What lies in the minds of young children that gestates as they grow older, is sometimes never forgotten, and one day is realized, whether in the reality of life itself or in a beautiful fantasy translated in an art form?
In the case of Sofia Zobel Elizalde, it was the muted pastels and dainty laces in the fine illustrations of Beatrix Potter’s animals, which, after years of dancing, marriage, three children and 20 years of teaching ballet, finally burst into full fruition in a delightful Christmas presentation by Elizalde’s Steps Dance Studio scholars, entitled “Pepe’s Secret Christmas.”
Set on the last day of “Misa de Gallo,” the young protagonist, Pepe, falls asleep at Mass and is transported to what librettist Floy Quintos terms as a Filipino Never-Neverland, “where animals speak and dance…coming together to honor the Niño.”
It is a simple plot meant for children and adults alike that carries underlying messages of respect for all living things, in a context that is warm with down-home Filipino values.
It is in the staging and the dancing, however, that the “usualness” of a Philippine-inspired fairy tale stops.
Unlike many Philippine-inspired theater designs, which utilize either bright primary colors or swing to the other extreme to end in a sepia-soaked spectrum, scenographer Gino Gonzales, known for his restrained and underplayed lushness, manages a production palette that whispers color and delicateness in a very Filipino way, yet keeping within the bounds of Potter’s “veddy” English intent.
It is the meticulously selected tone of each color that gives Gonzales’ design a kind of glow without being boisterously festive, nor mushily nostalgic in evoking a period past. There is an explosion of color in the altogether sequences, for sure, but one of elegance and taste despite the playfulness.
The complex costume designs, topped off by the wonderfully constructed detailed head masks, give the design package that rich and opulent feel (though I was told that the design ingenuity far outweighed the actual cost).
The stage is framed by an arch of goldish cutouts, perhaps derivative of the Pahiyas festival, and studding the cutouts are native red lanterns. In another mind-set, it could perhaps come off as rather Mudejar-influenced. Yet, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes for this intriguing design configuration.
On the proscenium, the computer printout on canvas of a blown-up Romeo Galicano Philippine landscape sets the locale. It is a witty techno-age translation of the old-time “telon.” Likewise, in the final scene, a computerized enlargement of the nativity scene by Rafael del Casal, perhaps the best known ecclesiastical painter today, unfurls in a triptych.
Using traditional “higantes” for Pepe’s parents further defines the Filipino-ness, just as the use of these nonreactive mannequins emphatically tells the audience: this is strictly a performance by young ’uns.
In most children’s recitals or ballet school presentations, we tend to excuse slip-ups as “cute,” amusing ourselves that “this is just a school show. This is not a professional show. They are just kids.”
Not so in this production: the rehearsed joy was real and the steps were precise. No elbows were lax, bringing to mind a ballet class cheer-on of ballet master William Morgan some years ago: “You must shine to your fingertips without the help of Elizabeth Arden!”
And shine they did even underneath those head masks. The evidences were clarity and precision, beautifully formed feet and graceful arms, poised upper bodies: the forbearance of well-trained dance potential.
A final tribute to Philippine-ness was the use of original Filipino pop music, whose familiarity to one and all brought smiles all around. With well-chosen pieces by choreographers James Laforteza and his associate choreographers Jeffrey Espejo and Jun Saagundo, the song and dance were well in-synch.
The “animal steps” which the story required were choreographed not in a camp-and-cute way, which choreographers are wont to do, but instead were treated naturally in character for each creature: the dahong palay was voluptuously slinky, the tikling swift and regal, the monkeys naughty but not silly.
In all, there was serious dancing to be seen without having to resort to the usual crowd-pleasing animal dance antics. Laforteza’s ease in choreographing a soft shoe routine as seen in the altogether climax was simply delightful, especially when danced by young Lope Lim in the role of Pepe, who looks like he possesses the natural cadence for this particular dance genre.
This small mall-touring dance school extravaganza makes a statement—that big bucks do not necessarily equate to grand illusions. All it takes is an educated concept, thorough research and mindful execution, pushing it beyond common expectations with unbound, yet directed creativity. Of course, foremost are the willing and dedicated young talents whose palpable enthusiasm reaches out beyond the stage. Then, small becomes not at all small.
What children read, what children dream, and helping such fantasies become reality is no easy endeavor, but rather a disciplined effort. Hard work can indeed make fantasies come true.
“Pepe’s Secret Christmas” will also be shown on Dec. 9 at Market, Market!, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.; and on Dec. 15 at Alabang Town Center, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.