The search for ‘Sabel’

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KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

Sabel, Love And Passion was a strange creature of a production for sure—and probably on purpose. It was not quite musical theater, nor was it concert; not a dance performance, nor a monologue. But it did have all these elements combined, plus images of National Artist for Visual Arts Ben Cabrera’s famous muse Sabel—images that were at the core of this production’s existence.

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On genre-bending
Yet one always enters the theater open to the possibility of being surprised. And a production that wants to bring to life a woman we only know through images can only be pregnant with possibilities.

And for the first 30 minutes of the show one accepted Sabel for what it was—whatever it was. It might have had much to do with the fact that this time was spent introducing the form of this production.

‘Iza as Sabel’ by National Artist BenCab

‘Iza as Sabel’ by National Artist BenCab

Sabel begins with Iza Calzado (older Sabel) delivering a monologue about her own life, introducing dance as a critical part of her parents’ lives, as it would become integral to her relationship with her father. This effectively rationalized the decision to have the Philippine Ballet Theater create the historical milieus that dictated upon Sabel’s life—alongside the use of projectors that would flash images on uneven panels that stood as the stage’s backdrop.

And it still made sense when there was a dancer-Sabel, who the narrator-Sabel would relate to as the narrative progressed, watching her, crying with her, re-enacting certain moments and emotions with her. Two Sabels as one.

But also there was the singing-Sabel (Aicelle Santos), which happened in the climactic moments in Sabel’s life. And at that point the material became unwieldy, if not uncertain about what it sought to do. Because to have three Sabels, one narrating, one dancing, one singing, was confusing to say the least, but also as the show wore on, it became unnecessary.

Because why couldn’t one actress do the dancing, singing, narration? Why couldn’t we just give this to someone like Santos for example, who has been slowly but surely proving her theatrical mettle?

An aside: on the night that I watched Sabel, I saw KC Concepcion walk in and halfway through the show I realized she would’ve been perfect as Sabel, who sings and dances and acts, so that she might tell this story of one woman’s struggle and survival, a complex story for sure based as it is on the mysterious Sabel from BenCab’s canvasses. End of aside.

Simplified Sabel
Which is to say of course that Calzado, while competent, was not quite given enough to sink her teeth into.

That might be said as well about the audience. What was it that we were suppose to gain from watching this story of a woman whose personal history had transformed her into crazed woman, homeless and dancing on our streets? What was it about Sabel that made her a curious sight, enough to become muse and subject of an artist’s body of work?

The fact that this was soap opera material was no problem; it was that it is soap opera that we’ve seen countless times before, and it failed to register as a unique story that is bound to the distinct imagination of Sabel, the BenCab muse. In fact it seemed like the most simplistic story that could be done on Sabel ever, a modern—not modernized—version of Jose Rizal’s Sisa.

It didn’t help that the production was in English, a language that one does not quite imagine Sabel speaking—Filipina as she is, living on the street as she does. Neither did it help that the English itself was uncanny in its construction and diction, not at all like the English in the Louie Ocampo-Freddie Santos songs that were part of the production. Nor is this an English that we use as Filipinos.

There was an effort, it seems, at being more poetic in the writing of the monologue and narration, and one could not help but wish that they had hired a more competent writer to do this script.

Not that better English would’ve saved it. Because the story itself lacked imagination, its reading of Sabel simplistic and superficial. This woman was a fascinating muse because she was mysterious but powerful, her sadness and joy interwoven into her movements, her body proof of struggle and survival.

In the first 20 minutes of this production it was said that Sabel became angry and vengeful, and there was a pretty solid dance (choreography by Ronilo Jaynario) to prove it, too. I was hopeful then that the writer (book and lyrics by Freddie Santos) had a reading of Sabel that was unique, a story that would not fall into the archetypes that we know of being woman in this country.

But soon after the angry and vengeful Sabel, she started dancing in a cabaret, and met a man. Apparently that was enough to make her forget having been comfort woman to Japanese soldiers; it was enough to make her forget revenge. It was downhill from there.

Another disappointment was choreography that did not make Sabel dance into her madness. Instead the ballerina was left to do good ol’ Sisa acting, it was unimaginative to say the least.
#bencab50

The program for Sabel, Love and Passion includes a calendar of events and exhibitions to celebrate BenCab’s 50th year. Sabel of course stands front and center of this celebration, not just via this production, but also as part of the BenCab-inspired line of clothes from Freeway. Sabel also begins and ends the series of activities with the donation of eight Sabel sculptures to the University of the Philippines in February, to a Sabel & Larawan exhibit at the National Museum opening in December.

It is a surprise therefore that in this production, Sabel’s story was sacrificed for the spectacle that was singing, and dancing, and a popular actress doing narration. It felt like a sacrifice because it did not do justice to BenCab’s body of work on Sabel. There was no power in the Sabel we saw performing on stage, there was no vigor. There was no complexity or depth. What was on stage was genre-bending gone awry, an effort at melding together a dance and a monologue, a theatrical production and a concert—an effort that failed.

One wonders what BenCab thought and how much control he had over Sabel, Love and Passion. From where I sat though, it was unimaginative and unwieldy, and seemed inconsequential to the celebration of the 50 years of a National Artist.

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