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Feats of grace, beauty

Kultura is in step with Philippine culture as it showcases the islands' ingenious character.

August 06, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

It's been 10 years since Kultura Philippine Folk Arts last appeared at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, and this local arts institution seemed intent on making up for lost time in its grand-scale music and dance spectacle Saturday.

Beginning with an intricately embellished rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Ninette Tenza Umali and ending with a traditional fiesta full of specialty acts but united by the whole company's unstoppable need to party, the two-act performance continually confirmed the sense of ingenuity that narrator Noel Omega called a defining characteristic of Philippine character.

That ingenuity even managed to transform the problematic Ford stage, an outdoor platform divided into an upper level (with steps from the hillside) and a lower one (with steps into the audience area). Incorporating hordes of guests -- including Southern California alumni of the pioneering Bayanihan Dance Company -- founding director Celia Diaz-Defato and executive director Nadina Jose had dancers on the upper platform continually mirror larger forces below, creating a unified choreographic statement.

In the Spanish-flavored, castanet-accented ballroom sequence of Act 2, for example, dance directors Lisa and Reggie De Guzman placed four couples on the lower platform, three on the upper, the women resplendent in impossibly rich black-and-white formal gowns of satin, velvet, lace and chiffon -- with glittering appliqu├ęs as well. For Filipinos, the result represented a vision of colonial Manila and their gracious, sophisticated heritage; for others, it was an opulent essay in cultural tourism.

However, nothing that production director Dina Jose had in store outclassed Kultura's Mindanao suite in splendor or virtuosity. Here, evoking the Muslim traditions of the southern Philippines, Connie Cruz balanced on wooden poles held across the shoulders of company men, accompanied (on his own set of poles) by Jonathan Fonacier and mirrored on the upper platform by Alyssa Capili.

Here too, in the classic "Singkil," troops of women with fans became a fluttering accompaniment to a bravura procession in which elegant Lisa De Guzman and handsome Peter De Guzman stepped through a network of bamboo poles being slammed together rhythmically at ever faster speeds. Their counterparts on the upper platform, Melanie Mavros and Nani Pengson, looked no less accomplished in this iconic symbol of Philippine grace under pressure.

Other feats on the program included a duet on a stack of benches and a solo atop a vertical pole, plus wine glasses and candles in glasses balanced on the heads of the Kultura corps. Other unusual dances found the company men banging coconut shells attached to their thighs, waists, backs and chests, two masked performers reenacting a cockfight and a contemporary solo by Alexandria Diaz-Defato that reinterpreted and updated Philippine folk themes.

You could argue that it took a long time for Act 2 to become as exciting as the first half of Kultura's program, that the songs by Three of a Kind interrupted the flow, that the narration sometimes grew excessively sentimental, and that the mixing of live and recorded music needed further refinement. You might even say that sampler programming is fast becoming old hat in the professional world-dance arena and that Kultura should consider doing fewer but longer/deeper suites.

However, high spirits, technical skill and that vaunted ingenuity ruled so strongly Saturday that most of the problems seemed minor or theoretical compared with everything that the company and the Philippine arts community wanted seen, heard and cherished.

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