Rama, Hari: The masterpiece that binds our National Artists to the next generation

First hailed in 1980, the rock opera ballet is reborn to a full house

Ronelson Yadao, Monica Gana, Arman Ferrer, and Shiela Valderrama-Martinez in Alice Reyes’ Rama, Hari (Photo by Axl Guinto)

The cast of Alice Reyes’ Rama, Hari (Photo by Jaypee Maristaza)

I’d just like to make it clear that I’m no authority on the art of dance, especially ballet. Arabesque is the only ballet term I know of. When I see a live performance, my opinion of it is just as worthy as that of the person sitting next to me.

 But I also tend to recall a certain scene in the movie, Black Swan—the artistic director played by Vincent Cassel is coaching the ballerina (Natalie Portman) during rehearsals. He relentlessly coaxes her to forget momentarily about technique. He urges her to try to “lose yourself” and “seduce the court, seduce the audience,” and that perfection is not just about control, it’s also about letting go. He exclaims, “Surprise yourself and you surprise the audience.”

 I try to look for that quality he covets in his ballerina in every ballet I see. From the productions I’ve seen on YouTube, the dancers of the New York City Ballet have that trait in spades.

Last week, I saw that same quality in the dancers of Rama, Hari, which is being restaged by National Artist Alice Reyes and the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines—at The Met the past two weekends, and this Friday to Sunday at the Samsung Theater.

Rama, Hari is more just a ballet; it’s also a rock opera.   Just think of it as a fusion of both. The songs sort of serve as a verbal translation of the dance. For each of the main characters, the cast has two performers—the dancer and the singer.  While I thought that Rama, Hari could suffice as ballet, I learned it was conceived and staged in 1980 as a tribute to OPM, which was enjoying its golden age. The songs do make it easier for us to follow the plot.

First staged by  Ms. Reyes when she was  artistic director and founder of Ballet Philippines, Rama, Hari was hailed as a masterpiece—a product of the milestone collaboration of Alice Reyes (ballet choreography), Ryan Cayabyab (music and song score), Bienvenido Lumbrera, (libretto), Salvador Bernal (set and costume design), and Rolando Tinio, who penned the English translation. This quintet could well comprise the Mt. Rushmore of Philippine arts. Each of them has been named National Artist.

Toma Cayabyab, son of Ryan Cayabyab, conducts the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth.

Rama, Hari also saw the birth of two major artists—the show’s leading lady Kuh Ledesma and composer Ryan Cayabyab.  Rama, Hari is Cayabyab’s crowning achievement. His music deftly blends the exotic rhythms of ancient Asian cultures with contemporary rock music. And today, more than four decades later, through good times and bum times, the music he composed of Rama, Hari proves to be contemporary, even timeless.

 A brief look at the bum times: Ms. Reyes had retired as artistic director of Ballet Philippines but she didn’t quit ballet. Because of the recent pandemic, several dancers lost their livelihood. It was all up to Ms. Reyes to form a new company, now the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines.  It became the refuge for most of the dancers who were under her tutelage at Ballet Philippines and a few others from other ballet companies.  They earned a living by holding dance workshops online. Fundraising  was also done to prevent the talented dancers from dropping out, if not starving.

With the pandemic now relegated to history, live theater performances have staged an enormous comeback. The company of Ms. Reyes isn’t about to be left out.  It has since produced two original shows, Puso ng Pasko and Encantada. Rama, Hari is the company’s third production.

Presented by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the NCAA, Rama, Hari is based on the Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana. The plot and the setting do make ideal material for ballet. It has a prince and a princess, witches, a magical golden deer, and an army of monkeys who help our hero defeat the villains.

The first act introduces the main characters; Rama the Crown Prince and his wife Sita. The list includes a jealous stepmother who wants her own son to take the crown. Shades of the Broadway musical Pippin are evident, both in the plot and the music. Both were, after all, were byproducts of the 1970s and so they offer similar rock and roll rhythms that have the pure distinctive 1970s flavor.

Monica Gana as Sita (Photo by Nina Sandejas)

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Monica Gana as Sita  (Photo by Erica Jacinto)

The first act centers on the dastardly machinations of the villains and the romance between Rama and Sita.  The situations pave the way for Cayabyab’s music to soar and to showcase the artistry of the dancers and singers. The best is yet to come in the second act, when Rama and Sita live in exile away from their kingdom and begin a life in the forest.  They’re confronted by the demon Ravana, and his sister Soorpanakha. At this point, audiences are treated to one show-stopping number after another. It starts with Ravana (sung by Mathew San Jose) singing his campy, amusing song, Bulok Ako. It’s the villains who are usually given the enjoyable tunes.

Mathew San Jose, Ronelson Yadao, Monica Gana, Arman Ferrer, and Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (Photo by Erica Jacinto)

Not to be outdone is Ravana’s Maleficent-like sister Soorpanakha, who makes her presence known in a spirited rock and roll danced by Ma. Celina Dofitas. She and dancer Erl Sorilla (as Rama’s brother Lakshmana) almost steal the show as they gyrate to the rousing pop rock music during the confrontation between good and evil. Ms. Dofitas and the nimble Mr. Sorilla also stand out when they’re dancing with the rest.  Both sell it to the audience without sacrificing elegance and grace. They do have the transcendence and that “letting go” ability mentioned in Black Swan.

The entire dance ensemble also has it. They’re all lithe and never cluttered in their movements. In other ballet companies, I’ve noticed how perfect the performers are to the point that they seem like they’re counting to the beat of the music. In contrast, these dancers of Ms. Alice Reyes make it look so spontaneous and fluid.  They’re perfect yet they don’t make it look they’ve been rehearsing this for months. The performance always looks fresh and captivating. The jubilant performance is a testament to Ms. Reyes’ artistry.

Just when we thought we’ve seen all the highlights, the battle between the monkey soldiers and Ravana’s warriors happens.  It’s the 11th hour musical number, and 11th hour numbers are supposed to bring the house down. With the monkeys portrayed by the students and dance instructors of Guan Ming College in Malate, Manila, this battle scene just does that—brings the house down (figuratively, of course). These kids possess the energy of Olympic athletes, and they perform Ms. Reyes’ electrifying choreography with so much spark and élan. Apparently, all that youthful energy they had pent-up during the lockdowns are now being put to good use.

The singers were also flawless and stay in character as they give it their all. Many of our musicals tend to feel more like concerts and less like theater, when it comes to performing solo numbers. Sheila Valderama-Martinez as Sita is especially moving when she does the iconic Magbalik Ka Na Mahal—the song that has become the signature of Kuh Ledesma. Her sweet melodious voice, even as it hits the high notes, is soul-stirring as Sita pines for her love.

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (Photo by Axl Guinto)

The male lead singer, Arman Ferrer, is also a great performer, though every entrance he makes always seems like a grandiose Second Coming. Ronelson Yadao makes up for such posturing.

Rama, Hari today is both a masterpiece by five great National Artists and a showcase of the artistry of our younger performers.  Even the orchestra is composed of young musicians, all members of the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth, conducted by Ryan Cayabyab’s offspring, Toma Cayabyab. This show does easily inspire confidence in our next generation of performing artists.

Rama, Hari moves to a new venue this weekend at the Samsung Theater in Ayala Circuit Mall.

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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