There is very little plot to Kinding Sindaw’s new production, Pandibulan, Bathing by the Moonlight. Framed as a memory, the Philippine dance drama shows the rituals surrounding a Yakan (a southern Philippines island) couple’s marriage, and the birth of their first child. And yet, bringing a taste of the richness of a far-away aesthetic, the dancers manage to convey a movement painting of the emotions surrounding the act of marriage. The play opens with a short scene, the only one in the play using spoken dialogue, between a US customs officer and a non-English speaking Philippine woman. As he belittles her we scroll back to an earlier time and place in her life. We are quickly introduced to the characters and themes that will lead the play along, as well as to the slightly mimetic dance language they will speak through. The lovely traditional music of gongs, drums and flutes begins the accompaniment as well, which will cue the audience into the emotion of each scene until the end of the play.
Evening falls as the women finish harvesting the rice, and the full moon rises, just in time for Dayang and Hassan’s parents to meet and arrange their marriage. Alternating female dances with male ones, we watch the bride and groom prepare for the ceremony. The women dance gracefully, the men with more vigor. While the leading dancers (Emil Almirante, Diane Carmino, R. Alexander T. Sarmiento, Nodiah Biruar and Joseph Ocasio – particularly charming as the monkey) carry the exactitude of the movements elegantly, one does wish for a slightly more rigorously trained supporting cast.
What brings the play to life is the imaginative use of inanimate objects. Each stick, carriage or sword fills the stage with a new idea. The unspecified symbolism of each object fills the dance with meaning. In Pandibulan, it is the plates that most successfully carry the audience both into the Pacific island aesthetic, and right into the present moment on the stage – how could you not be present to the site of six female dancers in elaborate costumes (by Flor De Chavez) dancing on and off of high piles of ceramic plates?
These plates play an important part in the marriage ritual, and these acrobatic dances give the drama a clear focus - ritual, to my mind the heart of the entire evening.
After the wedding the bride and groom are left alone, and quickly they turn competitive, each trying to stay awake longer than the other. In order to win, they tell stories, which we get to see danced in front of us. We watch fishermen, clam, crab, turtle, seahorse, monkey and even mermaid dances. It turns out that the bride and groom didn’t only tell stories that night, and in the following scene we re-encounter the wife, this time pregnant. In a touching shadow scene we watch the moon eclipsing, and the danger felt by the Yakans at this celestial event is expressed through demonic dance and music. The program (an extremely helpful guide to this near-wordless drama) explains the reason for the fear – Yakans believed the lunar eclipse causes fetal abnormalities. Some protection rituals ensue, and then the baby is delivered.
However, then arrive the less mythical troubles, in the form of video projections: soldiers, blood and tears, which force the couple out of their idyllic island. While the attempt of Director/Choreographer Potri Ranka Manis to charge the ancient movements with contemporary immediacy is applauded, the clash of beautified three-dimensional movement with generic news war-feed takes away from the emotional character of the play, unlike her more successful integration of modern strife in her last piece, Bembaran.
In a post-performance event Ms. Ranka Manis spoke beautifully about how she “brought her home with her” to this country. The work is alive, and is authentic to this time and place; but like so many New Yorkers, the tugging of nostalgia on the strings of this place is an integral part of the present experience, and often plays as big a role in our conception of the past as the experiences of the past itself.