9 Muses: Ea Torrado, Diwata of Dance
9 MUSES // Created in collaboration with Jodinand Aguillon as part of his arts residency at Pineapple Lab and shot on location in Manila, PH. Inspired by the "Siyam na Diwata ng Sining/Nine Muses of the Arts" sculpture by Napoleon Abueva at UP Diliman and goddess/oracle cards, this series re-envisions modern Pilipina muses as "Diwata Cards" which can be pulled for words of advice for those seeking inspiration.
Shifting forward in her makeup chair, Ea Torrado peers at herself in the mirror from under her bowl cut and laughs, "Oh my god, I look like a person now!" With a tassel draped over one ear, a gold square painted on her bottom lip, exaggerated bottom lashes and that graphic haircut, she's a mod dolly vision come to life. Taking time out from a jam-packed schedule of dancing and teaching, her slight frame had utterly collapsed into that same makeup chair half an hour earlier, and I'm sure she wouldn't have minded using the time to take a much-needed nap. Nevertheless, she was so polite and engaged throughout our interview, answering my questions slowly and thoughtfully. Beyond her sweet voice and genuinely gracious demeanor, I was struck by something else: this woman is a hustler, pushing her body to the max fueled by deep fire and love of her art and her community. When she gets in front of the camera, all of her fatigue seemingly melts away and Ea Torrado - contemporary dancer, choreographer, and founder and artistic director of Daloy Dance Company - comes alive. She looks like a super editorial marionette draped in textiles and palm leaves, all magic and beautiful extended brown limbs as she takes shot after breathtaking shot. In a studio full of cameras poised on her, this soft-spoken woman draws you in, telling a story with just her movements. Not surprising, considering that Ea's been in the spotlight almost her entire life.
Rigorously trained in classical ballet from a young age, Ea has essayed principal and soloist roles in both classical and contemporary full-length ballets, and toured extensively in the Philippines and abroad with Ballet Manila, Ballet Philippines, and Dance Theatre of Tennessee. Eight years ago, she hung up her pointe shoes and went indie, carrying on the inventive spirit of modern dance pioneers like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham who rebelled against classical ballet's rules and rigidity. Since then, Ea's gone on to become on of the most innovative and sought-after dancer-choreographers in the country, working as a guest artist for Contemporary Dance Map Philippines, Dance Forum, Airdance, E-dance Theatre, and Steps Dance Project and choreographing for Cultural Center of the Philippines Dance School, UP Dance Company, Seven Contemporary Dance Company, and Wi-fi Body Independent Contemporary Dance Festival. She's also danced the lead role as Magayon in E-dance Theatre’s Daragang Magayon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) which retold the Bikolano myth of the lovers Daragang Mayon and Ulap, whose deaths gave life to the iconic Mayon Volcano.
In the past few years, Ea has been interested in exploring themes of cultural and historical identity, social politics and feminine representations, to create meaningful and thought-provoking stories through her works. In Sisa, a three-channel video installation commission by The Lopez Museum in 2014, Ea poses Jose Rizal's fictional character Sisa's search for her missing children as a metaphor for post-colonial identity, linking it to the oftentimes hopeless search for the desaparecidos and victims of extrajudicial killings that litter the Philippines’ political history. Her piece Embracing, danced by Clarissa Mijares, was inspired by her experience of seeing young girls who live and survive through flooded places in Metro Manila and who remain brave in facing their uncertain futures. Another piece, called Wallflower, was created in tribute to September 10, World Anti-Suicide Day.
