Dance film in 360: a narrative in National City

Kara Nepomuceno


Artists amid pandemic have begun urgent conversations on the future of live performance and the role of dance film. Rather than embrace or reject the use of this medium, I want to highlight the agential possibilities of dancing “in 360”. I found this medium opened new possibilities for relating to movement, music, and my collaborators, grounded by the history of the community in which we performed. Through personal narrative, I share a snapshot of how this method can support dancers’ agency in the process of filming, as they direct their gaze not towards an external audience or lens, but instead ​towards the experience of moving with their collaborators and their site.

Driving down the freeway in the early morning fog, I see large signs that set my heart fluttering: the bright red and white of a Jollibee. The boldfaced type of LBC. The golden yellow logo of a Goldilocks, conjuring smells of sweet cakes and butter. After miles of stick-dry chaparral and urban sprawl, I’ve arrived in National City.

It is 7am, and I am heading to my first film shoot with Samahan Filipino American Performing Arts and Education Center. Founded in 1974, Samahan stands on the unceded land of Kumeyaay Nation, in a region currently known as San Diego1 . I am excited by the chance to perform with Samahan’s Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble. Founded by UCLA alumnus in ethnomusicology and dance, their mission has been to respectfully share and educate audiences about music and dances of southern Philippines, originating from Maguindanaon, Maranao, Tausug, Sama, and Yakan ethno-linguistic groups2 .

As I drive, I run through my errands for the day. I promised my family that after the shoot, I’d buy ube hopia at the National City Goldilocks. It’s the only one around for miles, and I can’t wait to taste the sweet purple root that reminds me of home.

I exit the highway, passing a small, dark green sign. It’s so plain I nearly miss it. With a start, I realize I’m driving on the Itliong-Veracruz Memorial Bridge.

My breath catches for a moment as I recall what I have read about Larry Itliong and Philip Veracruz, leaders in the 1960s labor movement. Their struggles for dignified labor improved the wages and working conditions of so many farm workers, many of them Filipino3 . This sign, an unassuming reminder of such a profound historical moment, gives my journey some perspective. Suddenly the air feels different, as the sign fades from view.

No longer nervous and distracted, I feel grounded as I take the off-ramp towards the film site. We’ll be dancing just a block from the bridge.

I reach the park where we will film. It takes us an hour to finish assembling the instruments and the set, some of us running on Filipino time. I slide a thick, dark green malong over my lime green blouse, my bare feet treading dewy grass. I’m sweating slightly beneath a black mask.

The musicians and dancers arrange themselves in a circle, with the camera on a pole at the center. The camera’s multiple lenses film the performance from almost every angle. At the head of the circle, the bronze kulintang stands in front of a tall white tent, draped with a colorful banner and strings of shells. The tent hides all our bags and additional equipment from view.

“Places,” someone says, and I kneel next to the gandingan with my malong draped carefully over the soles of my feet. The sun is beginning to burn, and from the strength of the gong ensemble, I know my ears will ring by the end of this take.

The director yells, “Action!” and to my surprise, he ducks behind the tent. He’s not going to watch us? I wonder. Then I realize that the camera films in all directions, so he would be in the shot. Later I see that the 360 camera connects to his phone, which allows him to monitor the shot from behind the tent.

As we begin the choreography called “Silong sa Ganding”, I think of the last time I performed this dance. We faced outwards to two enormous white tents, shading visitors for an  outdoor cultural festival. Now, it feels we’re performing for ourselves, without the external gaze of a proscenium audience or conventional camera. As I begin the first steps, I’m able to gaze across the circle and see the other dancers, the pole of the camera merely in my periphery. Rather than directing our focus to a camera or audience, our energy circulates in an intimate circle of instruments and bodies. As we face each other, the viewer’s eye seems incidental. The music carries us from all directions as we flick and curve our fingers. I am melting into its rhythms.

“Cut!” we hear, suddenly. The director runs out from behind the tent, his hand shielding his eyes as he squints up at the sky. A plane is passing overhead, drowning out our shot. We stop and start again. And many times over, as planes, electric scooters, local dogs, and fallen instruments find their way into our practice. While these interruptions felt frustrating before, the repetition now seems right, my muscles becoming more and more accustomed to the practice of moving, listening, pausing, and trying again. 

As I stand at the edge of the circle, I flex my fingers and prepare for another take. The tops of the eucalyptus trees stand tall in a ring around our field. I see the white and beige walls of the neighboring homes, tiled roofs glinting in the sun. The music begins again, and I raise my fingertips to the sky and draw them to the ground, realizing I can better connect to the rhythms of the kulintang ensemble. Renewing my awareness with each take, I relate to the newly-cut grass and the dry noon heat, the beige stucco walls and hardy trees. It feels right to be sharing space with this neighborhood in National City, the Itliong-Veracruz Memorial Bridge running past us. Rather than try to hide these “disruptive” elements, our performance embraces it all, ringed by the everyday bustle of this Philippine American community.

Several takes later, it’s a wrap. We take pictures and shed the regalia: pins, hair combs, blouse, skirt. I put on leggings and a sweatshirt and undo my hair. As promised, I drive to the Goldilocks and scan the shelves for sweet ube hopia. Then I drive again across the Itliong-Veracruz Memorial bridge, a small, green sign guiding me back home.

This video is a flat recording of the movement. The 360 film is still in post-production.

1. “About,” Samahan Arts, accessed September 30, 2020. back to text

2. “Mission,” Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble, accessed September 30, 2020. back to text

3. Arguelles, Dennis. “Remembering the Manongs and Story of the Filipino Farm Worker Movement,” National Parks Conservation Association, May 25, 2017. back to text