The Persistence of a Narrative: O’Layra Prinsesa cang Dagat

Jul 26, 2018 by

The Persistence of a Narrative:  O’Layra Prinsesa cang Dagat

By Ruth Jordana Luna Pison, PhD

In an age when the arts and humanities are in crisis and there is a decline in interest in stage performances, let alone on those based on local materials, the production of O’Layra Prinsesa cang Dagat was a daring move by the director and choreographer. Funded by the  University of the Philippines, Visayas’ Humanities Division, which was given  a financial award under the CHED’s Innovation and Institutional Development Grant, the dance drama directed by  Kevin Piamonte and choreographed by Robert Rodriguez was well received by the audience in both Iloilo City and San Jose, Antique. I must admit that I was a tad apprehensive when Rodiriguez informed me that the dance drama was going to be entirely in Kinaray-a. In  fact, O’Layra is the first full-length play in Kinaray-a to date.

The Ensemble cast as Tamawos (performed by the UPV Hublag Dance Company) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

The Ensemble cast as Tamawos (performed by the UPV Hublag Dance Company) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

Based on a material archived at the Center for West Visayas Center and suggested to   Piamonte by Zoilo Andrada and Milagros Legislador , O’Layra is about the Radio Drama of Russell O. Tordesillas,  a popular  figure among  Antiquenos and also  known in Kinaray-a literature. His Radio Drama about O’layra—perhaps the equivalent of our current teleserye—aired by the DYKA (Radio Kauswagan Antique) station in the 1970s, became integral to the lives of the community which anticipated the daily unravelling of the story. When he visited Antique to learn more about the material he was going to stage, Piamonte confirmed the enduring popularity of both Tordesillas and his story.

In Piamonte’s play, the narrative arc of O’layra is retained—it is about the tamawo’s/enkanto’s  concern for not having a soul and thus, an afterlife. An Emperor and Emperatriz tamawo want  their daughter, named O’layra to live with the mortals, find a man to marry, and bear children who are half-mortal and will, therefore, have a soul. The couple leave their baby daughter under a bubog tree where she is discovered by a mortal couple who raises her to adulthood. The couple whose child, Natalia, was swept away by a huge wave into the sea, raises O’layra as their own. She grows up and falls for Fitzgerald. Piamonte, however, gives the plot a twist.   Tordesillas becomes part of the world of O’layra as the radio-dramatist who creates the story  around her,  gets engulfed in his own fiction, enters the world of his characters,  falls in love with O’layra , and becomes upset when she falls for another man. Tordesillas’ attempts to derail the love interest fail and he eventually dies of heartache. In Piamonte’s second version and staging, though, Tordesillas is resurrected.

The Emperor (Kingsley delos Santos) and the Empress (Lyn Holy La Vega) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

The Emperor (Kingsley delos Santos) and the Empress (Lyn Holy La Vega) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

What was a possible language barrier – the dance-drama in Kinaray-a was presented to a predominantly Hiligaynon-speaking crowd—did not seem to bother the audience which was able to follow the scenes and enjoy the exchange of lines between the characters. The viewers were even sensitive to the sublimatic sexuality or an undertone—or what seemed to them an undertone—of homoeroticism between Tordesillas and his doctor-friend.

O’layra finds its appropriate place amongst the rich literature of the Visayas.  Read along the Seven Layers of Panayanon Universe and Alicia Magos’ works on the 10 Epics of Central Panay, O’layra perfectly makes sense.  The crossing over of characters—O’layra to the mortal world and Tordesillas to the land of the tamawo—does not necessitate a suspension of belief as this fit the audience’s cultural paradigm. Among many Visayans whose consciousness is informed by the presence of other worlds, babaylans, and binukots,  there is no clear distinction between the world of humans and the world of the non-humans.  This logical intersecting or co-existing worlds are rendered in the dance drama as a visual fugue of places such as the radio station, the forest with the bubog tree, and the sea.