Three years ago, she founded Daloy Dance Company, a Manila-based dance theatre collective that aims to push forward the boundaries of contemporary dance in the Philippines. She invited a group of friends to join her from different dance backgrounds ranging from contemporary to hip hop, ballroom to folk dance, to make more interesting, authentic works unrestricted by any one dance pedagogy. Besides drawing from her classical ballet, modern, and contemporary training, Ea's work is also influenced by yoga, eastern meditation techniques, and contact improvisation - she says these have helped with achieving mindfulness in dance, being in the moment, and freeing her imagination when it comes to choreography. She says that this is really what “Daloy” (Flow) is all about: following that mysterious inner force within all that leads us in the most magical of ways and brings the dancer back to the essence of dance, which is the pure singing of the mind, body, and spirit that can only be found within. With Daloy, she focuses on socially conscious works and workshops that touch on a diversity of themes inspired by contemporary shamanistic practices, survival sex work, body image, and that sometimes flip the script on the audience. Besides covering diverse topics, Daloy also represents a diversity of bodies, breaking stereotypes of "typical" dancer's physiques, and quietly celebrating the heterogeneity of bodies as well as heterogeneous representations of Pilipinx identity.
You could imagine that being such an introspective person and dealing with all of this heavy subject matter, Ea would be a somewhat dark or brooding person - not at all the case, at least throughout all of our encounters. She flits around the set lightheartedly, with a genuinely warm smile and bell-like laugh, and you can tell that her work comes from a place of truly empathizing with and caring about her fellow human beings. She tells me about how she knows Jodee - through hanging out at Pineapple Lab, which seems to be a common thread among the Manila artistic community I've met out here so far - and tells me about the piece they created together last February for Fringe Manila. A work-in-progress, Tari was a collaboration between Jodinand's Toronto-based Folk Fusion group HATAW and Daloy Dance Company, inspired by the famous sport of Sabong (cockfighting) in which they wanted to show that community trumps competition.
Currently, Ea is working on her one-woman show Wailing Women, inspired by the stories of bereaved women in the Philippine war on drugs that investigates the long-term repercussions of unresolved trauma and questions how an individual, a family, or a whole country can come to terms with loss and injustice. Since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency in June 2016, more than 9,000 people throughout the country have been killed in the name of drug-related police operations or at the hands of unidentified vigilantes. As part of the research for this project, Daloy has been doing Community Outreach Programs through immersions, dance performance and workshops, called UGNAYAN (Tagalog for "connections") such as Movement Workshops for the families of EJK (extra judicial killings) victims. They've been working in partnership with RESBAK (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killing) and RISE-UP, coalitions of artists, social and cultural workers aiming to help these families get legal support, recover from pain and trauma, and regain a sense of stability in their lives through different forms of art. A co-production of Daloy and Pineapple Lab, Wailing Women will be presented at Pineapple Lab later this month, at The Goyang International Dance Festival in South Korea in August, and will be developed further during Ea's 6-month residency in New York as an Asian Cultural Council Fellow. She tells me that she's been having her senior dancers choreograph and teach classes these past few months so they can learn to manage the group in her absence, noting with a laugh, "And it's also the time for me to rest." Somehow, I doubt it.
How long have you been dancing and what's your dance background?
I've been dancing classical ballet since I was seven years old - so my formal training is really classical ballet. Then I got a scholarship with Lisa Macuja and Ballet Manila when I was 12, and was dancing professionally with Ballet Manila and Ballet Philippines. So I was doing that, and also dancing with [Dance]Theater [of]Tennessee in the States when I was 23 years old - so it was only eight years ago when I really wanted to become an independent artist, and to create my own works. I wanted to move in ways that are more organic and authentic to me, and I can do that with contemporary dance. So eight years back is when I started to study contemporary dance abroad and here, but not really committing to any group or any specific teacher solely.
Did you feel a bit restricted with classical dance or did you feel like you'd been doing it for so long that you wanted to exploring other types of dance?
I would say both, but I also felt that I really wanted to choreograph, I really wanted to make my own work. So since I left the big companies and started going my own way, I started choreographing short works and also delving into dance filmmaking and performing at local festivals. It's only three years ago that I formed Daloy Dance Company, which is a contemporary dance theater collective. I think it's a platform for my choreographies, and at the same time we are interested in works, and in workshops, and projects that have more social impact, I would say. Socially conscious works....while at the same time prioritizing the process in creating dances, instead of the product. So more process-driven, more experimentations. We've been very very lucky in the last three years, young as we are, to have been able to already do shows in different stages and sites around Manila like CCP [Cultural Center of the Philippines] and PETA [Philippine Educational Theater Association], Ayala Museum, and Met Museum [Metropolitan Museum of Manila], and we've had Fringe Festival, Imaginarium Festival, we're able to also tour in Korea, Japan, and the USA...
