By Scott Louie & Claire F. Meyler
The Philippine island of Palawan is a slim dagger of tropical land, piercing the Pacific waters just southwest of the Manila capital. Just one of over 7,000 individual islands that compose the Philippine archipelago, Palawan is revered as a natural marvel. Its steep, majestic limestone cliffs stand tall over calm, idyllic waters. Dense, lush rainforests house dozens of native species exclusive to Palawan. One animal in particular, the tandikan peacock, exemplifies Palawan’s natural yet elusive beauty. Spending most of its life in the forest, only rarely will islanders spy this bird’s brilliant blue and metallic black feathers, peeking at the borders of dense vegetation and cultivated land. There is mystery and mythology to Palawan; spirits reside in all of nature, land and air, past and future. Master Choreographer Jay Loyola relies on these elements as he brings them stateside in Kularts’ Palau’an Bird Call-Huni Ng Tandikan, the first weekend of November at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
An original commission by Kularts, the nation’s premiere presenter of tribal and contemporary Pilipino arts, Palau’an Bird Call blends contemporary dance theatre and tribal movement with Filipino writer Francisco Baltazar’s beloved epic classic, Ibong Adarna. In this story, three brothers venture into the wilderness to capture the mythical adarna bird, whose song alone can heal their dying father. Loyola draws on the epic tale’s themes of courage and healing, bringing it to life with vigorous, athletic choreography, haunting chants, and an original music score by Bay Area musician Nick Obando.
At the heart of this creation, Loyola explores the Palawan’s belief system in divine mysteries by incorporating the tandikan’s majestic spirit. Loyola expands, “The tale defines compassion at its purest form, and the healing that comes from this love, the strength of this belief. The Palawan people are deeply connected to sacred spirits and nature?in particular, the use of birds as an intermediary between humans and the spirit realm. For them, the art of healing allows humans to come closer to a truly spiritual experience.” He found this “pure communion” echoed in the story of Ibong Adarna.
Loyola blends the mythology of the tandikan with the Palawan ethos and rituals of healing. On the island, physical restoration requires finding spiritual balance, both internally, and with the cosmic elements. In Loyola’s staged work, dancers bring each element to life: wind, wood, fire, water, and darkness. Only the call of the tandikan—a great bird spirit sent from the highest of the deities—can bring these elements into alignment. From the process, says Loyola, the characters will be granted transformation.
Loyola’s Palawan roots run deep. He is founder emeritus of the region’s premier dance and research organization, Palawan Dance Theatre Company, leading the effort to produce innovative indigenous dance presentations to sustain and promote native knowledge. The organization —composed entirely of tribal Palawan descendants—commits all proceeds back to the community, and awards educational scholarships to Palawan youth. For his efforts, the baylan, or shaman, of Palawan’s Tagabanua tribe, Masikampo Nangki Bakaltos, honored Loyola as an adopted son.
An honor such as this one comes with great responsibility. “The Palawan people are very well-connected to the spirits,” Loyola explains. “They can tell if a person has bad intentions. My constant interaction with the community was crucial in earning their trust.” Loyola is careful to respect this rare gift as he brings Palau’an Bird Call to life. Since his acceptance in the tribe, Loyola says, “I am now considered part of the family. I need to care for the community traditions as if we are blood relatives to honor their acceptance.”
Jay Loyola sees his role as that of a cultural broker—a connector that binds indigenous pasts with modern futures. “Establishing a true connection in the spirit world is essential to Palau’an Bird Call. Through this exercise, my goal has been to build peace—a shared understanding—between Tagbanua indigenous people and the global community. Dance is my vehicle. It is my platform on which to participate and articulate values based in my experiences with the Palawan culture-bearers.”
This blending of tribal and contemporary dance forms is only part of what makes Loyola’s choreography so innovative and powerful. He also draws inspiration from nature, cultural practices, and people. Loyola explains, “My choreography is informed by nature’s physical forms, indigenous healing beliefs, and rituals, combined with the bodies of dancers I’m working with.” Loyola brings the spirit of interconnectivity down to Palau’an Bird Call’s casting. Fourteen dancers represent various Filipino arts organizations throughout the Bay Area, including Parangal Dance Company, LIKHA, Barangay Dance Company, and Alleluia Panis Dance Theater. Participating artists were chosen out of an eight-week Kularts workshop series for their theatrical and dance abilities, physical capacity, and commitment to the work.
As a part of creating Palau’an Bird Call, Loyola and Kularts hope to foster the development of new Pilipino American works, cultivating the next generation of Pilipino American dance artists—and dance audiences. Partnering with colleagues from Parangal Dance Company and American Center of Philippine Arts, Kularts and Loyola share research materials to better understand, collectively, Philippine dance traditions. Loyola explains, “Philippine dance is capable of communicating scenes from any time period, whether ancient or present, in a striking, vivid way. Palau’an Bird Call is our invitation to audiences to be a part of this dialogue, to fully engage in the collective genius. Participants can let go of categories and boundaries, and acknowledge that whatever they see or feel while experiencing the performance is grounded in their personal experiences and knowledge. This is Palawan, body and spirit, connected.”
Like many artists who combine contemporary art forms with indigenous traditions, Loyola is interested in the idea of authenticity. For him, this dialogue takes place onstage. Palau’an Bird Call is a prime example of how a newly-choreographed piece with tribal movements can honor both creator and root source. With the blessing of the Tagabanua tribe’s Tatay Masikampo Nangki Bakaltos, Loyola notes, “Palau’an Bird Call possesses authority, honesty, genuineness of expression, and ethical passion that I put into it. I see my works being viewed from a global perspective, perhaps becoming its own distinct entity as a new variation of a genre of Philippine dance.”
Loyola himself stands on the shoulders of excellence. Before recognition as a Master Choreographer, he toured internationally as a principal dancer of the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company from 1989 to 1998, a protégé of Philippine National Artist and founding Dance Director/Choreographer of Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company, Lucrecia Reyes-Urtula. Loyola later served as her Assistant Choreographer before immigrating stateside.
In the U.S., Loyola has choreographed the original pieces Sembà and Kadayawan with Rudi Soriano for LIKHA. He performed at the SF Ethnic Dance Festival in 2008 and has been nominated for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award. Loyola co-founded the American Center for Philippine Arts in 2009 and now serves as Artistic Director. He is also an adjunct professor of Philippine Dance and Culture at the University of San Francisco.
Palau’an Bird Call-Huni Ng Tadikan is a rare opportunity for American audiences to experience the mythos of the Palawan islands. It represents not only a mixture of forms and techniques, but shows that even across nations and across cultures, we are all interconnected physically, spiritually, and artistically. The world premiere runs for three shows only, 8pm Friday and 3pm & 8pm Saturday, November 2 and 3 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – Forum Theatre. This production is made possible by support from the Creative Work Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the San Francisco Arts Commission. Tickets are available at ybca.org or at 415.978.ARTS. For more information, visit kularts.org.