Revisiting ‘Rama, Hari’

Rina Angela Corpus
A review of Ballet Philippines' biggest production this year

STAYING TRUE TO DHARMA. Christian Bautista (Rama) and Karylle Tatlonghari (Sita) were among the stars of Ballet Philippines' 'Rama Hari.' Image from the Ballet Philippines Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – Thirty-two years after its premiere at the CCP, Rama, Hari was restaged in its 4th incarnation as a ballet-musical with the collaboration of Alice Reyes’ direction and choreography, Bienvenido Lumbera’s libretto, Salvador Bernal’s set design and Ryan Cayabyab’s composition.

Watching this rich showcase of artistic talents enacting the classic Indian epic Ramayana — which is the biggest of Ballet Philippines’ shows this season — reminds us of how traditional arts in Asia were mainly a communal and collaborative event of various creative practitioners. It also reminds us of the Philippines’ deep connection with ancient India — given that 25% of Tagalog words are Sanskrit terms, among other cultural influences.

But more than an epic, the Ramayana itself has been considered an allegorical tale of humanity’s journey from divinity to degradation and back to its original state of goodness again. Rama represents the eternal divine, the higher being, the Beloved of every human soul. Sita, in turn, symbolizes the human soul, the eternal lover of life who can ultimately find rest when reunited in the arms of her Beloved.

Sita’s abduction by the evil Ravan has been read as man’s attraction to the temptations of the physical senses that lead to vices, making the human being identify with matter, a movement away from his innate divinity and spirituality. And finally, the reunion of Sita and Rama is the conquest of man’s lower urges as he seeks to return to that original self and his divine Source, enacted by Rama’s impassioned rescuing of Sita. 

In fact, Rama and Sita are both held as models of Hindu virtue, as neither considered betraying their dharma, or righteous duty, throughout their journey.

Pop singer Christian Bautista, with his dashing charisma, gave life to the hero Rama, believed to be the incarnation of the god Vishnu; while Sita, Rama’s faithful wife, was played by Karylle. Ballet Philippines principal dancers JM Cordero and Katherine Trofeo played Rama and Sita, respectively, mirroring the lovers’ emotions through dance.

The live music played by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra and the background vocals of the UP Concert Chorus provided a vibrant aural dimension to the theatrical feast, while English subtitles of the Tagalog lyrics were flashed on a hanging horizontal screen. 

The minimalist but rich set design allowed for many characters to move amply about the stage. Especially worth mentioning were the hand-held trees, ornately set with organic swirls of gold, which were used to evoke Rama’s exile into the forest. The white staircase as the main set became a marker for royal events, and became the fixture for Rama and Sita’s story of love, faithfulness and victory.

Watch this video of a ‘Rama, Hari’ rehearsal:

Alice Reyes’ choreography fused modern ballet with Indian/Asian movements, though largely the former, leaving us wanting for a richer exploration of our earthbound indigenous movements that link us closely to our Indian-Javanese heritage. But dancers were nevertheless lyrical, such as Trofeo and her alternate Carissa Adea as Sita.

And in contrast, dancers were also engagingly comic, especially Rita Winder as Soorpanakha, Ravan’s devil-sister, who was hilariously witty with her expansive, expressive movements, mimicking her failed attempts at avarice and seduction, revealing how acting is at the very heart of dance artistry.

The wacky portrayal of the monkey army of Hanuman sent the audience laughing, their balletic emboîté (steps where legs spring up) were rendered so flippantly. This was amplified by the vocals provided by the UP Concert Chorus mimicking the sounds of our friendly and heroic apes, making it a wholesome treat for both kids and the kids-at-heart. 

Brezhnev Larlar, formerly a ballet master from Cavite, surprised the audience for his vocal prowess and stage presence as Hanuman, Rama’s endearing monkey-friend.

The shadow play, an ancient Asian art form of storytelling, was also briefly appropriated in the final battle between Rama and Ravan. It was a short moment that could have been lengthened and made more dramatic, so that it could closely evoke the intricate wayang kulit (shadow artistry) of our Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia.

However, Lumbera’s poetic lyrics from the reprise “Awit ng Pagsinta,” was enchantingly memorable, akin to the kundiman, capturing humanity’s universal aspiration for a pure, altruistic kind of love as shared by Rama and Sita: Bango ng tsampaka. Awit ng pasginta, nalimbag sa alaala, ingatan mo sana. 

Despite the small setbacks, the spirited performers brought a fulsome life to the well-loved epic that has embodied humanity’s shared values surrounding faithfulness, love and the victory of divine justice over evil. Fittingly, the audience gave a profuse standing ovation after the performers’ all-out performance.

Amidst the onslaught of social ills that continue to beset the country, Ramayana’s story still has the power to remind us that the good is not only necessary to human life — it is our innate and original state, especially to those who, like Rama and Sita, have the courage to live by its enduring wisdom. –

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