of the fraile and the loving and nurturing power of the encantada. Lyrical music for the sinuous dances of the kababaihan, and martial, sometimes dissonant music for the muscular and angular moves of the fraile and his uniformed minions. The makeshift altar and façade of the Christian cathedral and the permanent presence of the encantada’s mountain. The imahen clothed and the imahen as anito. These contrasts, however, do not reduce to a simple binary or agon of good versus evil but rather depict a picture of what always has been and what now has changed. Colonial occupation brings radical, consumptive, and deleterious changes. As a violent intervention in the destiny of a country, it inflicts erasures and devaluations on both natives and their lands, redirecting native orientations and deforming native mentalities and landscapes. The native dance of worship by the kababaihan that grace the beginning of Encantadabecomes transformed to a cowed, fearful, and helpless taong bayan subjected to a more formal religious church service and to the punitive regimen of the guardia civil. Here is where we get the idea that something wrong is going on. The change in the situation of the taong bayan has them on the receiving end of unjustice and oppression. An unwanted and unnecessary captivity of body and mind—wired to the control board of the master colonists. Here is where the Indio rebel Estranghero (danced adroitly by Ronelson Yadao) comes in.

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Scene from Act 1: The Fraile orders the Guardia Civil to hunt down Estranghero. Photo by JOJO MAMANGUN

This character is an ambiguous tool for revelations in the narrative. His description as “the Indio rebel Estranghero” in the program’s synopsis, based on the libretto by Al Santos, is an absolute given. We know nothing of him except the name and a two-word description. But he is the engine of the narrative—the prime initiator of four actions in the dance narrative. First, he is key to two revelations—that the imahen he stole from the altar of the fraile was in reality a lost anito of the encantada, only clothed in rich finery and with a jeweled crown characteristic of a foreign culture, and that only he—a true stranger in town, as announced by his name—has the courage, mobility, and daring to do what he did. The obverse of this is the idea that the taong bayan do not have it in and by themselves to stand up to their “masters”—which makes his presence and action a critique of group apathy and their dependence on an outsider to effect any change. Had he remained simply “the Indio rebel,” he could have given more credit to the capability and readiness of the taong bayan of any town to be able to rise of their own accord against their oppressor and regain their identity and dignity. The strangeness of the Estranghero lies in his ability to unmask the fraile (danced by Richardson Yadao) as unworthy of his habit and a mockery of the church he belonged to, and as tyrannical and inhumanly cruel as the guardia civil he commands. Thus, his theft of the imahen. He thereby symbolizes the dependence of the taong bayan on an outsider to turn things around and risk the worst for the better.

He is tracked down by the guardia civil to the encantada’s mountain where the kababaihan save him and drive the pursuers away. The encantada heals his wounds in an elegant ritual, and upon waking up and getting his bearings, gifts the encantada with the imahen.

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Scene from Act 2: The Kababaihan prepare to battle the Guardia Civil. Photo by JOJO MAMANGUN

The Estranghero, moreover, becomes the cause of two unexpected destructive events. The fraile orders his guardia civil to hunt him down, as well as all suspected rebels and thieves, and behead them. The Indio rebel is found and captured, despite the resistance of the kababaihan who allied with him, and his head is brought as trophy before the fraile, who then orders them back to retrieve the imahen. The kababaihan fight back but are defeated and raped by the guards. The powerful scene of the rape, especially of the babaylan, struck me as a damning picture of benevolent assimilation—the forced insemination of coloniality and subservience into the being of the native, especially the Filipino (who requited the assimilation with unnatural ease and eagerness), and the beginning of the plunder of our natural resources. After regaining possession of the imahen, the guardia civil burn the forests and native altars in accordance with the fraile’s order and leave the mountain a howling wilderness. The intensity of the encantada’s grief at the inhumanity of the fraile and the guards manifests itself in a primordial flood that “engulfs the lowlands, sweeping away the terrified fraile during the Misa Solemne in the cathedral.” The waves return the imahen to the encantada and the dance narrative ends in a ritual of prayer and thanksgiving as the encantada appeals to the anitos for new life to spring forth. She then climbs her mountain as the song “Dudungaw ang Buhay” gradually dispels the smell of death and destruction in the air.

The image of the encantada receiving the imahen for the second time and not disrobing it to reveal the anito within it is for me another rich, because mystical, and ambiguous figure in the dance. The most obvious reading of it would have the encantada yielding a space for another anito and religion. My thinking is different and three-fold. For one, having revealed to the kababaihan in Part 1 the anito inside the imahen, the encantada would now expect them—and the audience—to be more enlightened now about the real object of their worship. Sister to this idea is that regardless of the number of names given by believers to all kinds of anitos, all worship is the same—the divinity that is recipient of these adorations receives these equally. For another, we are shown the split-level of beliefs or hybridities that claw at and haunt the taong-bayan who were all victims of colonial misadventures. And for a third, it shows the ancestry of the dependence of the taong-bayan on the divine and the folk spirituality that developed from it.

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Curtain call during the premiere of Encantada at the Samsung Theater on 15 April 2023. Photo by JOJO MAMANGUN

To my mind, the dance has telescoped the three episodes of colonial rule the country went through and is saying that the task of washing away the coloniality of our being continues to remain unaccomplished. The encantada, in a deus ex machina, has shown us a way to do it. This is how Encantada takes on mythic proportions and assumes the role of a teaching story that most of our Lumad and Moro oral tales are. At the core of the divine action of epic decolonization in Part 2 is something new: neither anger at and hatred of the oppressors nor vengeance, but rather compassion for the oppressed—for our own unliberated, devalued selves. More difficult to achieve this, no doubt about that. Not blood and violence but a transvaluation of values—ridding ourselves of the coloniality of being for the sake of our own selves, our lost self-respect and integrity, and a future that is not only individual and indigenous but regional and national as well. It is something that will take time on a human scale.

Only now do I know why I had the urge to join the dancing on the stage at certain points and clapped so hard at the end I thought I saw smoke rising from between my palms. But I knew a fire was burning within.

For as long as it takes, Encantada should be restaged until the ideal it presents to us eventually sinks in and is fought out within and outside ourselves and we step out into the fullness of the light of self-knowledge and self-respect, moving to the beats of our own piece of mind and plot of earth. As above, so below. Sa ganitong paraan lang dudungaw ang bagong buhay sa kalooban natin upang maisakatuparan ang muling paalaala ng sayaw.

(Poet Ricardo M. de Ungria has lived in Davao City since 1999. His latest book is the two-volume ‘Kalandrakas: Stories and Storytellers of/ on Regions in Mindanao 1890 to 1990’)

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