Review: Ecstatic standing ovation for 'Rama Hari'

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Dec 01 2012 02:15 PM | Updated as of Dec 03 2012 10:47 PM

MANILA, Philippines -- A lengthy standing ovation greeted the cast and creators of Ballet Philippines' "Rama Hari" on Friday night for the gala performance of the pop ballet's revival 32 years since it premiered on the same stage at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

A scene from Ballet Philippines' "Rama Hari" revival

Composer Ryan Cayabyab, librettist Bienvendio Lumbrera and director and choreographer Alice Reyes joined the cast onstage as they soaked in the applause from an obviously mesmerized crowd.

Pandemonium also broke at the lobby of the Main Theater when the cast appeared at the grand staircase after the show. With more shouts of "Bravo!" from the audience, who were obviously waiting for them, the crowd jostled to take photos and videos and even autographs with the singers and dancers, who were still in costume and full makeup.

Pop singers Christian Bautista and Karylle are probably used to this kind of adulation but the excitement wasn't just centered on the two Kapamilya stars. The audience also crowded the overwhelmed ballet dancers and even Lumbrera, a National Artist for Literature, to pose for pictures.

The scene was indeed a welcome surprise, given the oft-heard complaint of the lack of public appreciation for the classical arts -- moreso, an original Filipino ballet.

But "Rama Hari" is that rare work of art that was intented to bridge the more accessible pop world with that of ballet and poetry. After all, it was created by a group of National Artists (Lumbrera; Salvador Bernal, who did the sets and costumes; and Rolando Tinio, who wrote the English translations flashed above the stage ) and National Artist shoo-ins (Cayabyab and Reyes).

While the media buzz around "Rama Hari" when it was first staged in 1980 centered on a young Kuh Ledesma as Sita, as well as the star power of singers Basil Valdez as Rama and Leo Valdez as the evil Ravana, one can't attribute the popularity of the pop ballet to mere casting.

As proven in this beautifully mounted revival, it is the work itself that astounds -- Lumbrera's profoundly lyrical words and the pop melodies of Cayabyab, who was then only 25 years old, fused with the winning story of the "Ramayana," provided a strong foundation that would guarantee timelessness to the work. And Reyes' neo-Filipino choreography and superb decision to pair the dancers with pop singers brought everything to life in a most memorable way.

Having become more familiar with the story and the songs ("Awit ng Pagsinta" and "Magbalik Ka Na Mahal" have become classics by themselves), this revival emphasized just how brilliant "Rama Hari" truly is. The narrative is so tight that the whole thing actually moves briskly -- compared, say, to the bloated musical "Rama at Sita."

The design is a delightful mix of modern minimalism (all white with blocks and inclines, and a retro Op Art backdrop that, now, seems like a nod to the last beats of disco in 1980), with ornate hand props and costumes that move to reveal surprising geometric silhouettes. The libretto shifts from the purity of the Filipino language for Rama and Sita to the street slang from the villains. The music combines kundiman love songs with Indian influences and even Pinoy rock and, yes, disco.

And while the pop singers still command attention -- Bautista seems more effective singing in Filipino than when he played Tony in "West Side Story," Karylle gave a sweet touch to Sita, while Robert Sena, as expected, was a scene stealer with his powerful vocals as Ravana -- one is just as focused on the dancing. This is after all a Ballet Philippines production and the principal dancers -- Jean Marc Cordero (Rama), Carissa Adea (Sita), Richardson Yadao (Ravana) and Rita Angela Winder (Soorpanakha) -- truly shone and made their mark beside their more popular singing counterparts.

(OJ Mariano and Kalila Aguilos play Rama and Sita in certain performances and those who have seen them in rehearsals swore that they should also not be missed.)

In fact, this restaging seemed to be more balanced as far as the singers and the dancers are concerned, as they blended well with each other theatrically.

It's too bad that "Rama Hari" will go on for only two weekends because it deserves a far lengthier run. The pop ballet was an instant classic when it debuted in 1980. Thirty-two years later, it undoubtedly proved why this is so. It will go down in the country's cultural history as a landmark and certainly one of the best Filipino works ever produced.

"Rama Hari" runs until December 9 at the CCP Main Theater.