If a picture paints a thousand words, it only follows that dance depicts a thousandfold. In an art form that is typically bereft of dialogue, a crux meets all aspiring choreographers: that of being an effective raconteur.
It is indeed the task of the choreographer to translate prose into movement and communiques into rhythm. Complex narratives are duly expected to be packed into every formation and sway-with all words left unsaid.
Once an ingénue in a dance workshop in Davao, newly christened National Artist Agnes Locsin has risen to the occasion. Along the silhouettes of Agnes’ masterwork lies a careful reimagining of tribal stories—a phenomenon named “neo-ethnic ballet”. Coalescing her classical dance training with her appreciation for the indigenous culture of the country, Agnes delicately captures fragments of history in her dancers’ hands.
In her craftsmanship, there is not one pirouette unbounded by layers of the Filipino soul. To this end, Agnes’ works—often without speaking a whisper—intimately feel the pulse of the nation, “My works are my tribute to Philippine culture,” she proudly proclaims.
“I didn’t know it then, but my life in dance, I guess, was predestined,” she ponders. Agnes’ dive into the dance world was almost prophetic, as she was surrounded by dance legends. Her mother, Carmen Dakudao Locsin, was a ballet teacher and the founder of the Locsin Dance Workshop (LDW)—the country’s oldest ballet school, established in 1947. The National Artist confesses, “My mother was my main and major influence,” propelling her to take on dance classes even when she was just two and a half years old. Since then, she has never stopped dancing.
Additionally, her sister Bing, a member of the Bayanihan Dance Company, was also an inspiration for her. “She taught jazz, folk dance, Hawaiian and Tahitian dances—all of which I took under her in high school,” Locsin recounts. But it’s not only the women in her life who ignited her love for the performing arts. Her father, Jose, was also a big influence, as he would take photographs of her dancing, further kindling the danseuse’s fancy.
Having been exposed to many significant influences at such a young age, Agnes was undoubtedly bound to excel in dance. “According to my mother and father, I performed [at] our graduation,” she shares. “When I asked who choreographed my dance, they answered, ‘You did’.” From then on, her enthusiasm for composing choreographic feats sprouted into a fiery passion. Whether it’s helping teach students enrolled at LDW when she was 18 to blueprinting the dances for her fellow students at the Ateneo de Davao University’s Terpsichoreans, it seems that the dance bug continued to bite her toes.
She went to further her knowledge of the performing arts at Ohio State University and got a master’s degree in Choreography and Performance. With her newfound experiences, she moved back to the Philippines and continued to perfect her artistry by returning to LDW. Soon after, she moved to Manila in 1985 and started working for Ballet Philippines. “I was asked to choreograph [and] one choreography led to another, and another, and another,” she professes.
Setting the stage
Standing proudly atop of the choreographic training that shaped her youth, Agnes’ gift for dancing grew wings as she honed her genre of specialization: neo-ethnic ballet. She had dreamt up the idea as she studied abroad, innovating ways to create unconventional choreographies. “[I combined] the two contrasting dance styles,” she explains. “I easily was able to integrate my stored knowledge with my [classical ballet, modern dance, and jazz] studies in tribal dances.”
Agnes harkens back to 1988, the first time she used the name “neo-ethnic” to define her work. Prompted to employ the term for her piece Igorot, she persistently credits the word “neo-ethnic” to her long-time collaborator, Joey Ayala. “[He had coined it] to describe his music…I asked Joey if I could borrow the term, [and he] said, ‘Iyo na’,” she remembers.
In her extensive creative process, conceptualization precedes a meticulous research and immersion procedure. No two performances trail the same route for Agnes; the diversity of the regions she portrays demands different engagements with the locations in question. “I tried to absorb…the environment of the place where the ritual had once been practiced,” she details in her documentary, Ang Kwento ng Sayaw Neo-Ethnic. For her choreography of Moriones, she had traveled to Marinduque; for Bagobo, to Calinan and Sibulan; for Labaw Dungon, to Iloilo.
“In all of my neo-ethnic works I did, I sought…to emulate the heart of the tribal dance I was interpreting,” she professes. Her field research in various tribal lands has allowed her to examine firsthand the community life and day-to-day customs of the people.
As Agnes forms her dances through structure and movement, she diligently incorporates the minutiae of indigenous culture into traditional ballet steps. The Salidsid courtship dance in Igorot, for example, is reflected by a pas de bourrée on pointe.
All this has laid the groundwork for Agnes’ nuanced reiterations of dances across the regions. Flowing from her detailed pre-production stages are unique narratives packed into all her choreographies, with the spectrum as diversified as La Revolucion Filipina recounting Apolinario Mabini’s life and Alay Sa Puno referring to modern-day deforestation in Davao. The core of her work is simple: in Agnes’ eyes, “I just see to it that in whatever I do, I give it my full heart and passion.”
The maestra’s beautiful neo-ethnic choreographies don’t only showcase an enchantment of graceful and beguiling maneuvers—they also put indigenous art under the spotlight. But beyond the applause for Locsin’s works, she has received disapproval from her critics, accusing her of cultural misappropriation and milking the country’s indigenous traditions. “Never have I pretended that my works aim to replace tradition. I pay homage to tradition,” she defends. “If I could, I [would] fight to defend traditional ethnolinguistic dances and practices [in our country].”
Agnes’ intentions were not to exploit the country’s ethnic traditions but to remind all of their beauty and magnificence, paying tribute to our cultural heritage in hopes of preserving it. She intends for tradition to remain in its raw and most authentic form so other artists, especially new ones, will find inspiration in it much as she did.
In doing so, she was declared as 2022’s National Artist for Dance. Despite this huge feat—her grand jeté—Agnes remains humble, “The question always nagging me is, ‘Do I deserve this?’ After all, I did [it] all because I love to choreograph.” While she believes it is still too early for her to decide on how to use her platform to champion indigenous cultures, Agnes promises to continue doing what she loves doing: choreography.
Additionally, the national artist wishes that future generations and schools will utilize Filipino dances more. In fact, she is optimistic about the young choreographers blossoming in Manila—envisioning them as the future of Philippine dance, “In time, they will become the next trailblazers [and] I am looking forward to it.”
Whether it was destiny that pushed Agnes to pursue a career in dance or her fondness for the art, she has proven to be a woman capable of putting life and narratives into artistic motions, through her unique, neo-ethnic stylization.