In one of the many touching moments in Bembarang, Kinding Sindaw’s delightful Philippine dance drama now playing at La Mama’s Annex theater, an island princess struggles with one of the several colorful cloths that make up her costume. As she dances she moves it from her stomach to her chest, brings it above her head and back down, and finally rolls it off into her hands in a bundle. Now she holds in her arms her newborn baby boy. The imaginative treatment of the production elements, from costumes through music, props and set, all drawn from the dramatic tradition of the Philippines, give this performance a breath of fresh ocean air which is so rare even in this multi-cultural coastal city. Bembarang is a successful amalgamation of an ancient Philippine tale of love and loyalty, Darangen, and a historical event from the turn of the twentieth century, known as Perang sa Bayang. The evening opens with a glimpse of the latter, which takes place behind the risers of the beautiful Annex. American soldiers in drab uniforms hold local women in fiery colored dresses in captivity. They treat them in a rough, demeaning and insensitive manner as the children cry aloud. The tone is set for the rest of the piece, far from the realistic acting style that permeates our city’s stages. It is this distance that allows the spectator to observe how history repeats itself in our own time, rather than to be offended by an overly simplistic portrayal of a political event. After this prologue the audience is led to their seats, the islanders are led to their onstage place of captivity, and the ancient drama begins.
There are few words spoken. Some are sung in Tagalog by the talented dancer/narrator. The story unfolds through movement, accompanied by a strong ensemble of musicians on gongs and drums. We watch a courting scene, a wedding celebration, some juicy scenes of female rejection, a double birth that smoothly rolls into the next scene, years later, in which the kids are acting up as kids do. We even get some battle scenes to complete our craving for that kind of excitement.
Like other theatrical forms from the east, the story is not confined to one place and time. The clever use of props and costumes is all that is needed to transport the scene not only from one locale to another, but also from one emotional state to the next. In one scene each of the twenty dancers holds a tall bamboo shoot up from the ground, as the princess (the poised and concise Amira Aziza) wanders through a forest. The bamboo shoots sway like trees in the wind and the music fills the space with mysterious sensations. Suddenly there is a break, the rhythm accelerates and all the ten-foot-high shoots fall gracefully to the ground, adding punctuation to the drums as they hit the floor on beat. The bamboo now becomes a dangerous field which the princess must cross. She dances, as if walking on snakes, evading the danger. The long poles then rise from the ground to surround her. She is caught. But there is one more transformation for these props. They form a chariot and raise the princess to bring her back to the prince, as the scene's tone of fear gives way to one of relief.
By the time the American soldiers come back into the picture, we feel like we have a full picture of what life was like in the Philippines when the US army showed up in 1902 and committed the massacre in the Battle of Bayang. When the heavy soldiers dance their way into this ancient epic they seem like a grotesque bunch of clunky aliens floating into a planet to which they do not belong. The political point that director/choreographer Potri Ranka Manis is making presents itself viscerally as the intruders crash the beautiful party of the traditional dance form. In opposition to the soldiers, we watch a different attitude towards battle, that of the island men who honorably and regretfully prepare themselves for war. The word “defense,” as in ''Ministry of,'' suddenly takes on meaning. The men dance their war gear on, sword, shield, bandana, and begin to practice the only kind of battle they know, face to face combat. The bullets come flying at them from behind.
Go get a breath of some Pacific Ocean air, and see Bembarang. While the dancers vary in talent, Ranka Manis has put together a stage picture that tickles the senses, and provides a different way of thinking about theater, one which has the capacity to enhance the work witnessed on our stages here in what we like to think of as theater headquarters of the world. Through a classical form, she uses her tradition to make an important statement about what we see happening in our world today.