I know it's such a wow but, I need sleep! [laughs]
When you say socially conscious works, what kind of issues are you drawing attention to?
I would say that the biggest full-length works we've created - one is Dysmorphilia, it was created in collaboration with Leeroy New, a Filipino visual and multidisciplinary artist. Dysmorphilia is mainly inspired by the weird costumes with huge protrusions, but then at the same time it talks about body shame and body image, how we have these perceived flaws and they're exaggerated. A lot of [Filipino society] is really not body positive, and I would say a lot of it is very post-colonial.
And then we have Canton, which is about survival sex work in Metro Manila - as in pancit canton - but it came from my research of working with women and young girls in relocation sites. So these are people in let's say, squatters areas. But what a lot of people don't know is that these women are mostly from provinces and the government just takes away their lands, or private corporations say Oh we're gonna build a building here or a factory or a mall, and this is the paper that says it's not your property. So actually thousands of Filipinos get relocated every year, and have to move to Manila for livelihood because it's the center - and then they come here and there's no space. It's very congested, and there's no space, and they become squatters. They become illegal settlers. And then what happens is they become displaced again because they're perceived as the scums of society, and so the government promises them, Oh you've gotta go to a relocation site, we're gonna give you 20,000 pesos. They go there, they only get half of the 20,000 pesos, and there's nothing. I mean, there's a space, there's a room, but there are no jobs. So thousands of families are cramped here, no jobs, and what happens to girls and women is they end up trading sex with truck drivers in exchange for pancit canton, for a pack of noodles. So that was the inspiration for that work. And we're able to tour that in the States and over here at Fringe Festival also, so that's one of the works we have done that's a full-length and realizing the power of useful works with these marginalized women and with poor people in general. It's kinda depressing, actually. [laughs]
We have Unearthing with is another full-length - it's inspired by Babaylan priestesses, more contemporary practices, or inspired by that at least. It's getting into a trance state. So we have three dancers, three bodies on stage, that are getting into a trance state while they're being watched and it's kind of about releasing some sexual repression and remembering the sacredness of the body, the sacredness of organic, impulsive expression. A lot of this repression came from these very Catholic or whatever faith-based beliefs, that we thought [sexuality] was wrong. And so basically with Unearthing, it's unleashing sexuality and sensuality in front of an audience.
What has been the reception to [Unearthing] here?
Uhhhhhhhhhh [laughs] a lot of the audience are not ready, but some of them are. Especially those who want to see something different from the usual dance choreography and movement-based performance. And so yeah, in that process we have placed the experience of the performer as just as important as the experience of the audience - because technically in a way, when you are a performer, the output is the most important, you are very in service of the audience. But right now it becomes more of - as a performer, if you experience authenticity, then the audience will too, and you will be inspired by that. So more process-based. And it was also in a ritual setting, the stage was in a triangle.
In such a seemingly conservative country, what's the mission of what you're trying to do with Daloy's work - are you trying to change people's minds about societal norms, etc?
Sometimes especially now, it is really hard to navigate what kind of words of wisdom or mission you really have, and especially now in the information age, you're just bombarded every day with lots of things, and we have Facebook and all these social media, it actually is good and it's not a good - so the truth is that people are more distracted now. I would say with any form of art, and that includes dance, there's really only so much you can do. It all boils down to creating awareness, like that's the most that it can do. And that's the sad part about it, and that's the good part about it. You can really only just create awareness and create more room for empathy in the audience or make them realize again what it means to be human, what it means to be kind, to be understanding of "the other" - other people other than you and your background and your skin color....so yeah, the thing is that raising awareness is such a small part, but it has to be done. More and more people, especially in this age with the violence, and the walls, and the misunderstandings, and different opinions, it's more important now to be standing up for people who don't have the voice for it. Even if it's just only a part of inspiration for other artists, especially younger ones, to create their own work to give a voice for the voiceless and the marginalized, that helps as well.
