Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Why Alice Reyes’ Carmina Burana must be watched live

The National Artist is ‘always working on a piece.’ See how the collaboration of ARDP dancers, PPO, Philippine Madrigal Singers, and Salvador Bernal melds into grand production

Athleticism and grace meet in 'Carmina Burana.' (Image by Erica Jacinto)

Salvador Bernal’s original costume design of emerald tights and long skirts evokes springtime. (Image by Jojo Mamangun)

The thrill of love takes center stage in Alice Reyes” “Carmina Burana.” (Image by Jojo Mamangun)

Alice Reyes: She found Carl Orff’s three-act cantata ‘deliciously challenging.’ (Photo by Noel Poblete)

The Alice Reyes Dance Philippines (ARDP) presents ‘Carmina Burana’ on June 14 and 15, 2024 at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater at Circuit Makati.

“I am not into social media. They know more about it,” says Alice Reyes, her hand motioning towards her colleagues seated around the enormous work table. We are at the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines (ARDP) headquarters at Metropolitan Theater in Manila.

Alice Reyes, with ARDP’s PR and marketing officer Ivan Castronuevo, flips through pages of coffeetable book for pictures on the set design of ‘Carmina Burana.’ (Photo by Liana Garcellano)

She is scrolling through stuff on her mobile phone, looking for the interview questions I sent earlier. Sensing her growing frustration, Ivan Castronuevo, ARDP’s PR and marketing officer and retired dancer, sidles up to the National Artist, the dame of Philippine ballet, and, within seconds, locates the questions for her.

Alice Reyes’ ‘Carmina Burana’ staged during ARDP Visayan tour 2023 (Photo by Arcie Cola)

“Thanks to YouTube, everyone is exposed to the ballet Carmina Burana, but nothing beats watching it in a local theater with the skilled dancers, the talented Philippine Madrigal Singers,” says Reyes, who formed ARDP in the midst of the pandemic.

A ballet is like a play; its essence is best enjoyed when experienced up close and personal. A recorded version pales in comparison to a live performance that fully displays the skill and brilliance of everyone involved in the production.

“All dance performances are live. You have a live orchestra. For example, Rama Hari was done with the Manila Symphony Orchestra. It’s not a recording,” Reyes says.

She can’t emphasize enough the importance of being in the theater to see first-hand how the collaborative work of the “community of dancers, musicians, singers, and visual designers” melds into one grand, seamless production. She hopes that ballet enthusiasts and the curious will do just that when ARDP presents her Carmina Burana on June 14 and 15 at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater at Circuit Makati.

The ballet was last staged in 2022 in Pulso Pilipinas II, a tribute to Alice Reyes and Agnes Locsin at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

Carmina Burana premiered in 1974 and, from Reyes’ repertoire of ballets, has since been called an iconic piece—an accolade that she accepts graciously yet not entirely, pointing out that the viewpoint isn’t national and that she has other pieces that have been called iconic.

As she sees it, Carmina Burana is a major piece that “speaks of international emotions and states of mind, and reflects the period that composer Carl Orff was ‘writing’ about.” She will not use the term “trademark,” either, to describe the ballet because it connotes a finality.

In contrast, her works are continuing because, as she explains, “I choreograph for myself, for what the company needs,” and the wonderful opportunity presented to her for collaborations, such as with the Philippine Madrigal Singers and a live orchestra.

Reyes remarks, “I am the type who’s always working on the piece.”

Her choice of Orff’s dramatic scenic cantata titled Carmina Burana was not random. It was born out of great admiration for the German composer whom some would have avoided, given the powerful percussion and repetitive rhythm of his work. But not Reyes, who found Orff’s three-act cantata deliciously challenging. In an interview in 2018, she described it as “one of the most powerful pieces written.”

‘I choose pieces based on opportunity and challenge, to develop myself as a craftsman of movement,’ says Reyes

“Sometimes the work is massive and grand that you should just listen to the music,” Reyes says. “But I choose pieces based on opportunity and challenge, to develop myself as a craftsman of movement.”

With the composition’s magnitude in mind, she embraced Carmina Burana wholeheartedly, transforming the cantata into a 45-minute dance—with the same title—about “a community experiencing the joys of life, drinking, and love through exuberant, erotic, and pagan movements smoothly transitioning to spiritual, sublime and divine climax,” according to ARDP’s YouTube clip description of the ballet.

She adds, “It begins with O Fortuna and ends with O Fortuna.” (O Fortuna is a movement in the cantata that begins the opening and closing sections, both titled Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi or Empress of the World.)

‘(Orff’s music) power becomes clearer when it’s juxtaposed against a kundiman’ 

For the uninitiated, “Orff’s music is tremendous, with the full orchestra and boys’ choir,” Reyes puts it. Its power becomes clearer when it’s juxtaposed against a kundiman (a classic Filipino love song) and piano concerto, which are labeled as “soft” music.

O Fortuna might sound familiar. It was featured in the 1981 film Excalibur and then in the 2009 Disney movie G-Force, said phoenixchorale.org. Likewise, hilariously but sacrilegiously, the cantata was overlaid with lyrics—”Gopher tuna! Bring more tuna! Statue of big dog fleas, some men like cheese”—in O Fortuna Misheard Lyrics, a video posted by FamishedMammal in YouTube.

The cantata is based on Codex Buranus, a collection of poems of “lust, eroticism, drinking and gambling, and decadent descriptions of church leaders” written by the Goliards that date back to the 11th to the 13th centuries, according to performingarts.nd.edu.

The codex was discovered in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria (now Germany), but Orff stumbled upon it in a store offering used books.

