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Rizal as icon in performing arts

By Dr. Felicidad Galang-Pereña

[The original academic paper, “Jose Rizal, Pride of the Malay Race, Reified In Philippine Performing Arts,” was presented at the Malay World International Conference at the Manila Hotel and De La Salle University last July. Galang-Pereña is a professor of the Faculty of Arts and Letters at the University of Santo Tomas.]

Rizal as icon in performing arts

Hailed by historians as the Pride of the Malay Race, José Rizal, a Filipino patriot and polymath, who became a leading light of the propaganda movement that advocated for reforms during the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines, is an iconic subject in the performing arts—stage, television, and cinema. 

His works, in particular, the incendiary novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, have been interpreted in different genres of theater, music and dance. 

Though no law has been enacted as yet explicitly proclaiming him as national hero, the study of Rizal’s life has a legal mandate in the educational system of the Philippines and honoring him emanates from its officially empaneled National Heroes Committee. 

In the post-colonial discourse, Filipino historians disagree on how worthy Rizal is of the reverence accorded to him in comparison with the fiery revolutionary Andres Bonifacio. 

While generations of Filipinos who grew up with his monuments in town plazas and school grounds idolize him to the extent that cults have proliferated in his worship, the philosopher Miguel de Unamono saw him as a man of contradictions: “A soul that dreads the revolution although deep down desires it.”

This paper seeks a critical inquiry into how the performing arts have constructed and deconstructed Rizal through the decades, from the American commonwealth period to the present. 

Through the lens of Phenomenology, using archival materials and informant interviews, it will analyze the films, documentaries, operas and ballet suites which have rendered his biography and fictional narratives in spectacular media, hoping to surface a reification, in order to flesh out the man and his legacy in the collective memory making of a nation, contextualized in history and aesthetics.

Public memory

The study of public memory is a fascinating area cutting across disciplines from communication studies to history, political science and sociology. 

Sadly, we live in a time when memory seems to be losing its hold on communities, but it remains central to personal, communal and national identities (Greg Dickinson 2010). 

Popular and public discourses from speeches to the performing arts are rich repositories of a sense of the past that needs inquiry and evaluation to acquire relevance for the future. 

Public memory, according to French sociologist Pierre Nora, operates through sites “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself” (Nora 1989). 

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall contended that mediated sites such as films act as important cultural spaces that help construct narrative trajectories imbued with national or global meaning. 

Scholars must thus consider the “whole way of struggle” over a culture’s dominant collective narratives (Decherney 2016). 

Within the framework of the cultural studies tradition, this paper aims to study public memory in the reification of a national hero as a socially constructed phenomenon with ideological implications (Kitch 2005).

Though there is no law, executive order or proclamation yet enacted or officially issued proclaiming any Filipino historical figure as a national hero, Jose Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, by popular acclamation, has always enjoyed this singular distinction in the pantheon of patriots during the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines. 

An ophthalmologist who studied medicine in Europe by profession, and a writer who was prolific in both prose and poetry by passion, Rizal spearheaded the Propaganda Movement which advocated for political reforms in his country and was executed by the Spanish colonial government for the crime of rebellion after the outbreak of the revolution that eventually led to independence. 

In his biographical book written by Rafael Palma, Rizal was called the Pride of the Malay Race (Palma 1949). 

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has also recognized Rizal as the “greatest Malayan,” calling him an “Asian Renaissance Man” (Raul Bonoan 1998).

In the turbulent milieu of the 1970s with the impending Marcos Dictatorship perceived by activists as sponsored by the USA, who was also considered an antagonist in the Vietnam War, the historian Renato Constantino questioned this stature from a revisionist lens, arguing that he is an American-sponsored hero, who repudiated the revolution in an article titled “Veneration Without Understanding.” Constantino’s claim was that US Governor General Howard Taft endorsed Rizal as he was a pacifist over Bonifacio, a firebrand who resorted to violence (Constantino 1972).

Portrayals of Rizal

Rizal ‘s portrayal on stage in time for his birth and death anniversaries is mostly a glossy depiction of an ilustrado, who was a conscious hero, as theorized by the eminent historian Teodoro Agoncillo, “whose sympathy for the people was academic, confined to the depiction of the social conditions of his time” (Agoncillo 1996).

The full-length play “The Love of Leonor Rivera” was staged in the 1950s by Dr. Severino Montaño, founder director of Arena Theater at the then Philippine Normal College, now Philippine Normal University (PNU). 

Opposite Montaño himself as Rizal, the award-winning thespian remembers the adulation of the audience who saw on stage the hero they idolized from the lessons of their teachers and their texts.

Another Montaño classic, “Parting at Calamba,” was adapted by Dr. Amalia Cullarin Rosales, titled “Calamba: 1888”, where Dr. Carpio played Doña Teodora Alonso about 50 times, at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, FEU and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in the latter years of the 1990s and the early part of the new millennium. 

Rizal in dance and opera is fleshed out with the fictional characters in his two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, propelled by conflicts within and without their personas. 

Raven and Elahi, in applying narratology to the shaping of new art platforms, distinguish the dramatic and spectacular logics of narrative offering powers of audience persuasion: the dramatic logic seeks to persuade through meaning and empathy, while the spectacular logic seeks to persuade through shock and awe (Elahi 2015). 

The mimetic power of drama conveyed in music and movement on stage empowers the characters with both dramatic and spectacular logic in the sequences highlighting the dramatis personae from Rizal’s works.

The musical “Sino Ka Ba Jose Rizal,” the first touring production of Gantimpala Theater’s 34th season originally staged by Music Theater Philippines in 1996, focuses on the usual segments of the hero’s life: his family, his studies, romantic liaisons and love for country. 

The libretto by Nonoy Gallardo and music by Gary Granada, based on the book by Rene Villanueva, hewed close to the iconic Rizal, his passion for his art and country but also portrayed him in very human and endearing light.

The Philippines’ first full-length opera, “Noli Me Tangere, The Opera,” which premiered at the Far Eastern University in 1957 and made its Cultural Center of the Philippines debut in 1974, has music and libretto by Philippine National Artists Felipe de Leon and Guillermo Tolentino, does not only portray the fictional characters but also the ideology of the hero. 

Tolentino, designated as a National Artist of the Philippines for Sculpture in 1973, three years before his death, sculpted so many monuments to Rizal that grace public spaces.

Ballet Philippines, the resident company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines has long been giving muscle, music, and movement into Rizal, his beloved, and the characters in his novels (GMA News Online 2012). 

BP founder Alice Reyes created “Sisa” in May 1979, Agnes Locsin choreographed “Elias” in February 1997, and Alden Lugnasin, now BP resident choreographer, featured Josephine Bracken in “Rizal Revisited” in August 2007. 

In 2010, there was also a limited restaging of “Crisostomo Ibarra”, said to be historic in itself because it adhered closely to the original intent and spirit of the choreographer and the musical composer, or at least the June 16 and 23 gala performances, followed by “Simon” in October, both featuring an original libretto and choreography by Paul Alexander Morales and original music by Jed Balsamo. 

BP’s website touts these intimate productions (with a small cast that could be mounted in a sala) as “stripping bare the epic story by entering the psyche of the Noli and Fili’s protagonists” (Ballet Philippines 2010).

READ: Rody to youth: Be inspired by Rizal life story

Topics: Jose Rizal , Philippine Performing Arts , National Heroes Committee
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