Philippine Dance Gains a Strong Foothold in S.D.
The two largest Philippine dance companies in the U.S. are based in San Diego, according to Lolita Carter, founder of the Samahan Philippine Dance Company, the younger of the two. The other is the Pasacat Performing Arts Company.
Samahan means “working together,” and Carter makes clear that the company, founded in 1975, is the product of many people’s efforts. “We try to really work together--it takes some doing,” she said, laughing.
Carter is general director of Samahan, and last week at her El Cajon home, which serves as the company’s administrative office, she talked about the group’s concert tonight at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. Sixty-five dancers and musicians will perform her choreography and that of the company’s two artistic directors, George Ragaza and Ruby Chiong.
Although Carter recruits and trains dancers, writes grants and promotional materials, cuts costumes, organizes community events and schedules private performances, just for starters, she sees herself as a behind-the-scenes kind of person. “I don’t want to put myself forward. Everybody should be recognized.”
George Ragaza, for one. Ragaza, who is Hawaiian, had his own dance company in Tokyo for several years before moving to San Diego and working with Pasacat. He joined Samahan eight months ago, and Carter credits him with raising the company’s creative level, from choreography to costuming. “He has done a lot of research into the real ethnic dance forms of the Philippines. When you put something like that in the theater, you have to expand the material, and he’s able to do that.
“He also makes the costumes, everything--headdresses, necklaces, beadwork, even earrings--based on his research. The originals are very expensive or not available, so he finds samples and starts making them using materials he can get. . . . It makes a lot of difference having him here with so much energy. This is going to be the best show ever.”
Tonight’s program, slated to run more than two hours, includes the four major dance forms of the Philippines: formal Spanish, folk Spanish, Islamic and tribal dances from the mountain regions.
“The southern part of the country is mostly Oriental, and a lot of people there belong to the Islamic faith. The dancing is very Indonesian, what you would expect Oriental dancing to be like--a lot more use of the hands, fans, long fingernails,” Carter explained. “There’s a big contrast between the southern and northern parts, the mountainous provinces, which are more primitive.”
Carter believes these mountain dances are probably the most authentic, having originated before the arrival of the Spanish three centuries ago. And, because travel and communication were difficult in the “olden days,” she said, Asian influences are also absent.
People who see the work for the first time are surprised that the most prevalent forms in Philippine dancing are Spanish. Carter explained that Spanish dances adapted in the Philippines take two forms: one is formal and elegant, like European dancing, and the other is more folk or peasant. “The folk costumes are simpler, but colorful still, and the dances are not as sedate. They use a lot of props--bamboo poles, sticks, shells.”
Ten years ago, the company began building a musical ensemble to accompany the dancers and to perform on its own. The use of live music is a distinction that sets Samahan apart from many other groups, which must rely on recordings, she said.
“First, we worked with an ethnomusicologist from the University of the Philippines--Bayani de Leon. He was here at UCSD, a composer in experimental music. I found out he was an expert in rondalla. “
Rondalla is a small stringed orchestra with five sections or “voices” and plays for the Spanish-style dances, she said. The instrument is similar to a mandolin, “just like a Mexican rondalla , only ours is smaller.”
For the mountain dances, a gangsa (gongs), drums, bamboo flutes, Jews harps, and “primitive” instruments are combined with “a lot of chanting.” The Islamic music is more elaborate and complex, Carter said, and features a kulintang ensemble, which are bronze gong chimes.
“Bayani de Leon taught us these disciplines) originally,” Carter acknowledged, “but in the past three years, we’ve been working with an ethnomusicologist from San Francisco, Danongan Kalanduyan. He is a world-class musician as far as kulintang music is concerned. It is somewhat similar to the gamelan, only it’s a smaller orchestra, but the sound is very full when played right. The main instrument, the kulintang , carries the melody and the rest of the orchestra is mostly percussion.”
For the past two years Samahan performed at La Jolla Sherwood Auditorium, but this year the company moved to the Poway Center because of planned renovations at the museum which since have been postponed. Another frequent venue for the company is the Educational Cultural Complex in Southeast San Diego.
“A lot of young people from the Philippines live in the National City area,” she said, adding that many don’t want to be called Filipino. “But, when they see the show, they are surprised, they are proud.
“This is the most exciting year for us because we got a bigger grant from the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. . . . A Special Projects grant enabled us to go to the schools and do workshops, which we haven’t done before. Before, we simply recruited by word of mouth, or whenever we’d perform, people would see us. Now we have found places where we can find kids by the dozens.” Finding kids is important to the future of Samahan, because it builds a strong base of apprentice dancers who go on to become adult dancers.
Carter grew up in the Philippines “in a family that leaned toward music, arts and culture.” She became interested in dance while a student at the University of the Philippines. Later she pursued graduate degrees in the U.S. on scholarship and received her doctorate from the University of Iowa. For 23 years, she was head of the dance program at Grossmont College until she retired in 1986.
Carter was inspired to create Samahan by Philippine dance concerts she saw while on sabbatical in Manila in 1975. When she returned to San Diego she set up the company with an educational, rather than professional, focus.
Teaching at Grossmont limited the time she could devote to Samahan, but the company “kept on, and never stopped,” she said, and has been awarded numerous grants from foundations, California Arts Council and the NEA.
Getting grants and local funding is highly competitive for multicultural arts groups, Carter said, adding, “and if there is corporate money, the white, established (arts) organizations get it. This is a very conservative town. You can say you are a big minority group until you are red in the face, and nobody cares--'so what?’ ”
Numbering about 150,000, Filipinos make up the second largest nonwhite group in San Diego, according to Carter.
“Support from the Philippine community is also difficult because of so many competing performing groups. And this year we had the two Philippine disasters, the big earthquake and Mt. Pinatubo (the volcanic eruption). Philippine people are always being asked to help.”
The eruption prevented a trip to the Philippines she had planned with her husband. “I usually go home every year to do research, to buy costumes and things that we need, and to visit friends and my relatives.”
Her busy schedule makes traveling difficult anyway. “We’re performing all the time,” she said, and listed such Samahan engagements as wedding, parties, free concerts for seniors, and the recent International Friendship Festival in El Cajon.
She trains all the dancers, too. “I enjoy teaching, really training the young kids. . . . I want to give them the basics,” Carter commented. “I’ve changed my emphasis somewhat. When I first started the company, I was inspired by what I saw in the Philippines, and I wanted to put on a show. My main impulse was ‘Let’s get on with it; lets put on a theater performance right away.’ Now, I’m more interested in really training dancers before they go into the company.” Now, she has a core group of 14 senior dancers, and some have been with Samahan for ten years.
“We try to make people aware that we have artists as much as the white performing groups. This is serious stuff and requires a lot of rehearsing--it has to be artistic.”
Dedication and resourcefulness are also required. Carter mentioned the enormous contribution of artistic director Chiong, who has worked with the company from the first. “And she’s a fantastically beautiful dancer.”
Ragaza and Chiong now take care of most of the choreography, “and they work well together, so that part is very well taken care of. But the administration is something else,” Carter said.
The administration is hers alone, since she remembers the details of the company history “like a computer.” It’s a way to save the company money, too.
“I’m really the patron of this company. I finance it in blood,” she laughed. “But there’s no such thing as you are it . Somebody helped you build it.”