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A Dance of Vengeance: A Review of Ballet Philippines’ Simoun

A man slumped down in his seat appears on stage. Seemingly drunk with alcohol perhaps? Or intoxicated by the engulfing grief that made him cringe on that chair? But here comes a curious lady in red, signifying the passion of Revolution, bringing him to life, as he transforms before a large mirror into a new persona. The slumped figure used to be the tragic Crisostomo Ibarra. But when he stood up, helped by the lady in red dress in the mirror, he transformed into a man with a tall hat, a wig, and a set of quintessential shades. He will be a man bent on vengeance. He will be known as the wealthy and mysterious Simoun. The fictional figure of Ibarra turning into the vengeful Simoun is familiar to all Filipinos, given that the novels where the character came from sparked a revolution that freed the Philippines from Spanish Colonial rule. 

Ballet Philippines has once again outdone itself in one of the most riveting reinterpretations of one of Rizal’s novels, El Filibusterismo, on stage. Without narration, and with only ballet and live music performed by the wonderful ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, the show I witnessed last October 21, 2016 was worth a space on this blog. It wasn’t long ago, around four years ago in 2012, that the BP company re-showed Crisostomo Ibarra. I remember feeling teary-eyed especially at the last scene, that heartbreaking scene of Crisostomo and his love, Maria Clara, parting ways, forgiving each other for the wrongs done, and then being separated by forces beyond their control.

But due to the stark difference of the material itself, Simoun offers a distinct darker tone, and a more in-your-face presentation of the spectre of revolution, and how vengeance destroys even the very thing it seeks to save. The progression of the novel’s narrative was in sync with the BP dancers as they dance to tell the unfolding story.

Presented in the main theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (@culturalcenterphils), the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, in its debut of only three shows, the glories of Simoun as a production was apt on such a large stage. The stage design itself was done by acclaimed artist Toym Imao, who utilized videos and light production and a static church-like structure as facade to depict both the convoluted union of church and state during the Spanish Colonial Period, where the character of Simoun plays part. The recurring All-Seeing Eye imagery on the structure, and the mirror-like frame that appears and reappears give the impression of the unknown depths of Simoun’s tragic destiny, and at the same time, the peering eye of Simoun’s rage against those who did him wrong–the abusive Spanish friars, the pragmatic and social-climbing mestizos who were also instruments of oppression. The large frame of a mirror was also reminiscent of the same device used in the Crisostomo Ibarra production. 

On the choreography, the dancers themselves aided the viewer in recasting the backdrop story of the time, how Simoun controlled the antagonists like puppets as he simultaneously fired up the anger of the revolutionaries against the antagonists’ abuse. The dance of the Principalia class imitating Simoun’s dance movements, amidst a circus-like backdrop clearly connoted this puppetry of Simoun in a theater of pretensions and hidden self-serving smiles, all of which are part of his scheme to inflict misery on all those he hated.

Unless one is not familiar with El Filibusterismo though, one would miss the high note of the production as it concluded. In one of the last scenes of Simoun was a wounded Simoun, half-naked on stage, as he fled to escape from the authorities who have uncovered his disguise upon his plan’s failure. The failed bombing Simoun concocted using a gas lamp to kill all the leaders of the town of San Diego was Rizal’s way of driving his point.

As Simoun ran to escape, the ever meek and faithful Padre Florentino consoles him in his dying breath. But the material must be familiar to the viewer to see why BP gave such a grand imagery on this part of the story. In the production, as Padre Florentino cradled the dying Ibarra, a smoke like white cloth on stage suddenly arose to engulfed them, depicting probably Florentino’s imaginings of the next generation.

In the novel, the arguments and counterarguments of the priest and the dying and hurting rebel conclude in the climax of the story in the novel which the production gave justice. Florentino told Ibarra why his plans were bound to fail (El Fili translation by Leon Ma. Guerrero):

“The glory of saving a country cannot be given to one who has contributed to its ruin. You believed that what crime and iniquity had stained and deformed, more crime and more iniquity could cleanse and redeem. This was error.”

As Ibarra dies from his wounds, the priest looks on to imagine the next generation, asking:

“Where are the youth who will dedicate their innocence, their idealism, their enthusiasm to the good of the country” and  “who will give generously of their blood to wash away so much shame, crime and abomination. Pure and immaculate must the victim be for the sacrifice to be acceptable.”

That was why the production ended with a throng of men and women dancing, seemingly naked in their innocence, baring all for the love of country, a country which the priest looked on with pity. As a viewer myself, I could almost hear the words of Padre Florentino as these throng danced on stage, a nameless throng of brand new Filipinos:

“Where are you, young men and young women, who are to embody in yourselves the life-force that has been drained from our veins, the pure ideals that have grown stained in our minds, the fiery enthusiasm that has been quenched in our hearts? 

We await you, come for we await you!”

And then, with creative license, the unfolding story on stage ended with a twist: there appeared on the center of the stage, the figure of Jose Rizal, the author of the story itself. As he stood after finishing what he wrote, he walked in front and center, as the throng of dancers backed away and stood still. With a sound of a gunshot, the writer fell to the ground. The ultimate sacrifice. As the dancers looked on as witnesses, one would get the idea that Rizal would be the first of whom they, residing in a distant future, would follow.

Indeed, Ballet Philippines has come full circle in producing a great piece of art, an innovative retelling of a Rizalian novel, with choreography and libretto, done by the ever talented Paul Alexander Morales, and riveting musical score by composer Jed Balsamo, with the exceptional dancers Jean Marc Cordero (reprising his role of Ibarra as Simoun), Erl Sorilla (Basilio), Juli (Gilliane Theres Gequinto), Louise John Ababon (Padre Salvi), Sarah Anne Alejandro (Doña Victorina), and Denise Parungao (as the ghostly apparition of Maria Clara that caused grief on Simoun). The superb stage design by Toym Imao, and the exceptional performance of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Gerard Salonga wove together an entire world that would make even non-readers of El Fili to go back to the pages to see what it all meant.

I give the entire production 5 stars out of 5 for a great work of art and a new reinterpretation of a Filipino classic. Highly recommended! Catch it when it is re-shown.

*Photo above: Ballet dancer, Jean Marc Cordero as Simoun. Photo by Jojit Lorenzo.