Bayanihan has always been as fanciful as it has been substantive. And intentionally so. This national folk dance company of the Philippines has successfully made folklore into grand entertainment for more than 50 years. But more recently, it has moved beyond folklore to anchor itself anew in Filipino history and national identity.
“Beyond folklore” is the company’s own phrase, and it is a terrifically good one because it banishes the burdensome question, “How authentic is it or isn’t it?” When you are beyond folklore, it doesn’t matter, and that opens up new opportunities for creative growth. But if Bayanihan’s performance Saturday at the Kennedy Center was any measure of this more recent trend, then the new direction has the potential to stunt the company’s creative growth rather than expand it.
“Amorsolo,” for example, which was a tribute to Philippine artist Fernando Amorsolo (1892-1972), held no creative surprises. The company replicated five of his paintings.
The folkloric numbers, on the other hand, still offered up interesting choreography festooned with flounces and bling. Given that the Philippines has 7,100 islands and a host of native and imported cultures (including Spanish, Chinese and Japanese), the company has a vast reservoir of material from which to draw. From guitars to gongs and skirts to sarongs, Bayanihan knows how to make the most of this dizzying variety.
To be fair, the company was at an unavoidable disadvantage. The Terrace Theater is small. Bayanihan’s style of choreography makes individual dancers subservient to patterns and visual effects. It is best viewed from afar. Sitting up close is like seeing pixels and missing the picture.
Bayanihan is still grand entertainment. But its wow factor — past and future — lies in continuing to plumb the natural richness of the Philippines’ cultures rather than mounting history as a way of encouraging national identity.
Squires is a freelance writer.