The rehearsal hall turns tense and the dancers stand still as Agnes Locsin critiques their execution of the steps. She slowly rises, touching her abdomen as she points to the exact spot where—and how—they must lift in order to deliver the right intensity and angle that the step requires. It’s clear that she has mastered her technique to a T, so that in every little quirk that defines the anatomical position she requires, she can point out where a dancer fails; she has, after all, pioneered this dance genre: a hybrid of Filipino ethnic moves merged with the modern technique, neo-ethnic.
For the premiere of Alice Reyes Dance Philippines’ season, “Alay nina Alice at Agnes,” the two living National Artists for Dance celebrate the Philippine dance heritage by combining their notable iconic works. Alice leans heavily on the Martha Graham technique, utilizing it in her pieces that celebrate Philippine artistry, legends, history, and more. Agnes, on the other hand, steeps her artistry in the ethnic vein; her massive research, triggered by a passion to get experience first-hand, has brought her to obscure places and into the very heart of Filipino ethnic dances.
Being based in Davao and running her mother’s dance school have not stopped Agnes from creating. She has collaborated with musicians and fellow dancers to come up with well-rounded pieces based on authenticity tweaked with the hybridity of the neo-ethnic genre. Unlike classical ballet which demands that the dancer defy gravity, the neo-ethnic genre asks for the opposite: a downward mobility, the dancer bound to the ground.
As Agnes explains, the dancer must project his or her affinity to Mother Earth.
Essence of ethnicity
Unlike ballet which requires stretched legs and soft landings, the neo-ethnic attack means landing on bent knees. As Agnes describes it, “bodies sway on top of bent knees. Shuffling feet are pressed on the ground. Creeping toes gather earth, and high jumps are always followed by crouching bodies often producing dry earth to rise like mist around the dancers.”
It is the essence of ethnicity, in the absence of which there would only be a soggy imitation. She further explains that ethnic dances “lose their magic when performed away from the natural environment, so all elements related to the real tribal moves must be considered: costumes, music synchronized with movement, respecting the unique rhythms of each tribal sound, which are so unlike the usual eight counts to a dance phrase.”
Movement-wise, she realizes that ethnic moves are most productive in unison with modern dance techniques, instead of classical ballet. Admittedly, it has not been an easy task to reach a cross-breeding, thus the perfection she requires of a dancer’s technique. She has watched and dissected the original to come up with a “neo” dance genre without sacrificing the true spirit.
Most challenging pieces
For the opening season of Alice Reyes Dance Philippines, Agnes’ three pieces, by her own choice, are perhaps the most challenging; they are where dancers’ stamina, musicality and technique are put to a test.
“Igorot,” “Moriones” and “Elias at Salome” are a triumph of meticulous study translated into bodily movement.
Of the three, the earliest is “Igorot.” Ironically, it was first performed by a foreign dance company, a commissioned work by Les Petite Theatre in Amsterdam for its very first performance in October 1987. Inspired by Swan Lake’s Dance of the Cygnets choreographed by Lev Ivanov, the synchronized movements of the cygnets, in Agnes’ mind, were akin to her observation of Igorot women walking in unison. The music was by Lucrecia Kasilag and sourced from the Bayanihan Dance Company.
In 1988, the Philippines had its premiere of “Igorot,” featuring a mix of dancers from the Locsin Dance Workshop in Davao and scholars and company members of Ballet Philippines.
The year 1991 saw the premiere of “Moriones,” with an all-male cast dressed in the traditional Roman-centurion costumes of the Moriones Festival in Marinduque, with music by Philip Glass. The catchy, even tempo lends itself to the dancers’ athletic jumps and rolls, their high jumps and sculptural a-second-each-hold poses after running and jumping on each other’s backs, athletic catches, followed by robot-like head movements demonstrating the centurions’ search for Longinus.
The search for Longinus—the centurion who pierced the side of the crucified Christ and who is said to have converted to Christianity—becomes the focus of the dance. As spectators at rehearsals, we, too, end up exhausted after this number. It’s a display of stamina (all caps).
The pas de deux from the full-length ballet “Elias and Salome” has the most melodious score, a guitar piece by Joaquin Rodrigo, Concerto de Aranjuez, in which love and passion could not have been more physically demanding. Based on characters from Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, the dance duet intensely physicalizes not only the couple’s love for each other but also Elias’ love for country. No words can describe what actions can only speak of.
All told, at the start, dancing an Agnes Locsin does not leave dancers without a tear. But seeing and feeling how the minutest abdominal contraction or the slightest shift in position can affect a mood or a feeling, dancers sooner or later appreciate the value of Agnes’ eye, albeit with quick breaths and torrential sweat soaking their clothes.
Hers is the ultimate example of pushing a fleck of a concept through intentional literary and experiential research, collaborations with musicians who share her drift, and, of course, the dancers who ultimately welcome the torturous stretch into a full-blown production worth the wait.
Agnes’ moves I have labelled “Locsin-ish.” Despite the uncertainty the term may connote, it nonetheless stands for a full-bodied, definite piece of artistry—one to die for.