Lugnasin Makes a Masterpiece with Pusong Wagas

Ballet Philippines
Choreography by Alden Lugnasin
Libretto by Nicolas Pichay
Music by Cynthia Alexander
February 18, 2012
Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, Cultural Center of the Philippines
Pasay City

The city of Mandaluyong will have us believe that they unearthed an ancient, lesser known tale of a Princess Manda and her husband Luyong, who died because their King succumbed to material and industrial greed, giving the city a tributary name and, perhaps, originating the term "daluyong" (flow). As strange as it may sound from the onset, Nicolas Pichay, Cynthia Alexander and Alden Lugnasin breathe life into this tale, giving Pusong Wagas a lot of, well, heart. 

The story is set in the past, but Pichay and Lugnasin inject modern-day elements to this ancient "alamat." (In reverse, perhaps, Alexander's music is driven by native percussions and beats, to give the music a more indigenous feel). The most modern include outfitting some dancers in beer house gear (p*kp*k shorts and stilletos for the women, leather jackets and ripped jeans for the men); these dancers are the series of temptations that Manda's father Datu Katapang throws in the way of his future son-in-law. More important is his using a pair of sunglasses as Katapang's downfall. (Of course! An entire city's destruction at the price of Rayban's!) While the rest of the cast is wearing outfits you've seen only in your grade school textbooks, the main villain Estranghero is in black leather and silver. The juxtaposition of traditional-as-good with modern-as-evil would feel out of place if you do not consider how the history of Mandaluyong rings true - the industrial development of the city contributed to the problematic sewage system, aggravating the floods. One only has to look at the factories that line the banks of the Pasig River to get the correlation.

The things I wished for while watching Lugnasin's partial epic, Ulaging (Daogdog sa Sanlibong Kulog), which was featured in the 2009 Neo Filipino during the Hineline-Luna years, were all addressed here. Lugnasin needed the full-length format to tell his story adequately and each character was properly introduced and given enough exposure for the audience to either genuinely love or hate them. Ulaging and Pusong Wagas are both proportioned as epic, and the latter is fortunate to be allowed the proper pacing. 

It was also allowed proper spacing. Both were staged in the Little Theater, but there's much less set design in Pusong Wagas. Ulaging was just overcrowded with setting. In the telling of the legend of Mandaluyong, elevated ramps transform the landscape while the company dancers embellish as needed, at times becoming part of the sets themselves. 

The device wherein the corps dancers transform easily from townspeople to trees to creatures of the forest alludes to Lugnasin's mentor, Agnes Locsin, in her Encantada and Hinilawod. Still, there is a distinct difference, and not just in changing dancer gender to portray a flood. Lugnasin's choreographic voice has evolved over the years, but you can recognize that sense of being in the present that pervade all his works. It's almost as if the dance knows it is being watched, and behaves accordingly. Every movement is something to look at, as opposed to Locsin's every movement has a meaning. Lugnasin doesn't really provide meaning, but he does make you look.

This, how he composes his movement sequences, is all very Lugnasin-esque, going places you rarely expect, and showing off how awesome his dancers are. Not just his leads, but everyone - the corps work was particularly exhilarating during the wedding (you wanted to stand up and join in the dancing, and proclaim how they must live happily for the rest of their lives and have a city named after them!) and arresting during Tubig. 

His supporting cast is as compelling as his main protagonists; you could even say that the dancing is evenly distributed between the hero, the villain and the king. I actually feel that Luyong should have more dancing beyond supporting his princess Manda. I saw Richardson Yadao, and loved his opening solo so much that I yearned for him to solo again. 

I also adored Marvin Arizo's portrayal of Haring Katapang, so heroic and kingly in the beginning, with a necessary arrogance that moves the plot forward. It is only right that the end has him center stage, in despair over the loss of his daughter and once-resplendent kingdom. Marvin has an undeniable presence that BP should always capitalize on, and I'm hoping to see him in more featured roles in the future. 

Katherine Trofeo alternated with Carissa Adea as Manda (I saw Trofeo) and Anino ng Buwan (Moonshadow, Adea). It would seem that while one is the protector/liberator of the other, there is not much difference between the two, dancing wise, which may signify a deeper relationship and may explain why the moon favors her. Manda is best shown off when partnered by Luyong, though I would have wanted to see her more of an independent character than just someone's wife or daughter. 

Lugnasin makes it difficult to hate his villains. The red-dressed alien-like monsters in 2009's Ulaging were at the time, the tallest, most handsome, most mestizo in Ballet Philippines history, but led by the tiny kayumanggi Lucky Vicentino, who was given amazing stunts to show everyone who was boss, and why. Was reminded of that irony as the light shone on Philip Rocamora, a beard marring his usual baby face. This leather-clad motorcycle thug still wowed with his supple leg extensions and clean lines, still asserting his machismo with a duplicitous swagger. This is how he overcomes our protagonists, and we are convinced of his powers, as we know both Luyong and Katapang can definitely take him on, and even Princess Manda is drawn to his "shiny things."

All these said, it is still Luyong and Manda who are the heroes of this story, and it is indeed heartwrenching when they are killed in the flood. Lugnasin's male ensemble serving as flood waters is brilliant (though better costuming would be appreciated). The movements recall water, but their being human is still very much evident - I see this as this flood was made by men, this water flows because the bodies of these men have allowed it. 

And then, suddenly, at the moment when Manda and Luyong die, there is calm in the waves. A light sparkles between the previously violent current of bodies, who are now unmoving, to return focus to Manda and Luyong. They look at each other in this stillness, and even almost smile. Manda somehow realizes what has happened to them and starts to panic, but Luyong cradles her and comforts her and convinces her that it will all be alright. 

It is this clarity in Lugnasin's choreography that has made this story great, and if the only way to end is with such a tragic inevitability, that moment of clarity is a gift. In the retelling of the origin of the city of Mandaluyong, Alden Lugnasin was given a story to tell. He made it epic. - Joelle Jacinto


Photo by Paul Morales

For more on Ballet Philippines, visit them online at