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Old Panay epic: Poem becomes dance-drama

/ 08:27 PM April 01, 2011

ILOILO CITY, Philippines—What happens when an age-old Panay Bukidnon epic and its then 17-year-old storyteller meets an aggressive university theater group?

The answer is “Tarangban (Cave),” a visually fascinating rendition of a Sugidanon or oral epic in dance-drama form that has impressed Manila critics, with the audience asking for a repeat performance.

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“A damn good show,” wrote the Inquirer’s Walter Ang (“Theater of the young, here and now,” March 8, 2010), who praised the “fantastic imagery on stage” and the “unique aural texture; the rousing music and sound design that was exhilarating.”

This was during the University of San Agustin Little Theater’s (USALT) performance of Tarangban at “Tanghal 4: The National University and Colleges Theater Festival and Conference” at College of St. Benilde–La Salle in Manila on Feb. 2, and at the Pasinaya Festival at Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Feb. 7, 2010.

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They had a repeat performance on March 1 at the newly refurbished USALT auditorium. Those who watched agreed with the Manila theater critics.

A love story

“The performance was superb. I wonder how the performers internalized the story like it was their own. It looked difficult to do. I am amazed,” said Edward Ello, a native of Sta. Ana, Manila, who works for Handicap International that has a project on Panay Island.

Tarangban is a love and adventure epic that tells the story of Buyong Humadapnon’s (Pillar of the World, master counselor) heroic journey in search of the famed binukot (well-kept maidens) and his lover Nagmalitong Yawa, a babaylan (shaman).

In his long voyage, he is accompanied by his brother Dumalapdap and his spirit friend Taghoy, who also guides them throughout the journey.

They stumble upon the enchanted cave of Tarangban where they encountered mythical beasts and creatures which they all defeated.

The babaylan Nagmalitong Yawa, disguised as a man in the person of Datu Sunmasakay, slaughtered a thousand binukot followers and eventually, Humadapnon’s dark mistress. In the end, Humadapnon and Nagmalitong Yawa were reunited.

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The seed for the staging of the “Tarangban” started in 2004 when the USALT read a Palanca-awarded poem written by Dr. Isidoro Cruz, now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of University of San Agustin.

“We were at first intrigued by the poem that we, the USA Little Theater (USALT) had to set it in performance poetry. Over the years, however, we saw that there has been an entire world residing in the narrative—a cultural heritage yet unexplored and lying hidden within the lines of the poem,” said Edward and Eric Divinagracia, the directors of Tarangban.

Authentic voice

The USALT had an entry to the Dinagyang Festival in 2004 based on their research on Panay Bukidnon culture, but the performers and directors felt “it lacked authenticity.”

“It lacked a voice that carried it with such conviction. Not even our research that time brought us that contentment,” said Eric Divinagracia, who graduated with a Master of Arts Administration degree from Eastern Michigan University, as an international fellow of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.

The passion and the authentic voice that Tarangban required came in the person of then 17-year-old Manilyn “Tata” Glemer, a member of the USALT and friend of senior member Kristoffer Rhys Grabato.

Grabato found that Glemer was a member of the Panay Bukidnon tribe in Tapaz, Capiz, and knew how to chant their epics. The USALT and the Divinagracia brothers wasted no time in walking several hours to the mountainous town of Tapaz just to capture the authenticity of the story.

“Our engagement with the tribe through Tata brought us closer to the literature and the people who gave life to the text. With the voices of Tata, her mother Gemma, who happens to be the chieftain of their tribe and her grandmother Lola Gamak, a binukot and chanter of the tribe, we resolved to render this production in the form that we envisioned,” the Divinagracia brothers said.

Glemer, now 21 and working as a front desk officer at Longwood Garden Hotel in Pasay City, took a leave from work just so she can once more chant the epic that she has memorized since she was 4 years old—to the amazement of the audience at the March 1 performance in Iloilo City.

Tarangban being the story of her people, Glemer was not only a chanter but also its codirector with theater colleague, Peter Paul Deocos.

Her chanting of the epic saw theatrical form with the collaboration of top USALT alumni-musicians who performed the live music: Gerardo “Bimbo” Muyuela and Beny Castillon with USALT alumni Grabato, Errol Jave Villalobos and Gino Santillana; perennial artistic partners JP Libo-on and Architect Salvador Jumayao, Jr., the dance troupe Kawilihan and its alumnus, Bryan Yap.

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