The enduring rock opera ballet is a collaboration between five National Artists.
There’s quite a bit of history to Rama, Hari, the rock opera ballet that’s opening on September 15 at the Metropolitan Theater, besides the fact that the story is based on the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The ballet was originally slated to be performed at the CCP on March 20, 2020, closing Ballet Philippines’s 50th season. It would’ve also been Alice Reyes’ final production with BP, the dance company she founded, as she departed as its artistic director—a three-year term she took on post-retirement—amidst a company-wide rift over her successor.
As the covid lockdown took its toll on the dance community, Reyes gathered a group of displaced dancers from various companies and helped sustain their careers through fundraising, organizing online dance workshops, and finding choreographic work on dance films. Last May 2022, the group officially became Alice Reyes Dance Philippines, “a professional Filipino Dance Company for Filipinos, by Filipinos.” Reyes was 79 years old and had to put her retirement plans on hold, again.
The company aims to “showcase the beauty and richness of Filipino culture through dance, the potential creativity one can nurture from what we already have, bringing it to another level, generationally and globally,” says ARDP president Tats Manahan. ARDP has since staged original Filipino productions like Puso ng Pasko, a Christmas show with music by Ryan Cayabyab, and the neo-ethnic landmark piece Encantada of Agnes Locsin, who was recently named National Artist for Dance.
Under the new company, the four-decade-old Rama, Hari finally takes flight, landing on stage for another generation. In 1977, Reyes had just choreographed Tales of the Manuvu, a rock opera ballet about the origins of the Manobo tribe. As Ballet Philippines was entering its second decade, she felt they were ready to go beyond national themes and explore other Asian sources. The Ramayana, which she read in college, is a tale familiar to many from Southeast Asia including our own country; the Maranao people of Mindanao have their own retelling called Maharadia Lawana.
An elite team was assembled to bring the story to stage: Bienvenido Lumbera wrote the libretto, Salvador Bernal designed the set and costumes, and Rolando Tinio translated the lyrics into English. Ryan Cayabyab, only 26 at the time, wrote the score, which “incorporated the Filipino kundiman, Indian melodies, Asian percussion, soul rock, monkey sounds, and even some Dixieland for extra spice,” as Reyes wrote in the original show notes. Or, Cayabyab quips in a recent press conference, “everything I learned in UP.”
According to accounts, the 1980 debut of Rama, Hari starring Basil Valdez, Leo Valdez, and newcomer Kuh Ledesma was such a hit that long queues formed outside the theater. By the time Rama, Hari was staged for the fourth time in 2012, Lumbera, Bernal, and Tinio were already named National Artists in their respective fields. Reyes and Cayabyab followed in the years after, making this ballet the only Philippine work of art with five National Artists attached to it.
A few days before the current opening night, the cast held their first run through at the Metropolitan Theater. “This was very challenging to mount, but in a way I love it because normally we don’t have the portals at the CCP,” Reyes says, indicating the layers of arched drapes painted with embroidery-like details. In 1980, Reyes described Bernal’s set as one “that echoed Indian lives and costumes that carried the colors of curry spices and the feel of turquoise.”
“This was the original design of Badong [Bernal], so I’m quite happy that we’re able to bring it back,” she says now. A week after, they will move the entire production to the Samsung Performing Arts Theater, and will have to make adjustments again. “That’s what makes theater interesting.”
It helps to know the gist of the Ramayana before watching the ballet. At 24,000 verses long, it’s called an epic for good reason, but the elements of the tale are archetypal and will feel very familiar: A prince must prove himself worthy to marry a princess. A scheming third wife plots to oust the prince, putting her own son in line for succession. The princess, abducted by a demon, waits to be rescued by the prince, who enlists the help of an army of monkeys.
Things get interesting with the way Reyes meshes together the world of the dancers and the world of the singers, in effect doubling the characters on stage. Rama and Sita, the prince and princess, are played by singers (Arman Ferrer and Karylle Tatlonghari, with alternates Vien King, Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, and Nica Tupas) and are also performed by their dance counterparts (Ronelson Yadao and Ejay Arisola, and Monica Gana and Katrene San Miguel).
“A lot of the ASEAN stories have narrators going in and out among the actors. I said, I’m going to try that. I’m going to try and mix the singers who are narrating with the dancers,” Reyes says of the unconventional configuration. “I always try to challenge myself as a choreographer.”
Karylle, who plays Sita, calls it “the multiverse,” and there is indeed the sense of two parallel worlds telling the same story, reflecting each other, one through song and the other through movement. Like the eclectic music, the choreography seamlessly fuses classical ballet and modern dance with traditional Asian gestures. Reyes continues to tweak the choreography in its current iteration, because, as she points out, dancers have different bodies. “Edna Vida [Reyes’ sister] did Soorpanakha [a demon] and she was just amazing. So it’s a challenge for someone to take on the role. You cannot try and do an Edna Vida.”
“That’s what makes it very rewarding for somebody like me,” Reyes continues. “When you see different people doing your work and putting in their own interpretation, their own phrasing, it’s quite lovely.”
There are dancers who have grown and journeyed with this ballet, like Katrene San Miguel, who plays Sita. “I make her tell her story to the whole cast, because some of the younger dancers we’re training have just graduated,” shares Reyes. The younger dancer started out as a ribbon girl in the 2012 production, and was supposed to play the part of the Golden Deer in 2020. This year, she portrays the female lead. Katrene was also one of the dancers affected by the pandemic who took part in the support program led by Reyes and the CCP.
“Rama, Hari is a production that dancers and singers alike dream to be cast in. It is a total immersion of Filipino creativity on all levels,” says Manahan. “Now who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?”
Rama, Hari will be performed at the Metropolitan Theater in Manila on September 15 and 16, and at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater on September 22 and 23. Tickets are available at Ticketworld.