By Mia Cabalfin
“Tubig-ulan kang ‘di ko mayakap.” (You are rain that I cannot embrace.)
This was a line from a poem that served as my inspiration for my first ever attempt to create a contemporary dance piece about—what else?—heartbreak. It seemed like an obvious choice: dancing about love. What better way to express the anguish, turmoil, and longing of my foolish 20-something-year-old heart!
I had created my solo for the 2007 Wi_Fi Body Festival–New Choreographers Competition. In Tubig-Ulan, my movements and choreography were stilted, amateur, raw, haphazard, probably just honest at best.
I did not win, but I did bring Tubig-Ulan with me to Vienna, Austria for a Danceweb Scholarship Programme at the Impulstanz Festival. I worked with my teacher Susanne Linke, an artist renowned for her solo choreographic work.
I performed my solo for her in the best way I could, with my oh-so-tragic and emotionally charged dance steps. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Now dance it without music.” I felt a brief pang of panic. What would be my cues? How would I feel the dance without music? I proceeded anyway.
She stopped me mid-way and said, “Without the music, your dance makes no sense. You look constipated! Why are you waving your arms wildly? Is this solo even about love?”
My first of many knocks in the head. I thought I had it all figured out.
Lesson #1: With both love and dance, one must choose when to surrender to the music.
It is one thing to let the music take you away, another to make conscious, mindful decisions. Susanne taught me to make deliberate choices—for instance, how the flick of the wrist, the movement of the head, and the quickness of my feet—all those things change the intention of the piece.
My notion that love was surrender, abandon, and pure unadulterated feeling had shifted. True love, like dance, is conscious choice. It requires awareness.
That was my first foray into dancing about love and as the years went by, I realized it had become a recurring theme.
When I got home from Vienna after being away for a couple of months, lo and behold, I came home to a failed relationship (to put it lightly). The only way that I could make sense of the situation was to turn to my craft.
The piece was called September 30 (to commemorate the day of our breakup—cheesy, I know). I’d like to think of that piece as the beginning of my choreographic career in contemporary dance. My succeeding pieces were (surprise, surprise), still about love. Cue the violins.
Patapon, a pas de deux, was a play on words about the physical action of throwing, and the idea of how people in relationships throw words and feelings around. Singap (Gasp) made no use of music, only the choreography of the breath—where I felt like I was choked and fighting to survive and be heard. Transient used the words of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak—comparing myself to the main character, a little boy who wanted to sail away and escape to a magical world. To quote the book, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
Lesson #2: Use your head.
Whenever I went through some sort of crisis, I instinctively turned to dance. Instead of simply allowing the movement to carry me through, I focused on honing my craft, using both my head and my heart. In both love and dance, I learned to trust the process—be it structuring a piece, thinking of the next step, or shifting between hurting and healing. The choices we make define the dance; they make up our life’s choreography.
Fast forward to five years later, my dance partner Rhosam Prudenciado, Jr. and I created Housewarming in Kyoto, Japan. It was a full-length piece, staged in a traditional machiya, tackling marriage and gender issues, framed by tradition and rituals.
In previous years, my pieces were wild, passionate, violent, painful, and liberating. I am older now and, I guess, more jaded. In sharp contrast to my youth, I had discovered quieting down and minimizing movement.
Lesson #3: Stillness can speak volumes.
During my three-month stay in Japan, I learned a new thing: restraint. The dances I did were hardly with any movement, but the images were much more powerful. I remember standing before the audience in the first seconds of the performance, in simple silence, vulnerability, and clarity. All I could hear was my heart beating in my chest. It is in the quietest and stillest of moments in the dance that one finds oneself.
Down the line, it came to a point where my dance partner Rhosam would joke, “Oh yay, you’re heartbroken again, we have a new piece!” We created more dances together: 3 Kisses Means Goodbye was as love-themed as it could get, as we danced with red rose petals on stage, while Bilangan was a collaboration with conceptual artist Fabrice Hyber, with 500 pieces of plastic dishware, focusing on how couples tally deeds, mistakes, and favors.
Lesson #4: Be fully present.
Performing has taught me that after everything has been said and done—all the thinking, feeling, and decision-making, it is only now that matters. That “now” is what you feel in every move: whether it is to jump from one step to the next, to shift weight, to lift a limb, to fall, to run, to stay still, to trust, to take risks. You slip, you get back up. You change the dance, you adjust the steps. Everything is fleeting. There is no “take two.”
As of now, I suppose I have yet to find that “lovin’ feeling,” but as the old saying goes, the show must go on. Until it is time to take that final bow, you will still see me dancing.
Mia Cabalfin has been a company member and faculty of Airdance since 2006, where she trains, performs, and choreographs. Back in college, she was the president of the Company of Ateneo Dancers, and was recipient of the Dean’s Award for the Arts in Dance. She was also a television host and producer for ABS-CBN Sports. Currently, she an instructor and studio associate at Saddle Row.