It is the summer of 2012.1 am at the Hollywood Bowl annex with my Silayan Dance Company for the Summer Sounds series, a cultural journey of ethnic music for children sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to bring diversity to the stage. Packed with young kids and their parents, the audience happily came to enjoy the show about Philippine culture as seen through a well-loved folktale.
Dressed in a beautiful, deep purple, heavily sequined Singkil Princess gown--an inheritance sewn by the artisan hands of my late mother--I play the narrator who tells the story of Juan Tamad in this fable of gratitude. It comes to life onstage with a group of musicians playing the guitar, drums, and kulintang, an awesome ensemble of characters (including a group of dancers who move together in sinuous timing to represent the big hungry crocodile), and of course, the mandatory, long, larger than life bamboo poles used as gauntlets for the dancing.
Juan Tamad is the mischievous boy in Philippine folklore who always finds trouble. In this episode, Juan finds a crocodile tied to a tree. A monkey saves Juan's life from the terrible jaws of the beast and in return, Juan plants bananas for his monkey friend. Onstage, I proceed with my narration: "Well . . . Juan was startled. He had never seen a crocodile tied to a tree before. He had never seen one so big up close. He had never heard one crying either. The crocodile pleads, 'If you free me little boy, I will give you a golden boat.' Juan unties the beast from the tree. The cunning crocodile continues, 'I don't have the boat with me right now but if you jump on my back, together we will get it down the river.'"
Just then, a tiny five-year-old voice shouts out in protest from the audience: "That's a bad idea!" Big laughter fills the outdoor theatre. The audience is clearly having a great time. I am tickled because small children are known to have an attention span the size of a pea. The little guy is engaged and immersed in a culture unfamiliar to him--he understands what is happening on the stage. This immersion is the best compliment to any dancemaker of color who is striving to connect to his or her audience through diversity and inclusion. This has always been the challenge and the goal for me. I am different; this I know. But how can I include others in spite of it?
I own many hats as a dancer who self-produces. I am a Philippine-American choreographer trained in both Philippine traditional dance and American modern dance. But first and foremost, I am an American storyteller. Raised in a dance home, my mother from the homeland--a teacher by profession and a civic leader--founded the Silayan Dance Company. She invited Fil-Am youth to come to our Historic Filipinotown apartment and began teaching them their native culture through dance. She believed that the power of the arts can educate and...