The Bayluhay scene, where the baby OLayra was exchanged for a mortal child named Natalia. In this photo a tamawo ritualistically exchanges the baby. (Photo by Ruperto Quitag)

The Bayluhay scene, where the baby OLayra was exchanged for a mortal child named Natalia. In this photo a tamawo ritualistically exchanges the baby. (Photo by Ruperto Quitag)

One’s initial surprise at seeing the Emperatriz and Emperor in a local narrative dissipates when one recalls the element of the “foreign” common in many Visayan epics. As Alicia Magos in her essay entitled “Labaw Donggon’s Boat Anchors in the Home of the Dead,” explains, in Olayra,  the longest serialized drama in Antique in the 70s, the enkanto named O’layra  owned a gold boat (M/V Carit-an, Philippines) that navigated the waters of Europe and Antique. Piamonte explains that perhaps it is this golden boat allowing the encounter with the foreign which makes the epics and narratives of a similar plot engaging to the people of the Visayas.

But what about Tordesillas’ confronting his very creation, O’layra when she falls in love with Fitzgerald? What is this juxtaposition of fact and fiction?  Is this the creator desperately trying to control his work? Or fiction overpowering its creator?  These are some of the demons that a writer has to slay.  But Piamonte’s slightly comic Tordesillas saves the play from being a postmodern excursion into issues of reality, truth, fiction, and narrativity.   More than these demons that  a writer such as Tordesillas struggles with, Piamonte foregrounds the Panayanon Universe and the transcendence of the creator when he allows Tordesillas to  survive his illness and re-claim his important position as radio dramatist.

Integral to the play are the choreographic sequences of Rodriguez whose HUBLAG dancers contributed to the worlding of O’layra.  Although generally earth-bound and strongly grounded—Rodriguez acknowledges the influence on his works of modern and neo-ethnic dance choreographer Agnes Locsin—the texture and quality of the movements changed with the scenes. Rodriguez’s choreographic architecture and its vocabulary not only complemented the play’s narrative but also maximized the range of movement ability of his performers, most of who had no dance background at all.

Adding to the choreographic challenges was the music composed by Crista Sianson-Huyong.  The music’s otherworldly and meandering quality— a combination of haunting vocals  and instrumental chords —  captured a range of moods  and provided the appropriate  atmosphere for the play.  However, it was a feat for the dancers to keep to the meter or measure signature of the live music. Rodriquez shares the difficulty they experienced upon hearing for the first time the live version of the composition. The latter’s piano recording in 8 counts which they used during their 4-month rehearsal period was not quite the same with the live music. Despite the initial difficulties, the dance phrases kept to the various accents of the music, and the dancers were able to articulate Rodriguez’s choreographic intention.

The wedding of Olayra and Prince Fitzgerald (played by Jasper Ruby Vijar) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

The wedding of Olayra and Prince Fitzgerald (played by Jasper Ruby Vijar) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

The long-time working relationship of Piamonte, Rodriguez, and Sianson–Huyong worked to their advantage as they had to address the challenges in melding the narrative with music and  dance. As Piamonte’s third production in a series of projects based on local material—his first was Panayanon, written by Leoncio Deriada, choreographed by Sol Fernandez, and music by Bimbo Muyuela— O’layra reunites these three artists who also worked together in his second production, Juanita Cruz, based on Magdalena Jalandoni’s novel of the same title,  and written for stage by  Alice Tan-Gonzales in 2004.

With O’layra’s success in Iloilo and Antique—the play was warmly received in its hometown where tickets were priced at P1,000—we look forward to another production of Piamonte whose commitment to work on and with local materials has resulted in productions that have paved the way for cultural conversations. The pervasiveness of consumerism and social media in the 21st century might be a cause for alarm, but O’layra and its the reception make us hopeful that not only are there still many artists  whose works resonate our nation’s rich culturescape but also that we can also count on audiences that are still able to appreciate and comprehend a polyphony of cultural significations. 

**Ruth Jordana Luna Pison, PhD is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines Diliman, where she teaches courses on Philippine literature, Philippine women writers in English, and literary criticism. Ruth Pison is also currently doing extensive research on Philippine Dance.

***This review was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 21 July 2018. See publication here.

OLayra (played by Xenia Monica Cabrias) and Russell Tordesillas (played by GC Castro) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

OLayra (played by Xenia Monica Cabrias) and Russell Tordesillas (played by GC Castro) Photo by Ruperto Quitag

 

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