SINGKIL by Catherine Hernandez, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, with Nadine Villasin, Karen Ancheta, Leon Aureus, Rose Cortez and David Yee. Presented by fu-GEN and Factory at Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Previews from Saturday (January 6). Pwyc-$30.50. See Previewing, page 56. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Playwright Catherine Hernandez has been dancing since birth. In fact, since before birth.
"I remember when I was around 20 discovering a picture of my mother, a teacher of Filipino folk dance, performing the ritual Singkil dance. That wasn't a surprise, but when I looked at the date on the back I realized she was about four months pregnant with me."
That realization inspired Singkil, Hernandez's new script about Mimi, a young Canadian-Filipino woman who comes to terms with the secrets in her family, including the history of her recently deceased mother.
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino, Singkil is the sophomore production by fu-GEN Theatre, presented in association with Factory.
"From the start, the audience watches a family in crisis, all of whose members react differently to the death. Mimi's at the edge of a primal scream for most of the play, since she believes that she doesn't love her mother and therefore won't give in to mourning."
The arrival from the Philippines of her mother's best friend, a fellow dancer, leads Mimi to seek more information about her mother, but it's not always the kind of knowledge that she wants. The result puts stress on Mimi's relationships with her father and her live-in boyfriend.
The story is propelled not just by the narrative, but also by music and dance.
The Singkil, a dance of royalty accompanied on gongs and the gamelan-like kulingtang, tells of a princess who escapes a violent earthquake by stepping deftly over the erupting ground, symbolized by clapping bamboo poles over which the dancer leaps.
"In later versions of the story a prince accompanies the princess," notes Hernandez, who as a child learned the dance from her mother. "But the piece is really about the princess saving herself. In Mimi's world, neither her boyfriend, Chase, nor her father, Nestor, can solve her problems; she has to provide her own answers."
Just speaking about the primal Singkil beat, with its alternating booms and claps, give Hernandez a chill.
"It's a hypnotic rhythm, a trancelike throb that keeps the dancer floating on top of the poles that try to trap her. The five notes make a ghostly sound that resonates through you, so you know something magical is going to happen.
"There's something about that Singkil beat. I'll still hear it on my deathbed and know that it's the heartbeat that helps define the community."