Do you remember Biag Gaongen? We first mentioned him here as the first (and so far the only) Igorot ballet dancer. Well the kid has been making waves lately so it’s time to blog about him again. In an article in Cebu Pacific’s Inflight Magazine (which we are reprinting below) Biag talks about his indigenous roots and his experiences as Ballet Philippines’ principal dancer. What comes out is the portrait of a young man who is very much rooted to his culture and is properly proud of it. Way to go Biag! Or maybe, “Agbiag ni Biag!”
Make sure you read our observations at the end of the post. But, first, here’s the article:
Danseur from Shangri-La
by Luna Amarillo
Biag Gaongen laughs sheepishly when he says he is considered a senior in Ballet Philippines, the country’s premier ballet company. He is, after all, only 23. “This is not normal, of course,” he says, trying to downplay his success. “There are many who have left to seek greener pastures.”
Still, his success is nothing short of extraordinary; there are few men in ballet, and no other ballet dancer in the country traces his roots to an Igorot ethnic group called the Kankana-ey, or more particularly, the Applai tribe, a subdivision of Kankana-ey.
Anyone familiar with the work of famous photographer Eduardo Masferré, who documented the ancestral life of the people in the Cordilleras, will not recognize in this young man the seeming “primitiveness” of the people in those pictures. Biag stands at five feet and six inches tall, with curly, dark hair, twinkly eyes and a smile that comes easily.
Today, clad in a casual T-shirt and jeans with flip-flops, he weaves through the halls of the Cultural Center of the Philippines like it is home, which it has been for the past seven years, as he performs on its stage, rehearses here and conducts classes in its back rooms.
SAGADA: A SHANGRI-LA
Biag’s real home is in the Sagada mountains, that place in the Mountain Province some call the Philippines’ Shangri-La because of its panoramic views, glorious caves, breathtaking waterfalls, pine-filled forests and rice terraces.
His great-grandfather was the last animist in Biag’s family, and the last one to be buried in the famed hanging coffins on Sagada’s limestone rocks. When the Americans Christianized Sagada in the 1940s, his family became Anglicans. Though they find parallels between their own beliefs and Christianity, Biag is like any typical, modern-day Pinoy, save perhaps for his passion for dance, and his love for Sagada and its people.
“Sagada people are not warriors,” he says, of the Kankana-eys. Biag is adamant about this because of the mistaken belief that all Igorots are head-hunters.
“They were hunters and farmers,” he acknowledges, and attributes the easy transition from paganism to Christianity to the people’s gentleness. “When the Americans went to Sagada, they were easily accepted. There was no opposition. Minds were broadened, but the traditions of the tribe still exist and are very distinct [from Christianity].”
THE KANKANA-EY WAY OF LIFE
Biag’s name, which means “life”, was the name of his great-grandfather. It is something to be proud of, as one cannot pass on a name that does not belong to the clan, Biag explains.
“I will continue that tradition because my dad did,” he vows. “It’s a tradition that when a baby is born, there is a ‘baptism’ by the elders before they get the Christian baptism, where they get a name from the clan. So if there is someone in Sagada named Biag, more often than not, he’s my relative.”
There are many other traditions that are practised by Biag’s family. One of them is honoring ancestors, the way Biag’s grandparents pray to late elders.
“They invite the ancestors into our house to enjoy the place and eat whatever we have,” he explains. “When planting or harvesting seasons come, they are invited as well.”
The respect for elders is ingrained in the Kankana-ey way of life so that the oldest member of the clan is the chieftain, even if there is a member who has attained more education than him. His experience is valued.
Similarly, those who have died are more venerated, as they are considered even older and have experienced life in the hereafter.
Biag fears that the onslaught of technology in Sagada might slowly kill this tradition. Already, cable TV and internet are everywhere in Sagada, with huge satellite dishes and large homes dotting the landscape.
“Biro mo nakakapag-computer ka, ang tatay mo hindi. [Imagine, you are able to use the computer and your father can’t.] There is a mindset that you’re better than your parents. They forget that experience in life is more [valuable],” he says.
Despite the onslaught of modernization, he hopes Sagada will stay beautiful, and the people will not forget the traditions and values that make the Kankana-ey people special.
There are, however, rituals that need not transcend time. Biag’s father, for example, butchered 21 pigs within the year of his wife’s death because, according to Biag, he felt compelled to do so by persuasion of the old people.
“‘In time,’ my father said, ‘if you think it’s not needed, don’t do it.’ Before, they didn’t just butcher any kind of pig,” Biag says. “They had to be black pigs. But because black pigs are uncommon, one of the families in Sagada tried to cheat. Pininturahan nila ang isang pig. Noong hindi nagalit ang ancestors, doon nila na-realize na, hindi naman mabagsik ang mga ancestors.” [They painted one pig black. When the ancestors did not get angry, they realized that the ancestors were not strict.]
