Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company

The spirit of bayanihan—the ancient Filipino tradition of cooperative effort for the common good—infuses the work of the Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company, which brings its vibrant national dance and musical heritage to Zellerbach Hall on Friday, September 24, at 8:00 p.m. The 25 dancers are accompanied by eight musicians playing traditional Filipino and western stringed and percussive instruments. The four-decade-old company will stage dances representing the many rhythmic and colorful traditions of the Philippines, transforming them into a “a collection of glossy souvenirs” (Los Angeles Times). In several suites of dances, the troupe, lead by Suzie Moya Benitex and musical director Lucrecia R. Kasilag, will showcase religious dances, tell tales of ancient struggle and creation, celebrate the waters that surround and replenish the land, reenact grand Filipino traditions, pay tribute to a beloved national artist, and depict the struggle and splendor of royal romance.

The Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company’s production at Cal Performances opens with Mestisaje, which means “fusion,” “unity,” and “a dynamic step forward.” This cross-cultural expression of sound, color, and movement presents the tradition of Christian Filipino dance. It will be followed by a collection of dances that retell the beloved epic tale of the construction of the mountainside rice terraces of northern Luzon island; these terraces, one of the wonders of the world, were built 20 centuries ago without tools.

Surging to the Crest, a celebration of water, follows. The dances in this act depict adventures on the high seas, the fun and excitement experienced by boatmen navigating rapids, and the exuberant combination of work and play that washerwomen find in their daily chores.

After intermission, the Bayanhihan company presents a suite of dances celebrating the spirit of Filipinos and their love of tradition. “Taginting” displays the skillful balancing of wine glasses on hands and heads, and “Ang Maya” recreates in a musical extravaganza the Philippine love for nature and the environment.

Bellezas Filipinas, a tribute to national artist Fernando Amorsolo, captures and replicates in dance and music the country scenes depicted by this great Philippine painter. The evening concludes with Mindanao Splendor, a dance tells a dramatic tale of love lost and regained through the clamor of gongs, the flash of weaponry as warriors prime for battle, and the exquisite garments of royal maidens.

The Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company traces its 43-year history to Philippine Women’s University, where in 1957 Dr. Helena Z. Benitez founded a dance company with several objectives: to research ethnic rites, tribal folklore, and regional folkways; to collect indigenous art forms as expressed in music, dance, literature, arts, and crafts; to distill and transform these cultural traditions into theatrical presentations; and to promote international understanding through cultural exchange and performances abroad. Dr. Benitez remains on the board of the Company, and the objectives she created continue to guide the group.

The Bayanihan company first performed abroad at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and was featured on The Ed Sullivan Show’s nationwide television broadcast from the Fair. The next year, the company made its Broadway debut and was acclaimed the “Cinderella of Dance Theater” by New York critics who were enthralled by the dancers’ skill, grace, and enthusiasm, as well as the company’s ability to transfer indigenous dance and music from the countryside to the stage without sacrificing authenticity.

In the decades since, the Bayanihan company has traveled the world many times over, mounting 15 international tours longer than six months and taking more than one hundred brief trips to dance at international events. In total, the troupe has performed in 55 countries on five continents. It was the first non-American dance company to perform at New York’s Lincoln Center, as well as the first Philippine cultural group to perform in Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and South America. “[I]t has kept going when other national folkloric troupes have folded with the governments and post-independence dreams that created them” (Washington Post).

In 2000, the company was officially designated the National Folk Dance Company of the Philippines. Today, in addition to Dr. Helena Z. Benitez, it is led and supported by Dr. Lucrecia R. Kasilag, president and music director; Suzie Moya Benitez, artistic director; Isabel A. Santos, costume director; Alfredo Q. Gomez, Jr., lighting designer and technical director; Ferdinand B. Jose, dance director; Melito S. Vale Cruz, deputy music director; and Helen Legion, costume mistress.

Monica Turner
Contributor to Stark Insider for tech, the arts and All Things West Coast for over 10 years.