Vanini Belarmino in conversation with Eisa Jocson
Having received training at the Philippine High School for the Arts and the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, what was the impetus that triggered your relationship with contemporary dance?
I had classical ballet training from 7 till 12 years old. I decided to enter PHSA with a focus on visual arts and took ballet as an elective. I then continued my education in visual arts at the University of the Philippines, College of Fine Arts majoring in Sculpture. On my 3rd year of university, I had to choose between taking up nursing or visual communications. I chose the latter.
I was introduced by my aunt to pole dancing during my last year at university. As the first batch of students learning pole in a dance studio context, we received a lot of stigma. I had been practicing for 2 years, became a pole dance instructor myself before I saw the potential of pole dancing as a tool in my artistic practice. Pole dancing being heavily charged with its own history was in an interesting period of transition and appropriation from the nightclubs to the fitness industry. The shift lies in the embodied engagement with pole dancing. The physical labor, monetary investment, change of lifestyle to become a ‘pole dancer’ is exposed. For those practicing pole dancing in this context, it is no longer an image outside of their sphere but a lived practice that brings with it a different set of conditions as well as community formation.
Stainless Borders: Deconstructing Architectures of Control was the first work inspired by my pole dance practice. The work is an intervention in public space that combines guerrilla street pole dance techniques with graffiti tagging on top of street poles. The work was first developed and performed in Manila and was presented in Coup de Ville (2010) an international art festival in public spaces in Sint Niklaas, Belgium. Within this period, I had an artist residency with FoAM, a Brussels-based cultural laboratory. I was then researching on the politics and potentialities of pole dancing.
In 2011, through Tang Fu Kuen, I was commissioned by In Transit performing arts festival in Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin to make a piece around the theme of Spectatorship. I was at that time in artist residency with Nadine in Brussels. Under these conditions I was able to create my first solo performance work. Death of the Pole Dancer interrogates the way we look at what we think we look at. The audience is brought to reflect on what they witness: a woman during the act of pole dancing. The performance renegotiates notions such as voyeurism and restraint, vulnerability and violence, sexuality and power.
Could you share and elaborate on how you moved forward from ballet, burlesque then pole dancing alongside your visual arts practice towards the development of extended research about the economics of the body?
Ballet was formative in my physical and movement orientation. My visual arts education and practice gave me access to theoretical discourse. Pole dancing enabled me to investigate movement in relation to its social context.
In 2012, I moved away from pole dance as a tool in my artistic practice. I decided to learn the opposite gendered language in the realm of night work – macho dancing. Visiting several macho clubs on a regular basis, I invited good macho dancers to teach me. It took me a year to become aware of existing movement habits and to transform the movement practice of my body. A change of lifestyle was necessary; going to the gym became part of the research. I was stepping outside my given body politics as a woman as well as expanding spatial sphere into the urban nightclubs of Manila. The work Macho Dancer was made between Manila and Brussels. It premiered in Brussels in 2013 and toured different cities in Europe, America and Asia. I approached Patrick Flores of Vargas Museum to make an exhibition about the process behind Macho Dancer which resulted in a solo exhibition in March 2014 titled: PMA; Philippine Macho Academy. The exhibition refers to a fictional institution of masculinity. It was then invited to the Wifi contemporary dance festival 2014 in Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The idea for the next work came in 2011 when I first visited Japan. Curious about the existing relations of Philippines and Japan I became fascinated with how Filipino/a entertainers negotiated their identity to fit into the demands of their Japanese clients.
During my residency with Saison Foundation in Nov 2014, I met a transgender Filipina hostess who transmitted to me one of her dances. In parallel I was learning Nihon Buyo as a way to get some understanding of Japan through the body. Host was created in Tokyo, Brussels, Yokohama, Metro Manila and finally premiered in Dusseldorf in May 2015. I had to reorient my body away from macho dancing into a malleable vessel that is versed on transcultural notions of feminine representations.
I am currently researching on Filipinos dancing in Disneyland Hong Kong. In 2008, I made my bachelors thesis on the state of Ballet Philippines post-Disney exodus. Where in half of the company members went to work in Hong Kong Disneyland. I am revisiting the subject from the point of view of those who went or are still there.
In the last 5 years, you’ve embarked on an intensive (intensified) process of exploring a range of dance vocabulary, shifting gender orientation, and completing an anthology on the Filipino sexual capital through Death of a Pole Dancer, Macho Dancer and Host – how would you define your role in the retelling and/or appropriation of their stories?
I approach these subjects from within movement languages specific to each context. There is a long and intimate transmission process between my teachers working in the field (macho clubs, host club in Tokyo) that results in my embodiment of their dance practices. Dancing their dances does not equal to telling their stories. These marginal movement practices loaded by their specific context become tools in destabilizing dominant and comfortable ways of seeing. All 3 works operate in the dissonance between perceived notions of reality and performed embodiment.
In the numerous interviews you’ve given, you’ve consistently highlighted the apparent economic challenges by those working in the professional sex industry, how would you say this has paved way for you as a Filipino artist, performer & choreographer, being heavily supported and presented by European institutions?
I am concerned how the body moves and what conditions makes it move; social mobility and non-mobility as well as movement out of Philippines in the form of migrant work. I am interested in current body languages formed by social conditions. It follows that our body politics is a reflection of the society we live. What is shared between pole, macho, host is that capital is a driving force of movement in the body and in into spatial geographies. I work between Manila and where there is support for what I do; Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Hong Kong etc.
How do you manage the physical and mental demands of these diverse performances particularly that you have been on an on-going tour, research and residency?
I’ve found myself in a state of floating in between intense periods of work. Shifting between extreme focus and blur. It’s a strategy that the body naturally adapts. Working in cycles I physically and mentally prepare slowly. I spend a lot of time on one thing only gearing up at the end of a work phase. Then there is nothing left but to float, rest, sense. And then I start again. There are routines that are vital that I try to keep constant: meditation, chanting, reading, yoga. It is important for me to be grounded back in Manila with family and friends and to keep connected to the context and lived reality of the Philippines.
Vanini Belarmino is curator, producer and writer, trained in theatre arts, art history, European cultural policy and management. She is Founder and Managing Director of Belarmino&Partners, an international cultural and arts consultancy, established in Berlin (2008) and Singapore (2011). Vanini is a 2015 Asian Cultural Council Curatorial Fellow.