“We want to learn and grow artistically with a group of people who are passionate about Philippine dance. We dance for one another and the community, while giving tribute to our heritage. That’s why we named our group Parangal–[it] means ‘tribute,'” says Eric Espartinez Solano, the artistic director of the San Francisco-based Parangal Dance Company. Although a relatively new company at three years old, Parangal’s presence already feels established with ongoing weekly Philippine folk dance workshops at Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, performances at events such as the annual Pistahan Parade and Festival in San Francisco, and creative collaborations with cultural presenters such as Kularts. Solano describes this as part of the mission of the group. To him, Parangal is much more than a dance company.
“We aim to serve as a bridge, inspiring and connecting Filipino Americans to their roots to give them a sense of pride and identity, while educating diverse communities and fostering awareness and appreciation of Philippine culture. As much as possible, we extend invitations to other groups to perform with us so we can truly represent, showcase, and expose the general public to Philippine culture.”
Born in the Philippines, Solano came to the United States when he was eleven years old and started studying Philippine dance with Barangay Dance Company in San Francisco at fifteen. He describes his early dance experience as truly transformative. “I never knew how beautiful and rich my culture was until I started learning Philippine music and dance. It gives me a great sense of pride being Filipino, and I want to share what I have learned.”
As artistic director of a forty-three member Philippine dance and culture group, Solano, in his early thirties, embraces his responsibility to the community, both here and in the Philippines. “I feel that this is my calling to learn and share what I and the Parangal family know. It is one way to give honor to the indigenous people of the Philippines, to give thanks [to them] for sharing their culture and traditions, and to give back to the community here in the Bay Area.”
Solano also has the role of finding opportunities for Parangal to share its cultural knowledge through presentations and workshops. In May, Parangal performed on the field at AT&T Park for the San Francisco Giants Filipino Heritage Night, and in June, the group performed inside a theater on a proscenium stage in the 33rd Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Both events required very different things from the company, but the members of Parangal used these occasions to showcase their versatility. Both events also tend to draw diverse and very different audiences. Solano sees this as another asset in his goal of trying to reach as many people as possible with the intention of building awareness of the depth of his cultural heritage.
Solano and Parangal, like many dance/culture presenters, are part of a greater diaspora of communities who are promoting and preserving their heritage and knowledge through dance and music outside of the places in which the dance and music originate. Solano acknowledges that this can pose challenges for a dance company based in the United States, so he does extensive research and works with master artists from the Philippines in order to develop presentations that are both true to their origins and accessible to general audiences.
“Many dances and rituals take place over the course of many days and take place on a specific day or month. Our task, (and the best part of the experience), is to figure out how we can create a piece in 10 minutes and still be able to tell the story.”
Solano says that most of the feedback he’s received from audiences leads him to believe that, so far, Parangal has been successful in accomplishing this task, allowing him to expand the artistic direction of the company. At the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Parangal presented Subanen, a suite of dances portraying ritual music and dance by the Subanen people (People of the River), an indigenous group from Lapuyan, Zamboanga del Sur on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
Part of Parangal’s performance at the Festival featured a dancer on a sinalimba, or swing, which was carried on stage by several other dancers. Day turned into night and the Balian (shaman) conducted the Shelayan ritual on stage inside a crowded theater, healing the sick on the swaying sinalimba against a backdrop of moonlight provided by the production’s skilled lighting designer. With close to thirty dancers and musicians in the piece, Subanen evoked the presence of a community’s traditions from across the Pacific Ocean to meet a Bay Area community, most of which will never travel to Lapuyan.
“These rituals and dances are still practiced today by the Subanen,” says Solano. “Our goal in presenting this piece is to show how a community gathers to ensure a ritual specific to them is passed on to the younger generation, since there is only one elderly Balian left that has knowledge of the ritual. Our ongoing effort is to then keep and take care of the relationships we have with different indigenous groups that have shared with us. We were blessed to have been connected with a Subanen Master Artist, Gauden Sindod Sireg, directly from Lapuyan, Zamboanga del Sur! He is a member of the National Commission of the Arts and Culture of the Philippines and serves as our main source in Subanen culture/tradition, dances, rituals, chant and prayer, attire, and implements we used in the piece. He is currently also maintaining the Subanen School of Living Traditions, which we hope to be a part of in the near future.”
Himself a member of the younger generation that is helping to sustain living traditions, Solano works towards his goal of educating the local community by teaching dance with Parangal at Philippine Culture Nights at Bay Area colleges and universities. Solano says many of his company members joined Parangal from these events and others like it. Through a grant from the Living Cultures Grants Program of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Parangal is also able to offer free workshops to the public, which assists in providing the group with further exposure and opportunities to teach.
The effects of Parangal’s efforts are not easily measured; representing community diversity and passing on cultural knowledge (Pamana, also the title of Parangal’s annual show in the fall of 2011) are refreshingly intangible commitments. What is evident is that Parangal and its members very tangibly foster and develop meaningful relationships through collaborative, creative work such as Subanen and through sincere gestures of generosity to their peers. (It is rumored that Parangal has, more than once, brought a roast pig to share backstage at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.) But what’s more, is that Solano expresses a gratefulness to the broader Bay Area community, his peers and fellow artists, and educators.
“We take advantage of the accessibility to Master Artists in the Philippines and in the Bay Area. We listen and learn from our elders, including those in other dance companies. We try to focus on the ‘heart’ of a group/people, not just on their movements or rituals.”