The reason is unknown why 21 pigs had to be butchered a year within one’s death, nor why they had to be black in the first place. Keeping only traditions that resonate is what makes Biag, in his own words, a “neo Kankana-ey”. His children, he says, will be “neo-neo Kankana-ey”, recognizing that generations after will further filter his beliefs.
“So why not just offer the bonding of the family,” he rationalizes. “Sometimes, you have to make things simpler.”
THE SAGADA FAMILY’S PRIDE
Though he may no longer believe in all the rituals, Biag is proud of his heritage.
“My success is the community’s success,” he declares with pride. “When I am being interviewed, I tell them that I’m from Sagada. You’re not just the pride of your family, but of the Sagada family.”
He adds, “The way of living is communal. Hindi mo makikita kung sino mayaman at sino mahirap. Walang tapakan. [You won’t be able to tell who is rich or poor. No one steps on another to get ahead.] When you go to a feast, you won’t know who’s the director of the school or who’s the doctor there. Usap-usap lang ng pantay-pantay. Kung sino lang ang pinaka matanda, siya ang masusunod. [The conversation is among equals. Whoever is the oldest, he is the one followed.]”
He feels especially proud to be the only dancer from Sagada. “It’s something different. There are already many doctors and engineers in Sagada.”
Biag went to the Philippine High School for the Arts, at Mount Makiling in Los Baños, Laguna, studying Theater Dance. For his audition piece in Makiling, he danced, chanted and played the gong.
Although he went to an Arts school, everyone thought he was going to be a doctor. “When they found out [I was in ballet], they were a bit disturbed because they thought I was taking Medicine. I had always wanted to be a doctor because my mom had diabetes and was in and out of the hospital. My teacher told me not to take Medicine. Buti na lang [good thing],” he laughs. It was in Arts school that he was discovered by then Ballet Philippines director Agnes Locsin who invited him to train for the ballet – and he has been dancing ever since.
LOOKING FOR HIS AUDIENCE
After leaving Makiling, Biag hid in the CCP for a year, afraid to tell his family that he was in the ballet. They eventually found him and started to watch his performances. His dad, however, has never seen him perform.
“He has his reasons,” Biag defends. “But he has said to me, ‘I’m very proud of what you are doing, because you’re doing what you think is essential for you’.”
Like all sons, he wishes his father would someday come over to watch him. “He’s my most awaited audience,” admits Biag.
Dancing has brought Biag to many places: Germany, Monaco, France, Belgium, Cambodia and Japan. His favorite country, though, is Belgium.
“The people are so gentle,” he says of Belgians. “I like gentle people. Pag dating mo sa Belgium, very Filipino, very Sagada. Germany is grand and beautiful, but you can’t feel the people. Monaco is very rich pero yong mga tao kung makatingin sa ‘yo, parang’ [the way people look at you] it’s as if they’re saying, ‘What are these kids doing here?’”
But when they performed, they were given standing ovations. He only wishes Filipinos would appreciate the ballet like people in other countries do, and laments the fact that fewer and fewer Filipinos watch the ballet.
RETURN TO SHANGRI-LA
Notwithstanding the dwindling appreciation of his own countrymen, for now, his love for ballet is what keeps Biag motivated, and this is what he sees himself doing for a while yet.
“A dancer’s life is short,” he explains. “Maybe when I retire at 30 or 35, I will be in theater or back in Sagada, teaching.”
It is where he wishes to settle after learning all he can about his craft. After all, a location compared to Shangri-La can only be a place one would always want to return to.
“My friends and I used to wonder why there were so many foreigners living in Sagada. I never realized – until I left – how beautiful Sagada was,” says Biag. “I never realized how beautiful my playground was.”
• • •
Overall, this is an excellent piece and Biag, as we observed above, appears to have a very good grasp of his roots and the challenges that confronts us as a people. He is a good ambassador for all of us and we hope our youngsters are more like him. But here’s some observations about the story:
1. We’re not quote sure if it is correct to say that iSagadas were not warriors. The warrior-culture was the rule in the Cordilleras before the Americans arrived and there is no proof that iSagadas were an exception to the rule. They might have given up the practice of headhunting earlier than the other tribes but that doesn’t mean they didn’t ever do it.
2. We think it is also incorrect to say, as the writer does here, that we “pray” to our ancestors. I think that the best way to describe what we do is that we “commune” with our ancestors. It’s much like former President Corazon Aquino “talking” to Ninoy every time she visits his grave.