Manila, August 4, 2003 By Dina Sta. Maria (STAR) Admittedly, DARNA defies neat categorizing. Ask the people at Ballet Philippines–which is staging this multi-million peso production (an insider hints that the budget for this one production alone amounts to "almost an entire regular season’s budget"–and you will get terms like "multi-media event", "multi-discipline dance-musical" or catchy phrases like "toe shoes and techno", "Ongpin en pointe", "diva contrabida with a bad hair lifetime".

Like the blind men describing the elephant, DARNA can perhaps best be described by its parts. It’s dance, of course: some ballet, some modern dance, some Philippine or ethnic movements. Choreographers Denisa Reyes and Alden Lugnasin, judging from their past works, have always tried to stretch the definition of dance, so the fact that they have put in movements from children’s games should come as no surprise. Most of the dancing will, of course, be done on the ground (i.e., the stage), but there will be a lot of action off the ground–in the air–as well.

The dancers flip and fly and walk on walls–"parang Matrix," someone ventures–with a system that borrows heavily from the sport of mountaineering. In fact, some of the "riggers" who act as counter-weights in the pendulum-like system (the riggers come down when the dancer needs to fly, and vice versa) are indeed mountaineers. The audience will be able to see how it’s all done, trusses and ropes and all, as the structures are deliberately not hidden in the wings.

The 50-year-old story of poor girl Narda transformed into super-heroine Darna gets a 21st century shot in the arm, via not just updated production values but a new stage treatment.

"Why Darna? We need somebody that we can identify as our own, something that everyone can easily relate to," says director and librettist Chris Millado. "This dance musical will re-introduce a 50-year-old super-heroine. Now she’s a contemporary character, still on the side of good. Most importantly, she’s Filipino."

Chris describes the production in terms of a recipe. He starts with an amulet, an agimat, which is the stone given to Narda by her Lola and which gives her the power to fly. But he points out that the amulet is only as potent as the person’s inner strength, and it is Narda’s lakas ng loob that makes her fly. "The search, the loss and the recuperation of the loob is what drives the narrative," he explains.

Chris then adds a dash of techno, danceclub music that manipulates everyday sounds and electronic beats. Taking a cue from the Indonesian tradition of wayang or shadow puppet, the dalang or master puppeteer is reincarnated as DJ Dalang (eventologist and society columnist Tim Yap and actor/singer JM Rodriguez alternate), who acts as de facto narrator. What would normally be behind-the-scenes work–the rigging, handling of props, etc.–is done in full view of the audience in "frames" that imitate a comic book, which is the very origin of DARNA (a historical overview of Mars Ravelo’s creation is on exhibit at the CCP for the duration of the show) . The audience sees the scenes being set up and the visual effects created as the comic book situations come to life within the frames. Some of the video images are triggered by specific soundbytes–Pak! Boom! and others–much like in the comic books.

The singing is done by Valentina (she has a haunting solo that, says Chin-chin Gutierrez who plays the role alternating with Tex Ordoñez, speaks of loneliness and longing and shows that she’s not all bad) and her Boy Toys, the bad guys of the production. But it’s going to be pretty hard to hate this bunch of contrabidas, wild and wacky in the most outrageous and colorful costumes inspired by ukay-ukay (surplus and second-hand clothes bought on the cheap). Explains Chris, "In a workshop production we held in Baguio, the dancers came back with crazy combinations of clothes found in the ukay-ukay. The costume designer (the extremely imaginative and talented Liz Batoctoy) adopted the silhouettes and colors in visualizing the ‘look’ of the costumes."

Ballet Philippines executive director Teresa Rances admits that embarking on such a major production is a big risk for the company. "For one thing, the money involved is significant," she says, in what must surely be an understatement. "We are going to do an extended run–30-plus shows over a two-and-a-half week period–and we have sold most of the shows, but production costs are enormous and sponsorships are not easy to get, considering the economic climate in the country today. But we’re committed to this production; our Trustees–especially our chairman Tonyboy Cojuangco and our president Maan Hontiveros–have been very supportive in many ways. Not once did they say it’s too expensive, don’t do it. And we’re really heartened by that."

The artistic efforts that went into the production have also been considerable. The entire process took over a year, "the way it really should be done," enthuses BP artistic director and choreographer Denisa Reyes, whose "baby" this is. There were planning workshops, of course, involving the artistic and production staff. The dancers of Ballet Philippines, among the best and most variedly trained, underwent workshops in aerial movement, gymnastics, balance, improvisation before even learning the actual choreography. Full production rehearsals have been the most intense the company has ever experienced, with a month at the Folk Arts Theater before two weeks on stage at the CCP Main Theater to get the aerial, floor and wall work together.

The show opened last Friday at a comics-themed gala. This early, there are negotiations for a national tour, as well as invitations for performances abroad. But right now, the show waits to be experienced by Manila audiences. And who knows, as Darna takes flight, Philippine theater could be soaring along with her to greater heights.

DARNA is on stage at the CCP daily except Mondays, 2 pm and 8 pm until August 17. Call Ballet Philippines at tel 551-1003 or 551-0221 for details.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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