The legend of Daragang Magayon is an often-told story among Bicolanos.
The back story of its staging in ballet form at the CCP last February 8th has its own dramatic undertones and merits telling.
Katrina Santos-Mercado, Daragang Magayon Program Director, writes that the concept of the ballet started with her Tito Moy, avant-garde composer and musicologist Dr. Ramon Pagayon Santos. In the early 1990s Dr. Santos composed Daragang Magayon, which was set to a libretto by Merlinda Bobis, a Bicolana poet and award-winning writer now based in Australia.
The original material took on a feminist stance and portrayed Daragang Magayon not just as the pretty maiden in the Bicolano epic but as a princess warrior. It had an experimental run at the CCP in 1993 in collaboration with choreographer Hazel Sabas and selected performers of Ballet Philippines.
With his sterling accomplishments in Philippine and Asian contemporary music, Dr. Santos was shortlisted for the National Artists Awards in 2009 and reportedly got the most number of votes during the selection process. For unknown reasons, he was unceremoniously dropped from the original choices when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the strength of her “presidential prerogative,” accommodated four other nominees.
Mired in controversy, the move was widely protested by other national artists and respected members of the Philippine arts and culture circle who questioned the inclusion of the new nominees Cecille Guidote-Alvarez (theater), Carlo J. Caparas (visual arts and film), Jose “Pitoy” Moreno (fashion design), and Francisco Mañosa (architecture). Amidst the ruckus, nothing was heard from Dr. Santos, but sometime in 2009, he was stricken with a life-threatening ailment that landed him at the Philippine Heart Center. To the members of his family of artists, this became a clarion call not only to get him back in sound physical shape, but also to reunite him with his beloved craft by reviving Daragang Magayon.
The task fell on the hands of Katrina Santos-Mercado, herself a highly respected dancer and teacher, and her choreographer/director husband Gerald Mercado, who had taken a keen interest in restaging the material in contemporary form. The Mercados are the founders of E-Dance Theater Performing Arts Lab, a group of young independent artists who are rooted in classical technique, but are committed to pushing dance beyond its conventional limits.
Being independent in the field of arts is usually associated with low budget. While the project didn’t lack inner circle support, it became apparent that the new production required more than that. In the summer of 2011 a fateful meeting with Albay Governor Jose Salceda, an avid supporter of local culture and the arts, provided the necessary boost to the creative endeavor. Noted for his vision, the governor saw in Daragang Magayon an art form that will best express Bicolano culture and values.
The new vision was to recreate Daragang Magayon as a multimedia dance performance. This meant reworking the entire music, producing a new libretto, and incorporating fresh insights into the Bicolano epic. The ballet revival on February 8th thus notches several firsts in the history of Philippine art:
- the first collaboration of three respected, modern artists: Ramon P. Santos (music composition); National Artist Virgilio Almario (new libretto); and Albay Poet Laureate Abdon Balde Jr. (new scenes and drama based on his extensive research on the Bicolano epic). [N.B. Dr. Santos will be conferred the 2012 Gawad CCP para sa Sining Award for Music on February 27, 2013].
- the first full-length ballet to be set to rondalla which, according to composer Ramon Santos, has never been used before in a serious production. He likewise saw this is a fitting tribute to the talented rondalla players in Bicol.
- the first-ever Filipino multimedia production of a provincial epic that brings together the best in dance, poetry, music, film and digital media.
Magayon, the beautiful and strong-willed daughter of Rawis chieftain Makusog, is the object of fancy of many men across the land. They include Pagtuga, the chief of the neighboring tribe Iriga who, along with his trusted warriors, journeys to Rawis bringing precious gifts in exchange for Magayon’s hand. Magayon, however, is unimpressed and runs away into the forest. She knows that her refusal to marry the arrogant Pagtuga is against tradition and will ruin her father’s reputation.
Not far away is Ulap, the hunter chief of a neighboring Tagalog tribe, who is hot on the trail of Usa. He takes down the elusive deer with his arrow and prepares to leave. Soon Ulap and Magayon are in each other’s path. Ulap is instantly mesmerized but Magayon maintains her guard like a true princess warrior. But just as she feels that she was falling for his gentle ways, she remembers her father and reluctantly runs home. Ulap follows her, bearing his catch on his shoulder.
Ulap makes his presence felt by thrusting an arrow into the steps of the chieftain’s house. He then offers Usa as his humble gift. Seeing the loving looks in the eyes of Ulap and Magayon, the chieftain gives the two his blessings. Unknown to them, Pagtuga and his trusted aide Linog witness everything.
Soon rumors are all over Rawis that their beloved Magayon is finally in love. Makusog confirms this in an offering ritual and presents Ulap to his people. The wedding of Ulap and Magayon is announced. The priestess Balian leads the ceremonies where Makusog presents Ulap with his heirloom sword.
While the celebration is going on, Pagtuga and his warriors find a way to abduct Makusog. A tribal war between Rawis and Iriga ensues. The war is also symbolic of the rivalry between the god Gugurang represented by Rawis, and Aswang represented by Iriga. Aswang has always been envious of Gugurang’s possession of the power of fire or Calayo. During the battle, Makusog is saved, but Pagtuga dies by Ulap’s sword.
To avenge his master, Linog shoots a poisoned arrow directly at Ulap. Magayon shields Ulap with her own body. As Ulap cradles her lifeless body in his arms, the arrow also pierces his chest. Linog approaches them to finish off his revenge but Ulap gathers his remaining strength and kills the Iriga warrior.
On the spot where Ulap and Magayon died, a mound mysteriously appears. With the passage of time, the mound has become a mountain that reaches up to the sky. According to local folklore, an earthquake (Linog) indicates an eruption (Pagtuga). An eruption is an attempt by Pagtuga to retrieve the gifts he once bestowed on Daragang Magayon. On clear days, clouds (Ulap) appear to kiss Magayon’s peak. Mount Magayon is now known worldwide as Mount Mayon.
And so Daragang Magayon, whether it refers to the Bicolano legend, the famous landmark, or the recent ballet interpretation, it can only mean one thing: Enchantingly Beautiful.
[Imbibe the vibrant energy of Albay and its people during the Daragang Magayon Festival in Legazpi City. The month-long celebration in May allows you to experience streetdancing, cultural events, trade fairs and everything else that is beautiful about the province.]