(This is the second of a series of articles comprising my critique on the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals 2014 held Nov. 29 at the Marcos Stadium in Laoag City. Read also the article Why I am proud of Laoag this time.)
Not a few people are concerned about Batac’s apparent downfall in their Tan-ok performances as shown by their skidding rankings. They were champion in the Festival of Festivals’ debut in 2011, 2nd place in 2012, 3rd place in 2013, and fourth this year.
It’s easy to believe in these numbers and hastily conclude that Batac is losing its artistic prowess, but I strongly contest this. They, in fact, won not just trophies, but even more for themselves and Ilocos Norte for doing what they do best.
The best thing about Batac folks is their healthy dose of insanity which I think is good because human civilization advances not because of those who blindly conform but on account of men and women who bravely challenge the status quo, and dare to be different. After all, this Home of Great Leaders is not known for people who remain comfortable with the world as usual.
Last Saturday, they landed only fourth, but did you, dear karikna, realize that Batac made history that night by staging the grandest musicale Ilocos Norte has ever seen?
On the Tan-ok stage where many of the contingents are still infected by the Visayan fever (ala Sinulog and Dinagyang), Batac dared enough to present something fresh, and excel in it. Let me discuss in detail my observations not only from the show but during some of their practices which I had the chance to watch.
The empanada was shown in response to the shifting tastes of the Spanish-era Ilustrados. Immersed in the lifestyle of their colonial masters, the tastes and preferences of these educated elite were strongly influenced by the West, but time came when their palates looked for something novel. They wanted a fusion between the Western way of cooking and rich native flavors. Thus, the Batac Empanada which is one reason why Ilocos Norte today is known as a gastronomic mecca. This was shown in the well-executed Kitchen Musicale where, in a party hosted by a Señora, Ilustrados refused to eat the usual fare (e.g.hamon, paella, lechon, embutido), moving the servant Indios to serve the Batac Empanada.
Well-designed costumes, props
The set design and props—a work of love of a number of students and city employees—were well-crafted and did not steal the thunder from the performers themselves, unlike Batac’s 2012 performance where overemphasis on the “Higantes” somehow overshadowed the dancers.
Batac’s appropriate costuming was specifically lauded by Floy Quintos, arguably the most distinguished among the seven Tan-ok judges. The veteran stage director and five-time Palanca awardee noted that Batac’s costumes strengthened the performers’ characterization, drawing a clear distinction between the Ilustrados and the Indios. The judges also noted that some dancers in other contingents failed to wear their costumes properly. They cited as an example the Nelly character of Pinili and some ants who failed to attach their “tails” in Banna’s Panagabuos. Batac’s costumes were created by Windell Madis, a well-known fashion designer in the young city. Humble and assuming, I believe that Madis, who delivered the goods out of a very limited budget, deserves more recognition than what he is currently getting.
Unknown to the audience, there was one Batac dancer, an ilustrado, who failed to appear in the last part because she failed to promptly wear a part of her outfit. But the glitch went unnoticed because the dancers knew what exactly to do in such eventuality. And this leads me to the next part.
Choreography and Quality of Dancers
Quintos had all praises for the Batac dancers. “The characters of that Empanada story,” he noted, “it was clear sa kanila ‘yung sasabihin nila, clear ang characterization, clear ang movement, clear ang attitude.”
Lew Jerez, their choreographer, and his associates Rhenz April Joaquin and Rogiemel Flojo are to be credited for this, but also an important contributor was lawyer Chito Nalupta who happens to be the mayor’s older brother. Known for being strict, focused, and well-spoken, Atty. Chito pushed the performers to their limits, instilling in them discipline and creativity in the process. He could be pushy at times but only because he imposes the same on himself. Always present during practices, he was keen on details. “That movement is more fit for a contestant in Miss Gay than for an ilustrado,” he once told a lady dancer, and the message got across. When I saw him dirty his hands on the props just like anybody else a day before the competition, I smiled, realizing how passionate he really is not only about winning, but in giving a good show.
Going back to the dancers, they are honestly a cut above the rest. Most of them are from MMSU, and some have been my students. Judeleah Pucan, for instance, won back-to-back as best female performer. At first, Leah wanted to be an Ilustrado. Perhaps she was enticed with the glitz and glamor of the character and maybe she wanted to experience how to be in that elite stature even just for 6 minutes. She ended up playing the role of a maid, but her act got the judges’ eyes and nods. All the other dancers had good skills, but also “puso” in their art. I know how much time and energy they, and everyone involved, sacrificed for Tan-ok.
As a fan of musicales who has memorized most lines in plays like Evita and Les Miserables, I really enjoyed Batac’s well-crafted festival song which was rightfully recognized as best this year, repeating last year’s feat. I have, in fact, even as I write this critique, under LSS. It’s the default music whenever I start up my car; you can ask my passengers about this.The music was engaging and the substantial lyrics fell exactly where they should. The seamless arrangement was the work of couple Jeorge and Josephine Pastorin who are mostly busy churning out political jingles during election seasons.
While I really appreciated the song, however, I had serious doubts whether it will work well for the judges who don’t understand Ilocano. Thank God they were not myopic minded. The judges realized that the show is not really for them, but is mainly for Ilocanos. The whole next paragraph is quoted verbatim from Quintos.
“They were very clear about the message they wanted to relay. And they were not afraid na ‘music lang’.. hindi, lagyan natin ng words. Lalagyan natin ng words? Gawin na nating musicale, talunin na natin ang ‘Be Our Guest’ ng Disney. And that’s why we said last night, it was almost a unanimous decision na Best Music sila kasi abala ang storytelling and at the same time they were not afraid na dance lang. You’re not in a box.You can add the words, and while you add the words, you can do the music na, at habang ginagawa natin ang music e kari-reen na natin. Let’s go the whole hog. Huwag tayong matakot na ang storytelling e i-rely lang sa mind, kasi, face it, hindi naman kayo young Edna Vidas na gumaganun lang (shows hand movement) e may kuwento na. Don’t be afraid to use your words in a clearer way. If you need to say it in Ilocano with beautiful music, do so.”
And here, dear karikna, is the best part of Quintos’ impressions on Batac, “I really like that show because pinag-isipan. (Imagine the verbally flamboyant director saying “pinag-isipan” with full emphasis.) Talagang, sige, let’s do a full-length kitchen musicale, and let’s do it well.” This means so much coming from one of the most brilliant figures in the Philippine theater scene.
I know that the question lingering in your mind now is, “If Batac was really good, why then did they rank only fourth?”
Methinks Batac excellently accomplished what they intended to do: stage a fine musicale. It was as good as it could get. It is difficult, unfair even, to compare it to performances that employed the dance theater format. My suspicion is that given the vast stage and venue, and considering the time limit, dance-heavy routines struck the judges and the audience more heavily. I have heard comments, for instance, that there is a lack of “Wow” moments in Batac’s performance.
But, to me, how Batac put together the fantastic musicale that is very good in every respect is the ultimate w-o-w moment. Truth is, I get to appreciate it more each time I watch it on video.
One more important thing that I personally observed and even heard from their participants themselves is their strong resolve not to have the competition get into the way of having fun. And so they keep on exploring… they keep searching for what is outside the box… they crave and salivate, just like the Ilustrados in their story, for new things, even if it means leaving their comfort zones and risking a lower rank in the score sheets.
Those who say that Batac deteriorated just because they ranked fourth are actually telling more about themselves than the Batac contingent. Their idiocy is beyond repair.
To the artists of Batac and their good work, I say: