San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival: Behind the Scenes with Parangal Dance Company

June 9, 2011


For an interview subject, Eric Solano, artistic director and board president of Parangal Dance Company, seemed just as concerned about me as he was about his own work. This quiet and humble manner is also reflected in his artistic process. In creating a world premiere for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Eric was deeply mindful of his role as a tradition-bearer in relationship with his community.

We talked with Eric about his process of honoring his master teachers while also adapting dances for contemporary performance settings. Learn how Parangal Dance Company's piece this year highlights the diversity that is the Filipino traditional experience.

So first, tell me our audience a little about this work. What will they see, and why is it significant for this festival?

The piece is called Subanen, and it is a world premiere created specifically for the Festival. The name of the piece is also the name of an indigenous (or Lumad) group from an island in the southern Philippines. The island is called Mindanao. The village is the village of Lapuyan, of the city Zamboanga Del Sur.

It’s significant for us, Parangal Dance Company, because we have never done a piece like this before. This is the third time we have performed in the Festival, and we usually showcase dances inspired by three to five indigenous groups. This is the very first time that we are only showcasing only one, the Subanen. But this time it was really about passing down a specific tradition. For me, I’ve been dancing for fifteen years now, and I know I’m going to get old one of these days! So the newer members all have to take on the dances I know.

This is part of what you see in the piece as well. In one section of the piece [there are six sections altogether], there is the story of a shaman who knows a Shelayan ritual, and only he knows it. So he’s passing on this knowledge of a shamanic ritual to heal the sick, on a swing. He’s passing it to the community so even though they won’t be shamans, at least they are informed.

It was mentioned to me that this work is a traditional Filipino dance work that also discusses trade with China? Also, are there particular themes that you discuss through these objects? 

Parangal’s themes this year are immigration and cultural integration. The Subanen group is affected by the Chinese, because the Chinese have come to Mindanao and traded there. But Mindanao also has a big population of Islamicized tribes called the Moros, and neighboring countries have immigrated there as well. The bowls and fabric in the piece indicate trade with the neighboring countries. In Mindanao, you’ll see how the outfits are worn. The necklines are influenced by the Chinese or Malaysians. When I’m in Mindanao, especially around indigenous groups, I feel like I’m not in the Philippines anymore, even though I know these are my countrymen. There are so many cultures within the Filipino culture.

Was visiting the Philippines part of the process for creating the piece?

Usually, I do go to the Philippines. Since 2005, I have made the trip, visited and done interviews before starting work. This time I was not able to do that. I stayed here, but I found a Subanen master artist, Gauden Sireg from Lapuyan, Zambonga del Sur. Through Facebook and phone calls, we made decisions together. I would ask, “Can I do it this way? Can I get your blessing?” I asked the same questions for the attire. When it’s presented on stage, it has to be more theatrical, of course, with enhanced movement. But we show respect through proper attire, and we ordered the costumes and most of the props from him directly.  

You know, I’m really interested in that. Your work seems to have a lot to do with passing down traditions. Can you tell me more about how this process began? How does choreography in folkdance work for you? What part is passed down, and what part is choreography?

Well, for me, it’s been over fifteen years of dancing and research, beginning in 2006. I started going to the Philippines and learning indigenous dances to bring back to the community. Three groups, the T'boli in 2005, the Tagbanua in 2009, and the latest -- the Subanen, have been happy to share.

And the process is something like this. If I had been in Subanen this year, first, I'd give a gift or an offering. Then we would do interviews about the rituals they do, the dances they keep. There is usually no set choreography. So I have to ask a lot of questions about what is involved. I ask, “What are you doing? What is it called? I pay attention to, "Why are you doing it, and who is involved?” 

I’m looking at what they are wearing and the colors. It could be a wedding, or those colors could be specific to that indigenous group. This is the information that we try to preserve as much as we can. Also, when we do our choreography, we pay close to attention to how they’re moving -- close to the ground, or why is the footwork this way, and the hands this way. Some indigenous groups start dances with their environment, with a monkey dance, a bird dance. When we come into choreography, we keep as much of the movement as we can, though some of it may be improvised for theater purposes. This is because, in a performance, we need to entertain in addition to educate. But it all stems from that first interview.

Of course when it gets to the stage, it’s changed a bit, which is why we call it dance that is inspired by the traditional. We base it on the interviews and then interpret what the elders have shared. For example, at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, we are limited to 10 minutes. So this also becomes an artistic learning process, a test, and a challenge! I’m sure all the directors go through a similar process. In the actual world, a ritual could take 7 days! But we have just those 10 minutes to tell a story. So what we keep instead is the styles and textiles, the items specific to indigenous groups, the clothing and artifacts. Most of all, we try to keep the movement as close as we can.

So far we've successfully told the stories through dance in the 10 minute timeframe. Before the [Festival] audition, we have a set of special guests who have never seen the new piece. We perform it for them and ask for feedback on performance factors and, most importantly, if they get it? We apply changes based on the feedback to make it a better piece. When someone comes up to us or sends an email about how they understood the piece, that’s when we say "Yes, success!"

We feel like we want to do this, because indigenous people still exist today, and it makes a difference to them. Some have access to Facebook now and other social media channels! So we ask questions like, “How are we going to present this piece in a way that is still OK with them?” Sometimes, I’ve had people see things on YouTube and reflect back to me, “My people don’t do it this way. What are you doing?” I actually like the feedback, though. To be so honest means people care! So my answer is always, “OK, what can I do to fix it?” 

Basically, everything I’ve done so far is building and keeping relationships. I have started with indigenous groups who have wanted to share their knowledge with me, so I protect their time and their knowledge also. In workshops, I really communicate to the public that when I learned the movement, I learned it one way, but I chose another way to do it for my choreography. I tell and show them the differences.

What does this work have to say to Asian Americans, and why is it important to make this kind of work, in this way? Are most of your dancers Filipino Americans?

Most of our dancers are Filipino Americans. A few immigrated here, but most were born and raised here. A lot of them are students from USF or SF State, etc. It’s really important for the dancers to have access to dance companies like Parangal, because lots of second generation youth who were born and raised here have never had chance to go back.

They do not have access to this in mainstream media, to the culture of where their parents are from. They may or may not meet other Filipinos. They may or may not know about their roots, their origins, or their grandparents and great grandparents. But dance is one way for them, and us, to know about traditions and culture.

I came to the US when I was eleven, and I was never exposed to dance before that. But when I got here, I saw these dances and wanted to know what it was. Just because I’m Filipino doesn’t mean I wake up and just know about this stuff!

This is why Parangal Dance Company’s mission is to Inspire, Educate, and Preserve. We inspire people to know more about Philippine culture. We educate people through performance and workshops, and we would be more than happy to serve as a resource to the community and schools.

Thank you so much for talking with me, Eric.

You know, I’m usually a quiet person. But I can talk forever about this stuff!