SAN DIEGO — "They say East meets West in the Philippines," said a smiling Anamaria Labao Cabato, in a break from her directorial duties for the Philippine-American Society & Cultural Arts Troupe.
"I think it all started because jeeps are such common vehicles in the Philippines now," Cabato said. "But you have a touch of every continent in the Philippines--even African influences, as in the pagan dances.
"Geography has made the Philippines an Asian country, but many different peoples have contributed their culture--from Asian and European traders to the Spanish, Japanese and American occupations."
This cultural melting pot has produced a rich diversity of music, song, dance and drama, which the members of the troupe are determined to preserve here. Since the company was founded in 1969, it has been promoting the cultural heritage of the Philippines through the arts. Cabato, who took over the organization in 1975, was born in San Diego but has a fierce dedication to her Filipino roots and works tirelessly with the troupe.
Today, the troupe will present its styles of dance and kulintangan music (the Philippine equivalent of the Indonesian gamelan) during two performances at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza. The program will run the gamut of Philippine cultural expressions--tantamount to sampling dances from all around the world.
"When the Spanish came over, they brought cultural forms from all over Europe that they integrated into their dances, so you have waltzes, the jota and polkas besides the traditional Spanish dances. You have very gay folk dances, and Muslim dances which are based on religious ceremonies and mythology," Cabato said.
"Then you have the royal courtship dances, which start out calm and stately and then build up to a frenzy. In the tariktik, a tribal dance that comes from a remote region where the natives were not influenced by outside peoples, the dance imitates a woodpecker. Here, (the natives) just found inspiration in the things close to them."
One of the most exciting elements in Philippine dance is the dangerous and lightning-quick footwork for the female dancers in traditional works, such as tinikling (a dance named for the long-legged bird that scampers through the trees and rice paddies of the Philippines). While the boys of the troupe clap huge bamboo poles with sharp, rapid motions, the nimble-footed women step in and out of the crashing bamboos with their naked feet.
"This dance is dangerous, but the dancers are very eager to do it," Cabato said. "You need very good timing, balance, and above all confidence to dance in tinikling, but the dancers enjoy the challenge."
Singkil is another crowd pleaser that demands exquisite balance and technical assurance from the dancers. It begins as a courtly couples dance. However, it quickly turns into a thrilling high-wire act as a dancer portraying the sari-manok (a mythical bird with magical powers to foresee the future) balances herself high atop the beaten bamboos, representing the surging earth.
"These dances require constant rehearsal--much more so than other forms of dance," Cabato said. "It requires very skilled dancers, as they have to balance props in their hands or on their heads." In the dance of the lights, the performers balance lighted candles and glasses.
There are 20 dancers in the troupe, and they have rehearsed all summer for this weekend's performances. The company consists of high school and college students, many of whom stay on with the troupe for eight years. Cabato said 80% of them have performing experience.
The troupe's dozen or so musicians--all formally trained in Western music as well--will play plucked instruments, gongs, bamboo sticks and other indigenous music-makers of the Philippines during tonight's performances.
"Now all our music is live, and we have an extensive repertory of music arranged by Bayani Mendoza de Leon. Bayani, a professor at the University of the Philippines, was here as visiting professor at San Diego State, and he taught our musicians (to play the indigenous instruments) and created all our music and vocal arrangements," Cabato said.
The National City-based troupe is not as well known in the community as the Samahan Philippine Dance Company, although it has a headquarters building and receives National Endowment of the Arts money for its folk arts program.
"We're not as active in the dance community as the Samahan," Cabato acknowledged, "but our goals are the same. Our choreography and styles are different. We're more concerned about being authentic. We don't do any 'new' choreography. It's all steps rearranged from the basic Philippine dances."
Like Samahan, the troupe prides itself on traditional costumes, many of which are opulent originals imported from the Philippines.
More than 30 pieces will be performed in the two-hour programs at the Lyceum at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
"You can experience the people of the Philippines by watching our performance," Cabato said. "The dances reflect the people of the Philippines, their customs, their cultures and their costumes."