You are a freelance artist, but you used to dance for major ballet companies. What is it about being a freelance artist that you like the most?
I am a freelance artist but the big difference is I have my own dance company now and it’s been around for the past four years. Dancing for big companies such as Ballet Manila, Ballet Philippines, and guesting in festivals locally and abroad has been great for me because I was mainly a performer, but since I formed Daloy Dance Company in 2014 it has become a platform for me to create my own choreography. It was a big transition from being a performer to being a director and choreographer. Right now, all my commissioned works as a performer, a director, or a choreographer fall under Daloy so in terms of artistic vision I have full control over the projects, schedule and touring.
So it’s being your own boss.
On the flip side, what is the most challenging thing about being your own boss, having your own dance company where you don’t really have someone to answer to?
We started in 2014. We are on our fourth year and in that time we have utilized various business models and partnered regularly with different dance studios in Manila. We’ve toured locally as well as abroad and the vision each year, per season, kind of changes depending on the opportunities we have and the challenges we face. This is not your usual dance company where there were investors, patrons, and financial backers from the get-go. I had to wear different hats. I had to go from being a choreographer or director to someone begging for money and applying for grants. There isn’t an instruction manual on how to become an artistic director ,let alone an artistic director for a small to mid-sized contemporary dance company in a third world country like the Philippines. It was a lot of process and error.
Kind of finding your way and keeping up the creativity.
Yeah and not only that, it’s very much intertwined with my personal rhythm and my schedule. With my own finances and my own money because it was, from the beginning, self-produced –with me inviting some of my dancer friends and theatre friends to join in and as we went along. Different projects required different talents and different skill sets. There were a lot of birthing pains before we reached where we are now, which I think is a lot more stable.
A lot of your philosophy rests in spontaneity and the immediacy of the moment. How do you balance out this emphasis on doing what you feel and technique, the actual rules of dance?
Daloy is very output-oriented. We do improvised performances, but most of the time it is still a set choreography. I see exercises on somatics and improvisation as part of the process of coming up with something new and exciting and organic and fresh. I’m using the improvisation for movement invention.
I’ve also come to realize that dancers who are much more comfortable as improvisers and movers are just easier to work with. They are more comfortable with their bodies. There is an openness to their bodies when we are trying to choreograph; either I am choreographing or we are co-choreographing a new work. We still do regular training that is rigorous and very technique-based. At the same time we add our improvisation and somatics training.
When you’re performing are you ever afraid that, because you’re improvising, you’ll mess up, or do a wrong movement?
I grew up noticing that there is more respect for set choreographies than for improvised performance pieces –but in the last, I don’t know, five to eight years I’ve also seen really strong improvised works. They are special because they are improvised; it’s never been seen before and it will never be seen again.
A lot of people and companies are studying the design and art of being a good performance improviser. There’s a lot of technique that comes with it, like in the structure in your improvisation, really getting to know the space, really being present, balancing performativity and performance with presence, and overall awareness and hypersensitivity to the moment.
It’s also kind of a tribute to tribal ceremonies and dance rituals featuring songs and storytelling. They have structure but are not really scripted. They’re in the moment with people getting into a trance. There’s excitement to it and there’s more presence. Like you’re channeling, or you’re being moved in the moment. There is meditation happening in the moment.
An important idea behind your workshops is this idea of freedom. Can you explain how dance can make someone braver, more comfortable with their body?
Well it takes a workshop (laughs). It takes warm-up, it takes preparation, and it takes guidance to get there. There are certain exercises that get the body softer, more vulnerable, and more open. At the same time, I believe it depends on context. It’ll always depend on where, when, how, who. There is relief that happens when you come home at the end of the day and you’re so tired or so frustrated and you just play your favorite song and dance your heart out. It would be different if you were at a party and you don’t really feel like being there and somebody is pushing for you to go dance in front of everyone. The fact that we are such social beings and it’s natural for us means that there’s already performativity to everything we do, everything we say, and how we conduct ourselves.
Even through the kind of clothes that we choose or how we organize or move around certain situations or people, that’s normal. But with the workshops that I teach I really like becoming uncivilized. I like getting the heart opened and making everything chaotic, spontaneous, gleeful. Could we get into a trance state on our own? When chaos builds up, when we get to that point of exhaustion, can some level of truth emerge from us on an individual level and can we access it? I’m interested in those ideas.
How important is storytelling in your choreography, like the actual interaction between dancer and audience?
Storytelling is important. But in my own choreography, I place more importance on truth-telling without words. I think the audience is intelligent and they can see symbols, metaphors and images that they can latch onto without me spoon-feeding them. It’s like the saying ‘a picture paints a thousand words.’ In dance, its images that move so you can see much more. I love the arbitrariness and ambiguity in dance because no matter what kind of message I’m being inspired by or drawing movements from, it will always be taken differently by different sets of eyes. So that’s really interesting: for me to have questions that I am asking, ideas I am investigating, and trusting that there is a universal truth that is coming out or being presented and hopefully being said.
You talk about truth and feeling, so when you’re actually making choreography, what’s the first step and how does it develop into a full performance?
I can’t really say that it’s the same for all the choreographies because it’s different every time. I can be moved by certain music or something I’ve watched in a film or a painting. Sometimes it’s a certain dancer whose abilities and technique –their presence both on the stage and off, that’s just really amusing to me. So there can be many different points of entry and it’s not really something that I really plan.
So whatever art inspires you.
Most of my works have talked about women’s issues and what it’s like to be a Filipina –so that’s one. Some of my works talk about social ills or about the socio-cultural identities of Filipinos. It’s very varied. I’m happy to say that there’s a range of subjects that I have touched upon since I’ve started choreographing. If there is a singular thing I want to promise myself it’s that I will never be afraid to reinvent myself or that I will not be boxed or categorized as an artist who only does one thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would like to pursue what feels real to me at the moment or at that time in my life. In terms of process, again, it’s different per project. I try to keep it fresh and inventive for myself. It’s a lot of research through somatics, through movement, through improvisation both for me and the dancers; a lot of questioning, a lot of dialogue around the ideas and things I am working with.
Alright, that was the last serious question. Now we’re gonna have a quickfire round.
Of all the things you’ve done, what is your favorite project?
Favorite project? Ah that’s hard. I would say ‘Unearthing’. We presented that at the Carnibal Festival I think in 2015, presented it at Dance Manila at the CCP in 2016. Then in Japan, for the Asia Performing Arts meeting in 2016.
Do you have any pet peeves from your students?
Someone who always looks in the mirror. It’s understandable, but something that I always say is that it’s about being present, it’s about sensing and listening to the body and once you look in the mirror you’re already judging, you’re already in your brain.
If you weren’t a dancer, what do you think your career would be?
I think that’s cheating.
Nowadays when I’m asked I say I am primarily a contemporary choreography, who mostly teaches and sometimes performs.
Alright, we’ll let that one go. Unless you wanted to give another profession.
Hmmm. No. I’d be a writer maybe.
Final question. What is the most important thing for a dancer to have?
One thing? Just one thing?
Yes. The quintessential trait of an artist.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Interview by Joaquin Soliven and Gabbi Campimanes
Photos by Sipat Productions — Makati Makisalo Sayaw Galaw, and Modern Movement Workshops organised by Pineapple Lab.