During the Middle Ages, the Goliards were the second- and third-born sons of aristocratic families who were sent to the monasteries to lead religious lives. They were expected to train as scholars and clergy to secure their future financial wellbeing. However, these young clerks were bored with their ascetic lives; to alleviate their frustrations, they wrote satiric, ribald poetry about the Church.

Reyes is in the thick of preparing ARDP’s 18 dancers and seven trainee-dancers for the shows in June, clocking in eight hours of rehearsals—with an hour-long break—from Tuesdays to Saturdays at the Metropolitan Theater.

Currently, she’s faced with the lack of an orchestra pit at the Samsung Theater. (The CCP, where the 1974 and 2022 productions of Carmina Burana were staged, has a commodious pit that easily fits a full orchestra. But the CCP is under renovation.)

“The first time Carmina Burana was performed, the dancers danced in front of the orchestra. The set design was done by the late National Artist for Theater and Design Salvador Bernal. The sets moved as the dance piece developed. The moving sets provided localities to the different parts of the choreography,” Reyes recalls.

But she is unfazed by the absence, relishing the challenge of overcoming the differences in theater and space. “Performances are always different,” she says.

Reyes’ positivity is bolstered by her faith and pride in her dancers who have “taken to Carmina Burana beautifully.” The dancers follow her choreography to the letter, unless she herself makes adjustments to the movements, tailoring these to their strengths. She is, after all, a choreographer and not a mere regisseur, or someone tasked to mount a ballet.

Reyes’ positivity is bolstered by her faith and pride in her dancers who have ‘taken to Carmina Burana beautifully’

“Generally, there’s no reinterpretation of my works by other choreographers, unless I tell them. You get someone who will be true to the work,” she says.

Recently, her dancers made her proud with their performance at the International Dance Day Fest on April 24-28 at Samsung Theater. ARDP performed After Whom by Augustus “Bam” Damian III, enthralling someone from the audience who texted Reyes a flash rave review of the dancers’ electric energy, a performance that enhanced the good choreography, and how they could “represent our country on any international stage.”

“ARDP is a strong company,” declares Reyes, her eyes glinting with pride.

The National Artist may hold the cardinal rule of no one in the ballet world touching her works without her say-so, but she isn’t one to dictate how people should watch or feel about Carmina Burana. She’s leaving everything to them since “everyone who watches it will come out with their own take.”

“Reading” the minute-long YouTube video of Carmina Burana as a text, I noted that the movements reminded me of American dancer-choreographer Martha Graham’s techniques, i.e., bare feet, falling, spiraling, and hand movements, connoting a sense of freedom from restrictions. To my mind, it was an homage to feminism, with the fluidity of the movements versus being ramrod straight and the synopsis line of “experiencing the joys of love through exuberant, erotic, and pagan movements.” Reyes seems to have braved the tides of conservatism vis-à-vis women’s sexuality—a taboo topic in Philippine society—and the word “erotic” that usually takes on a salacious turn in relation to Filipino women. Meanwhile, the word “pagan” is a throwback to the time of the babaylan, when womanhood and worship were not rigidly controlled by the Spanish friars.

Tellingly, my reading is at polar opposites with Reyes’, who looks seriously intrigued by my take on her work.

She clarifies that “Carmina Burana is a strongly masculine piece. I have other pieces that are pro- women and I enjoy working on pieces that show the empowering of women.”

The interview becomes a forum as choreographer and interviewer exchange views. For example, Salvador Bernal’s set design of a “central cauldron that billows with smoke and fire and with rock formations on both sides” is not what I thought of—a symbol of paganism that takes off from the three witches of Macbeth. Apparently, Bernal and Reyes envisioned the cauldron as an emblem of a life-giving force (a.k.a. fire), thus encapsulating the thematic point of community that, Reyes points out, “we’re losing.”

But I am not that off-kilter on the ballet reclaiming sensuality. Reyes sets the record straight, saying, “Men were dominant. Women were sexy and gave in to their sexual desires and sensuality. It’s a celebration of sensuality, then called back to the communal scene.”

She then debunks what Google Arts and Culture said about her works being nuanced with Filipino culture, gesture, and grace. On the contrary, of all her ballets, Carmina Burana doesn’t touch on Filipino folktales, mythology, or themes.

“I was true to Orff’s music, to the period of the piece,” she says. “Some other choreographers might have. If I wanted to “Filipinize,’ I’d do a Filipino version of the Nutcracker because Christmas is universal.”

It’s been a while since I’d been to the ballet. Edna Vida’s Firebird is the last live ballet I watched. One could only be amazed at Vida’s elegance and prowess, gliding across the stage like a bird in flight and pirouetting on her pointe shoes—the plumes of her red-gold headdress whirling—after her transformation into the firebird.

“You’re lucky to have watched Edna dance. They haven’t,” says Reyes of her dancers, whose interactions with their talented, passionate mentor are confined to the dance studio.

There’s no other way to enjoy the ballet except in the theater, as Reyes has emphasized throughout our tête-à-tête. It’s ain the theater where you feel the intensity of dancers’ energy and passion, marvel at lithe athleticism, and get swept away by the dance’s narrative.

The artistry behind Carmina Burana demands to be seen live, and there’ll be no ifs or buts about it. The experience goes both ways. The dancers give their all before a live audience, while the latter witnesses true masters of dance at work, and how sensuality is transformed from cantata to stage by Reyes and her community of artists.

For tickets, contact Andre Cruz at Mobile 0967)153-6173 or email: [email protected].

About author

Articles

She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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