‘Rama, Hari’ gala is a cultural feast

Rama, Hari (Rama the King) returns to live stage, becoming one of the most anticipated cultural events of the year. Produced by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, in partnership with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the ballet and musical had its gala at the rehabilitated Manila Metropolitan Theater on 15 September. Aside from the show itself, there were a lecture and a small tiangge (bazaar), affording the audience a fuller experience and a deeper appreciation of the ballet, as well as the source material, the Sanskrit epic Ramayana.

Also an initiative in line with the recently signed Philippines-Indonesia Memorandum of Understanding on Cultural Cooperation and the Philippines-India Cultural Exchange Program, the lecture, “Perspectives: Understanding Ramayana, The Great Epic of Asia,” was held in the early afternoon at the Metropolitan Theater Ballroom, tackling the impacts and different interpretations of Ramayana not only in India but also in Southeast Asia. Speakers were Agus Widjojo, ambassador of Indonesia to the Philippines; Shambu Kumaran, ambassador of India to the Philippines; and Dr. Marilyn Canta, retired professor from the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

Indian Ambassador Shambu Kumaran, Dr. Marilyn Canta, NCCA chairman Ino Manalo and Indonesian Ambassador Agus Widjojo. | Photograph by Roel Hoang Manipon

The Hindu epic, said to date back as early as the mid-eighth century BCE, is a much beloved work and has many versions in Southeast Asia. Its influence is very much evident in Indonesia, where the epic has a version written in old Javanese, called the Kakawin Ramayana. The Prambanan, the ninth-century Hindu temple compound, has bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the epic, and the Ramayana Ballet is regularly performed up to this day. In the Philippines, the Meranaw people of Mindanao has a folk story derived from Ramayana, “Maharadia Lawana,” which was adapted into an hours-long, modern theatrical showcase for the Budayaw: The BIMP-EAGA Festival of Cultures in 2017.

On the other hand, the tiangge, at the Hardin ng Ekspresyon, the west courtyard of the theater, had booths offering Indian food, spices and home decors. Fashion brand Plains & Prints also set up a corner featuring their latest collection featuring heritage sites in collaboration with photographer Mark Nicdao.

On the other hand, the tiangge, at the Hardin ng Ekspresyon, the west courtyard of the theater, had booths offering Indian food, spices and home decors. Fashion brand Plains & Prints also set up a corner featuring their latest collection featuring heritage sites in collaboration with photographer Mark Nicdao.

Audience members started arriving at six. The first-timers to the theater explored and took photographs of the different corners. Illustrious guests were led by National Artists Virgilio S. Almario, Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, Ricky Lee and Agnes Locsin, as well as cultural agency heads, National Archives of the Philippines executive director and NCCA chairman Victorino Mapa Manalo, National Museum of the Philippines director Jeremy R. Barns and Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino chairman Arthur P. Casanova.

Also in the audience were theater and cinema scholar Nicanor Tiongson, professor and researcher Galileo Zafra, actor and satirist Mae Paner, actor Menchu Lauchengco Yulo, talent manager Noel Ferrer, theater critic Amadis Maria Guerrero, Manila Vice Mayor Yul Servo, chef Gelo Guison and designer Barge Ramos. Aika Robredo, the eldest daughter of former Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, also enjoyed the show.

The wedding of Rama and Sita.

Her mother graced a rehearsal on 6 September, especially invited by Rama, Hari choreographer and director, National Artist Alice Reyes and composer, National Artist Ryan Cayabyab.

On 7 September, Robredo enthused on Facebook: “Yesterday, we, together with some local artists from Naga, trooped to the Metropolitan Theater in Manila to watch their first full stage rehearsal and we were stunned. They were not in costumes yet and the stage design was not even mounted yet but the entire production left us breathless and speechless!! It is the best of Philippine Dance and Music.”

She encouraged everyone not to miss “the only collaboration that features the masterful works of five National Artists.”

Aside from Reyes and Cayabyab, the other National Artists involved in the production are the late Bienvenido Lumbera, who wrote the lyrics and libretto; Salvador Bernal, who designed the stage and costumes; and Rolando Tinio, who translated it to English. They were not yet declared National Artists when the production by Ballet Philippines premiered on 8 February 1980 at CCP’s Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo. The original staging featured Nonoy Froilan, Basil Valdez, Kuh Ledesma, Leo Valdez and Edna Vida.

Rama, Hari was not restaged until 2012, starring Christian Bautista, Karylle Tatlonghari, Richardson Yadao and Katherine Trofeo. It won 14 Philstage Gawad Buhay awards. An adaptation was mounted in 1999, called Rama, Hari, Rama at Sita, The Musical, featuring Ariel Rivera and Lani Misalucha as performers, directed by Leo Rialp and choreographed by Locsin. The music was composed by Cayabyab and Danny Tan, and the lyrics written by Roy Iglesias and Dodjie Simon, based on Lumbera’s book.

Rama, Hari was planned to be the closing production of Ballet Philippines’ 50th season in March 2020, but was canceled when lockdowns were imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic. When Reyes established her own dance company in 2022, the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines, Rama, Hari became one of its cherished projects.

Energetic dancing by Alice Reyes Dance Philippines. | Photographs courtesy of Teddy Pelaez

Reyes put both dancers and singers on the same stage, interpreting scenes and emotions in both words and movements.

The cast is led by Arman Ferrer as Rama with alternate Vien King and dancer versions Ronelson Yadao and Ejay Arisola. Sita is portrayed by singers Karylle Tatlonghari, Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and neophyhte Nica Tupas and dancers Monica Gana and Katrene San Miguel.

Erl Sorilla as Lakshmana and Monica Gana as Sita. | Photograph courtesy of Teddy Pelaez

Singers Poppert Bernadas, Matthew San Jose and Jonel Mojica and dancers Richardson Yadao (also dancer for King Janaka) and Tim Cabrera take on the villain role, the demon king of Lanka, Ravana.

Other performers are Audie Gemora (singer, King Dasaratha), Lester Reguindin and John Ababon (dancers, King Dasaratha); Miah Canton and Raflesia Bravo (singers, Kooni and Soorpanakha); Ma. Celina Dofitas and Sarah Alejandro (dancers, Soorpanakha); Michaella Carreon and Dofitas (dancers, Kooni); Katrine Sunga and Maron Rozelle Mabana (singers, Kaikeyi and the Golden Deer); Janine Arisola and Karla Santos (dancers, Kaikeyi); Erl Sorilla and Renzen Arboleda (dancers, Lakshmana and King Sagreeva); Paw Castillo and Jon Abella (singers, Hanuman and Lakshmana); and Dan Dayo and Ricmar Bayoneta (dancers, Hanuman); Alejandro and Krislynne Buri (Golden Deer); Dayo and James Galarpe (Bharata).

Aside from ARDP and CCP’s Professional Artist Support Program, other performers come from Guang Ming College Artist Residency Program, Philippine High School for the Arts, De La Salle College of Saint Benilde and the Ryan Cayabyab Singers.

Music is performed by Orchestra of the Filipino Youth with Antonio Maria P. Cayabyab as conductor.

After the two-night gala on 15 and 16 September at the Manila Metropolitan Theater, the production moves to the Samsung Performing Arts Theater of Circuit Makati in Makati City on 22 and 23 September.