Agnes Locsin’s perfect parallels between dance and reality

Sonny Locsin as the fire in “Elementos”

Much affected by the death of Pag-asa, the first Philippine eagle hatched and raised in captivity, choreographer Agnes Locsin produced a dance video, “Agila (Eagle).” It is an homage to the icon of hope and also a metaphor for the Filipino dancer’s creative expression. Like the wings of threatened eagles in confinement, that privilege has been clipped by the pandemic.

Locsin is a staunch advocate of the environment. In the past decade, most of her works and collaborations have been statements on nature—specifically, man’s misuse and abuse of it.

“Agila” is the execution of a choreographic idea based on awarded musician Jose “Joey” Lacambra Ayala’s song of the same title. The Davaoeño composer and Locsin are frequent collaborators.

“Agila” is one of her favorites. She first choreographed the song in the early 1980s as a tap dance, which was performed by her protégé Ernest Mandap. Through the years, she has used different dance idioms to interpret the song.

Locsin has always been fascinated by the national bird for its rarity and regal bearing. In 1988, she visited Philippine Eagle Foundation reserve in her home province of Davao to observe the eagles in their enclosures. It served as research for her “Dabaw,” a dance inspired by the legends of the local Bagobo tribe.

The eagles’ movements became the peg for the Minokawa monster who swallowed the sun and caused an eclipse. “Dabaw” was premiered at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Choreographer’s Showcase in 1988. Librettist Al Santos wove a metaphor for the eclipse and the horrors of martial law in Davao.

Agnes Locsin

Painful parallels

The latest version of “Agila” is a collaboration between choreographer Alden Lugnasin, dancer Kris-Belle Paclibar and videographer Jojo Mamangun. Ayala expanded the arrangement to include additional instrumentals.

Locsin’s directive to Lugnasin was, “I want your own movements, not mine.” She explains, “His first draft was too safe. ‘Give me your quirks!’ was my immediate reaction.”

The choreography highlights the eagle’s dignified movements and how it refuses to bow to external forces.

“Agila” was set to be filmed outdoors, but the lockdown that started in late March upended all plans. “I decided to include some indoor scenes instead,” says Locsin, “and draw a parallel between the dancer and the Philippine eagle.”

Pag-asa was bred via artificial insemination in an effort to preserve one of the world’s most endangered species. He lived in the reserve for nearly 29 years and died reportedly from “severe infections” in January.

“Eagles are meant to live in the wild, but they are not safe there because of the continued destruction of forests,” Locsin notes. “Or they are hunted and killed because they prey on fowl. A few have been captured and sent to the Philippine Eagle Foundation for rehabilitation.”

She compares this scenario to the situation of dancers who can no longer perform in public spaces. Since the pandemic, majority have been dancing in the cramped spaces of their homes.

Kris-Belle Paclibar in “Agila” —JOJO MAMANGUN

“Professional dancers like Kris-Belle have been cooped up for months. She is a mother, teacher and dancer who must now spend most of her time at home. She’s like one of those eagles in captivity who wants to fly.”

Locsin reveals that “Agila” is also a metaphor of her vexations with remote learning. The teacher and the students face technical issues, restricted spaces and the inadequacy of solely relying on verbal instructions.

“I get frustrated because the students can’t understand me,” she says. “That’s why I can’t imagine myself choreographing online. I need to touch the dancers and wring out the best from them. ‘Agila’ was drawn from my experience.”

Third lockdown baby

“Agila” is the newest addition to Locsin’s body of work on the environment. Since 2010, she has created a series inspired by parts of a tree and the impact of man’s ruthlessness on the environment.

The Locsin clan owns a huge property in Tugbok, Davao City. She inherited 1 hectare, which she is developing into a forest. With blessings from her siblings, she has planted trees as well on the adjacent lot owned by a late brother.

“I call the combined lots Santuario ng Puno (Tree Sanctuary). Initially, I planted hardwoods,” she says. “I knew that they would take a long time to grow so, meanwhile, I started choreographing the ‘Puno’ series. In any case, the property is too small for eagles.”

