As promised, I am featuring in this column a critique written by Ianree Raquel on the Empanada Festival held recently in Batac City. Raquel, who teaches Arts and Society at the Mariano Marcos State University, is cultural coordinator of the College of Arts and Sciences, and is an alumnus of the renowned Nasudi Cultural Troupe.
Filipinos, despite being dubbed as mere “pancit eating,” are fond of lavish celebrations. I am a fiesta person, having been a participant in many fiesta activities as a production staff, an audience, or as a fan of the peris wil. As such, I have been witness to the amount of creativity exhausted and money spent, especially tax payer’s money, for one-night spectacles.
The fondness for celebration has turned to a “festival phenomenon” with almost every city and town in the country having its own festival. Batac is no exemption with its Empanada Festival, staged last year in celebration of its first cityhood anniversary. At that time, Batac was exultant at its transformed status, posed towards the promise of progress.
Like other festivals, it featured a dance parade, culminating with dance presentations featuring the ingredients and processes in the making of empanada. The presentations were “folk,” incorporating the formal elements of Philippine folk dance from movements to costumes.
This year, Batac staged a “transformed” Empanada Festival. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) was invited to oversee the festival. In May, a training of choreographers was conducted by the acclaimed Halili-Cruz School of Ballet. I have learned that in the training, NCCA suggested that innovations should be made: first, by contemporizing the folksy empanada dances, and second, by crafting the “empanada story” with emphasis on a conflict, an essential in any narrative. To bring out the best among the participants, the organizers announced that this year would be a competition with large amounts of prizes for winners, and indeed, the desire to win triggered creative outflow among the participants.
Politics of Dance/ Dance of Politics
Curious about the outcome of the month-long preparations, I braved the crowded streets of centro to find the best spot to see the first part of the festivities, the dance parade.
What I witnessed made me forget that Batac’s cityhood is being challenged by the Supreme Court. I was able to feel the binding spirit of dance being a societal art form. It was not entirely a parade of trained dancers that we often see in similar events but of a community—school children, baranggay officials, men and women of all ages, school teachers, and of course the city officials. I must say that this was the first time I saw a dance parade with such range of involvement. It was awe-inspiring. The long lines of dancers clearly painted a strong picture of Batac as a community.
Of course, fiestas are political events. And fiestas, being the best among the limited avenues for artistic expression in the provinces, subject “art” to the machinations of politics.
In the second part of the event, Senator Manny Villar, the guest speaker, wowed the curious crowd not with his speech but with his impromptu attempt to learn the empanada dance. We have seen oethers do this before, and I was not surprised when he was pronounced next president by no other than Mayor Jeffrey Nalupta. The audience applauded.
A Question of Re-Presentation
The second part of the festivities was the “Dance Drama Showdown” with nine barangay clusters presenting stories of how the Batac empanada was created.
Before every performance, a storyline was read. According to the first group, the empanada was made popular by a beggar who asked for alms from Bataquenos attending mass. But instead of giving him alms, the church goers taught the beggar how to make empanada and eventually, the beggar became self-sustaining by venturing into the empanada business.
I found the first story plausible for it suggests the entrepreneurial spirit obviously present along the Riverside where empanada, miki,and other delicacies are sold today. It also suggests an answer to the question on the origin of the empanada—that Bataqueños did not invent the empanada but making it has been previously known, perhaps adapted from other cultures (empanada is of Spanish origin).
The first group, with their clean and graceful movements set a high benchmark of what to expect next.
The most dominant theme was scarcity of resources, particularly food, caused by either World War II or by natural calamities. This external conflict, at least according to some of the presentations, led to the invention of the empanada.
And then came a more peculiar story about a commercial conflict between a man who was a successful balot vendor and a woman who sold empanada. The woman outshined the balot vendor, who, with the intent of revenge, accused the empanada vendor of poisoning him. The balot vendor eventually admitted that the accusation was a lie, and like a Pinoy melodrama, the two characters ended up marrying each other. And, they lived happily ever after.
The balot/empanada story won the competition. It was apparent that their routine was well executed. With its excellent choreography, it had the elements of conflict, humour, and romance—a formula for mass entertainment. And, as fiestas go, the Emapanada Festival was one big, lavish form of mass entertainment—live and performed right under our noses.
It was difficult to battle with the visual spectacle because, oftentimes, what we visually perceive cloud critical perception.
Yet, in the midst of awe with the spectacles unfolding one after another, I begun asking: Where did these stories come from? Am I watching stories by and of the people of Batac? Is this Ilocano culture, history, tradition? Or, am I watching loose, misguided offshoots of the “creative” mind?
Understanding performance should not stop at enjoyment for its own sake. I believe it is not enough to just dismiss a production as “boring,” or in the case of the Empanada Festival, “entertaining!” To do so would default the claim of the organizers, as announced by the host, that the festivities showcase Ilocano culture, tradition, and history.
The host mentioned about “contemporised” performances, but is this what contemporary storytelling should be? In the context of dance, specifically movement, the performances were commendable for they showed characteristics of contemporary dance techniques, deviating from the rigid standards of “academic “Philippine folk dance.
Nonetheless, in our efforts to promote our image as Filipinos with a rich and authentic culture on a globalized stage, a more critical attitude towards the construction and presentation of our “stories” is of great essence.
Of course, one might readily say that these were just stories. And in the context of artistic license, one might claim freedom- that with the intention to “create,” and to “contemporise,” it is the prerogative of the director, choreographer, or writer to use an uncanny conflict between balot and empanada. Or to say that empanda was invented due to the will to survive scarcity, when the quintessentially frugal Ilocanos would not think of using papaya or beans for empanada because there is, obviously, a more practical dish to prepare—the dinengdeng. More so, pulverising rice for pinais instead of cooking it plain, or perhaps lugaw.
We should not forget that NCCA had a hand in this festival (No less than Shirley Halili-Cruz was chair of judges). And to my dismay, their suggestion of incorporating conflict in the empanada story did not result into inspiring performances but has left audiences asking, confused with the several truths placed on stage.
What is the empanada story? Who invented it?
In the end, I was left thinking about a more essential question: Why must the question of “origin” be asked in the first place?
Perhaps it was part of Batac’s attempt to establish identity, a tradition with which it will be remembered, as if calling itself “Home of Great Leaders” was not enough.
Where should we place ourselves in the midst of a globalising perspective? How should our “selves” be represented in our art?
Innovation is not at all wrong. But training artists to be sensitive, respectful, and knowledgeable about the dance forms, and stories, they stage, will significantly contribute to the celebrations of fiestas, making the audience appreciate culture and history in their rightful contexts.
This stage in Batac’s history will surely have a deep impression on the future. The NCCA, and the government of Batac, should safeguard cultural integrity in the representation of Ilocano culture and history.
More than the quest for cityhood, the search for identity, a place in the cultural diaspora, is of greater necessity. We should struggle to represent ourselves in ways fair and loyal to our own truths.