Dancing to the beats of Francisco Balagtas

by Nickie Wang

That might sound contemporary and innovative yet a little unexciting since we all knew Francisco “Balagtas” Baltazar as the great poet with a laurel on his head, famous for his work Florante at Laura, which is now a staple in the high school curriculum.

So how are you going to enjoy a story in an archaic language written by a 19th century man? Simple, replace the words with modern and elaborate movements, like turning a long narrative into a beautiful dance number complete with live orchestra for musical accompaniment.

This is what theater director and choreographer Dexter Santos did in Orosman at Zafira, another Balagtas masterpiece that tells the story of three warring tribes in thirst for power. This contemporary adaptation of Balagtas’ text centers on finding love in the middle of hatred and conflict. Yes, Balagtas had done it all before your teleseryes delved on this kind of theme.

Orosman at Zafira is written as a komedya and not to be mistaken as comedy. Komedya is taken from the Spanish comedia, a generic term for drama. It usually had plots about saints or warring kingdoms, and used staging conventions like structured choreographed entrances and exits.

Komedyas usually show wars between the Moors and the Christians. What makes ‘Orosman at Zafira’ different from other komedyas is that it doesn’t deal with the wars between the Moors and the Christians, but the hostility between three different tribes.

“The issues that Baltazar deals with are recurring: the hunger for power and the passion for love,” said Santos.

The production celebrates the uniqueness of Philippine culture through original neo-ethnic world music by Carol Bello. While the music of a traditional komedya was performed by a brass band, Bello’s music was rendered by a live orchestra using indigenous instruments such as djembe drums, kulintang (gong chime), and kubing (Jew’s harp), as well as electric guitars and keyboards.

Dexter Santos, whose family comes from the same town as Francisco Baltazar, said that there are a number of excellent local productions in the country but the growing commercial productions staged by the small, professional theatrical scene are majority foreign.

He was inspired to produce Orosman and Zafira because of his belief that Philippines is home to the best theater talents in the world—actors, directors, writers, composers, designers, and choreographers.

“I am producing this show because Orosman at Zafira is groundbreaking for many reasons—its passion, poetry, music, and dance. I am producing this show because not enough of us realize the genius of Francisco Baltazar and the values of good citizenship, discipline and faith that underlie his works. I am producing this show because it showcases Filipino theater talent at its finest,” Santos affirmed.

From UP to MOA

Santos narrated that the journey of producing Orosman at Zafira started out as a mad adventure. He first saw the production in 2008 with Carlo Miguel Francia, Joelle Ona-Horca, and her husband Miles Horca, with the first two and his sister Danicar Mariano eventually becoming co-producers for the current run of the original Filipino musical.

“Carlo, Joelle, and I knew at that time that we wanted to produce a commercial run of the show. And while we felt that the timing was off, we left the Guerrero Theater convinced that the show deserved, literally and figuratively, a bigger stage,” Santos expressed.

The musical was first staged by Dulaang UP, a university-based theater company that serves as the key venue of University of the Philippines’ theater students’ exposure to the performing arts and related disciplines, in 2008 and then in 2010. While about 90 percent of the material remains Baltazar, it has been made accessible to today’s audiences by making the underlying message and attitudes fit modern sensibilities.

“When we started doing this production, we understand that it’s very important to work on the language…It is very archaic but then again if it’s delivered with so much passion and understanding, no matter how archaic it is, the audience will still get the message the story would like to tell,” said Santos.

The director is well aware that Broadway formula is a hit among the younger audience. What the creative team behind the musical did, from the 300 hundred pages of text, they edited it and decided to work on world music to incorporate with the moving tale of love and war.

“What if the kulintang, lagyan natin ng electric guitar, amplify and it make sound like a rock concert. That’s the atmosphere of the musical so we can cater to young audience,”the director explained.

The creative behind Zafira at Orosman believe in their responsibility as artists to cater to all sorts of audience that is why they decided to reinvent and reintroduce the works of Francisco Baltazar by working with choreography and movement inspired by different rituals and tribes present in our country.

The current run of the musical is a perfect example of artistic and business sides blended together. Orosman at Zafira will be restage, no less than, in one of the biggest commercial hubs in Manila, the SM Mall of Asia. From the home of Dulaang UP in Diliman, the musical will see its new home at Centerstage Theater from Feb. 4 until Feb. 26.

The cast of is composed of professionals and students and features young theater talents Jay Gonzaga as Orosman, and Maita Ponce and Delphine Buencamino as Zafira. They are joined by Tao Aves, Roeder Camañag, Red Concepcion, Gabs Santos, Kevin Concepcion, Acey Aguilar, Jacinta Remulla, Jean Judith Javier, Nazer Salcedo, Neil Tolentino, Felipe Ronnie Martinez, and the Dulaang UP Ensemble.

“Now that we are given the opportunity to stage it in a bigger venue, a legitimate theater, the production will have a new flow. The experience will be different—people can see a wider view of the choreography,” Santos assured.

Tickets to the musical are available at all SM Cinema Ticket Booths nationwide and TicketWorld outlets. For inquiry call SM Tickets at 470-2222 and TicketWorld at 891-9999 or visit http://www.orosmanatzafira.com.

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