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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Gerald Casel Sets and Resets the Tinikling at ODC

Posted By on Thu, Dec 17, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge Dancers: Arletta Anderson, Christina-Briggs Winslow, Peiling Kao - PHOTO BY ANDREW WEEKS
  • Photo by Andrew Weeks
  • Dancers: Arletta Anderson, Christina-Briggs Winslow, Peiling Kao

Filipino-American dancer Gerald Casel is taking a trip to his origins by way of Trisha Brown. For his upcoming Splinters in our Ankles, Casel appropriates movement techniques from Brown’s Set and Reset as a means to explore the impact of colonialism on dance and cultural expression in the Philippines.

“I’m stealing from Trisha Brown, Stephen Petronio, Joe Goode, and others," Casel says. "It’s tongue and cheek, paying homage at the same time as reversing the historical habit of colonizers appropriating from the colonized.”

click to enlarge Dancers: Arletta Anderson, Christina-Briggs Winslow, Peiling Kao - PHOTO BY ANDREW WEEKS
  • Photo by Andrew Weeks
  • Dancers: Arletta Anderson, Christina-Briggs Winslow, Peiling Kao

Having danced with Brown, Petronio, Michael Clark, and others at the forefront of experimental performance in New York and Berlin for many years, Casel is deeply steeped in their abstract idiom. Narrative is far more alien to him, but he is employing that as well in order to deconstruct the Tinikling, the national dance of the Philippines. The dance involves wooden poles and ostensibly tells the story of a pesky bird, the tikling, escaping from farmers who attack it with wooden poles.

“I knew postmodern dance, but I wanted to learn about my ancestry. I discovered that this traditional folkdance that kids do in gym class was invented during the Spanish colonial occupation. According to some legends, the Tinikling's movements come from the torture of local farmers by their colonial masters, who used to hit them them with the wooden poles and force them to dance.”

  • Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
The title Splinters in Our Ankles is a reference to this darker history. Casel’s work in this area has raised some eyebrows among those who look on the Tinikling as simply joyful, or as a playful mime of cat and mouse. Brer Rabbit might be a better analogy, because ultimately the bird evades capture, and the dance may also be seen as a celebration of the triumph of organic vibrant life over the strictures of control for its own sake. Perhaps there is in the dance a message of hope, an affirmation that the slave always knows more than the master. Over the centuries, its movements may have evolved as a coded message of freedom, without explicitly saying that often dangerous word.

Casel acknowledges that choreographers are, in a sense, colonizing their dancers. Through their (albeit willing) self-erasure, dancers allow the choreographer’s movement to come through them. With Splinters in Our Ankles, Casel asked dancers to exercise more agency and respond in writing to questions about memory, collective amnesia, and the transmission of culture. The first half of the piece is the result of engaging the dancers as creators, using narrative — which Casel admits he dreads in dance — to explore their own relationship to the past. In the second half, the dancers return to movement for movement’s sake, taking up their traditional role as transmitters of form dictated by the choreographer.

Rather than directly using the movements of the Tinikling, Splinters in Our Ankles plays with its implications, and with what Casel calls the “many layers of colonial detritus” that can be found in the Philippines. Casel recently joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz, and is enjoying working in a liberal arts context. For this particular project, he has also enjoyed the support of Margaret Jenkins and ODC, and working with his longtime collaborators Tim Russell and Jack Beuttler on sound and visual complements to the movement. Russell’s score includes samples from field recordings made in Manila.

“I’d like the audience to approach the piece without having an expectation of seeing Filipino or folk traditions unfold, but to know that its origins are in the vestiges of colonization. Come with an open mind.”

Splinters in Our Ankles, Friday-Sunday, December 18-20, at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., 415-549-8519.

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