“Agila” is the third film that Locsin has produced during the pandemic. With “Lockdown 1.0,” she meant to create dance videos with spiritual themes. Dissatisfied with the poor quality of “quarantine videos” that she had earlier seen, she organized her own creative team, including Lugnasin and Biag Gaongen, former wards from Ballet Philippines. She has passed on the choreographer’s torch to Lugnasin and Gaongen, who edited “Bathala.’’

The song praises the Supreme, who created man with an intellect that built the world. Over time, greed and vice inflicted harm on everyone and everything. The song implores Him to save man and nature. Lugnasin, Gaongen and other dancers, who had worked with Locsin, performed portions of the work against a lush natural landscape. Now on YouTube, the video conveys the interplay of God, the soul and nature.

Biag Gaongen in “Dasal ni Santo Padre Pio”

Devotion to Padre Pio

Late last year, when a close friend was dying of cancer, Locsin produced “Dasal ni Santo Padre Pio (Prayer of St. Pio),” referring to the Italian priest famous for paranormal and healing powers and the stigmata of Christ (bloody lesions on the hands and feet similar to the wounds that Jesus suffered during the Crucifixion). Locsin has been enthralled by the mystic since her teen years, “fascinated” by his devotion and the stigmata.

“I was in college in the ’70s when I started to imagine this choreography,” she recalls. “It took 50 years to become a dance. My works usually have long incubation periods.”

Locsin fully exploits the camera medium and editing techniques to capture the expression and intensity of Padre Pio’s contemplation. Lugnasin’s choreography evokes the priest’s immersion in the Passion of Christ.

Playing the title role, Gaongen renders the anguish of the world with restraint. Ayala’s scoring, which features a chanting of the “Hail Mary” in Tagalog, echoes devotees’ pleas for God to fill the emptiness in their hearts.

Ideas and memories surface from her subconscious mind in times of isolation, Locsin confesses. She says the lockdown made her face past creative urges that were previously repressed.

“I’ve been productive this whole time,” she declares with undisguised satisfaction. She runs the 74-year-old Locsin Dance Workshop (LDW), the country’s oldest dance school, founded by her late mother Carmen, with the help of Gaongen and Lugnasin and a trusted faculty.

As in other dance schools, classes have all been conducted online lately. LDW is currently filming its third virtual recital, “The Little Prince,” based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It will be premiered on June 13 on YouTube.

Physical setback

Locsin gets along famously with her creative team mainly because, she says, they can second-guess her. “All I have to do is conceptualize, explore, delegate and then monitor closely.”

The only setback is physical weakness from her cancer medication. In late 2015, Locsin was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. After a lumpectomy and four sessions of chemotherapy in 2016, she underwent postchemo hormonal treatment, which left her nearly immobilized.

Fortunately, Lugnasin and Gaongen relocated to Davao to help her out with the dance school.

Dosage was subsequently reduced, but the medication cycle should be completed by December this year.

“After this, I can be legally called a survivor,” she declares.

Despite chronic fatigue, Locsin continued to direct and produce recitals and special shows, such as LDW’s 70th anniversary spectacular and “Elementos,” a 2019 satire on how the Davaoeños were impacted by their own disrespect of nature. The performers were Locsin’s students, alongside Paclibar, Gaongen and her Germany-based nephew Sonny Locsin.

It’s not just her mother’s legacy in dance that she’s nurturing, Locsin says, chuckling. “Now it’s the culinary legacy as well.”

Like many Pinoys in the past year, she has started a business of food made from heirloom recipes. Her mother’s kitchen assistant, Gigi, has been recreating the most popular dishes. Although Locsin herself does not cook, she remembers exactly how everything should taste according to her mother’s standards, and expertly supervises Gigi.

The galantina, rellenong bangus, sardinas na bangus and tortang talong (loaded with ground beef), bilong-bilong and pancit molo in Davao are famous because no shortcuts are taken when cooking these dishes, she says.

And then, without warning, she guffaws and declares, “Nagutom na tuloy ako (that made me hungry).” —CONTRIBUTED INQ