Can you tell me more about your experiences conducting research with the women and girls in evacuation sites for Canton? Is any work being done to help these women (like non-profits, shelters, helping with employment, etc) and are there ways that people can help?
Yes, there are NGO's helping out in giving them livelihood programs. But, it is still not enough. We need more volunteers and artists who can share their talent and time in giving assistance to marginalized groups like this. And at the end of the day, just better government who can actually address and make changes regarding these issues of poverty.
You had mentioned being very process-driven and about experimentations. How do you build room for these improvisations into your choreography?
Improvisations in performance keep the work fresh and different in every show. There is always a pocket of time and space for improvisation in every work that I do. Some of them short and some of them long. Mostly, I go by my intuition when a section needs a breath of fresh air for both the dancers and me. And that improvising in rehearsals and shows in that particular section would eventually lead to discoveries for both me and the dancers. But it also takes a lot of practice in improvisation techniques before we could also pull off a full-on improvisational performance. Contrary to what most think - that improv is just 'winging it', improv is a skill that can be developed well over time and is something that needs a lot of practice and focus too. And could be done excellently in front of a live audience.
What is your general process as you prepare for a new work?
Devising. A lot of trying out ideas in the studio. A lot of movement studies. And also a lot of scrapping. A lot of taking away favorite sections and stuff that spoke strongly to me. Which is a hard thing to do. But that is the nice thing about having a 'process', in the third or fourth week there is a sense of okayness in scrapping 80-90% of your ideas, and being able to only use the devices and sections that stick even after a lot of revisions and trying out everything else. There are also a lot of interviews and conversations with new people and with people whose work I respect. So in a way, it is months of brainstorming, movement experimentations, and dialogue with other artists before I can even pin down the things I'm trying to ask/say in the work.
Throughout your career have there been any mentors who particularly guided you or dancers who've inspired your work?
I have always been inspired by neo-ethnic Choreographer, Agnes Locsin. Her works with Ballet Manila were my first exposure to contemporary dance. Myra Beltran had welcomed me in Contemporary Dance Map as I was trying to find my voice as a modern/contemporary dancer. Mats Ek, Crystal Pite, Akram Khan, Pina Bausch are my favorites. Erick Dizon and Buboy Raquitico were the dancers whose bodies greatly inspired most of my past choreographies.
What have been some of your most memorable or meaningful performances to you personally?
When I danced the title role of Carmen in Russia when I was 19. Carmen was my dream role in ballet, growing up.
What are you interested in exploring in the future?
I am continuing the development of a couple of things: Wailing Women, a one-woman show that's inspired by the plight of women family members of EJK victims in the Philippines; Unearthing, a trio inspired by Babaylan contemporary philosophy and trance improvisation; and Daloy's syllabus as a movement/performance/healing modality.
Along with these, Daloy is continuing our programs Sayaw Galaw, movement and music improvisation jam where dance becomes a practice of 'release' accessible to all body types, age and gender; Ugnayan, our community outreach program; and Walang Hiya Festival, Contact Improvisation and Body Politics Festival in the Philippines.
As a "muse," what advice do you have for other creatives looking for inspiration?
Watch shows. Go to galleries. Be in as many conversations as possible with people from all walks of life. Be curious about their origins, their stories. Be curious about as many things as possible. Read a lot. Write your thoughts. Attend workshops. Inspiration is everywhere. What is tricky is getting to the bottom of what truly speaks strongly to you as an artist, and what are your questions around that. What is at the heart of your contemplation? So absorb as many things as possible and have a beginner's mind.
Catch Ea's one-woman show Wailing Women at Pineapple Lab in Manila, July 27 & 30, 2017; at Goyang International Dance Festival in South Korea, August 5, 2017; and at KULTURA Festival in Toronto on August 12, 2017. Stay tuned for upcoming shows in New York at daloydc.com and on Instagram @daloydanceco and Facebook @DaloyDanceCo