"Mamahay": beckoning home through movement and sound

Kara Nepomuceno


Mamahay is a dance film created from seven distinct narratives and locations, directed by Vermont-based artist Nikaio Thomashow, in collaboration with musician Neko Cortez and Daloy Dance Company (Manila). The project models a democratized and practical process for collaborating across different time zones, all while tracking the artists’ varied experiences of reorienting, resisting, and relating to home under lockdown. The movement and sound score developed from a series of small-group and paired online meetings to listen, discuss, and improvise on shared themes and ideas over several weeks. The dancers twist, curl and enmesh their bodies between furniture and everyday objects in the home. By turning familiar spaces strange, the project defamiliarizes the home to instead “beckon” one towards a refuge built from movement, sound, and creative agency.


Mamahay is a dance film created from seven distinct narratives and locations. Each dancer crafts a distinct visual world, connected by a landscape of rich, unconventional sound. Through its asynchronous collaborative process, the project charts an exciting path for creative exploration across distance.

The film is directed by Nikaio Thomashow (Burlington, VT) in collaboration with musician Neko Cortez and the artists of Daloy Dance Company, founded by Ea Torrado (Manila): Buboy Raquicito, Chloe Alcid, Cristina Gimenez, Deborah Lemuel, Joemarie Cruz, Julienne Depatillo, and Jovin Lazaro. Director Nikaio Thomashow also worked as composer, facilitator, and curator, inviting each artist from the company to cultivate their own movement and voice. Each section was filmed in the artists’ individual homes during the early months of the C19 pandemic.


Embodying entanglement

The film begins in the dark shadows of semi-lit rooms and doorways. Figures stand vigil at windows and doorways, while others stand on table tops and bathtub rims, behind gates and fences, climbing into precarious positions for a glimpse of the outside. Feet tread wooden floors lit by flashlight, toeing across tile in careful, measured steps. As the film progresses, bodies continue to twist and reorient themselves, squeezing into unusual spaces: between railings, inside closets, beneath furniture, and even in the plastic hollow of a laundry hamper.

On a tiled patio, Raquitico lies enmeshed in a geometric tangle of patio chairs. In a later scene, Jovin Lazaro taps fist-sized rocks with wild intent, crouching at the base of a cement wall. A section passes in which no sound is heard at all, although the dancers tap their heads against closet doors, rap their knuckles on bedroom walls, and appear to make sounds with objects in their home. As sound returns, the film progresses towards more expansive, light-filled scenes, towards a surprising and satisfying conclusion.


Shared soundscapes with a twist 

While each artists’ movement is distinct, their trajectories are skillfully integrated by director Thomashow’s editing and composition. They developed a 25-minute score that grew from two sections of trombone by musician Neko Cortez. The first trombone section was a voice that calls the body home, a sonic guide. The second brought a sense of resolution, finding or failing to find home, as the film progressed from dark, cramped rooms to light-filled yards and rooftops. These sections inspired the film’s subtitle "beckoning and becoming home", attributed to Buboy Raquicito.

Beyond the two trombone sections that “beckon” and “become” home, Raquicito also determined a main theme in the sounds of a lullaby and heartbeat, which suggest a womb or maternal voice as a source of home. Cortez and Thomashow interpreted this motif through trombone, guitar, and kulintang gongs, and the lullaby recurs throughout the composition.

Finally, the score sampled from the dancers themselves. Thomashow isolated original audio from the dancer’s individual videos - capturing feet sliding across tile, forehead tapping on wood, or hands scuffing walls. Dancers sent audio from their own homes, including rain, conversation, and even chanting. The composition reworks the dancers’ audio to defamiliarize once comforting sounds, creating an atmospheric and contemplative soundtrack that coheres the varied scenes in Mamahay.


Discomforting the home

Due to social distancing, each artist used their own cameras and crafted the angles and scenes for their dance. Positioning their cameras in unusual places - the cavern formed between two propped-up books, or inside the tight strip of carpet between a bed and a wall - they deposit the viewer inside spaces of domestic discomfort.  

Filming in or near their homes, each dancer’s space is highly intimate. In a bathtub, lofted bed, or closet, they shake, roll, and squirm in place. They grapple with space as if to will it into someplace larger, brighter. While they make their home spaces clearly legible, the dancers’ twisting, curling movements turn their everyday spaces strange.


Modeling asynchronous large-scale collaboration

In addition to its visual and aural craft, Mamahay models practical and engaging possibilities for large-scale collaboration across different time zones. Their process can inspire other artists as physical distancing continues into 2021.  

Despite never meeting in person, Thomashow and the artists of Manila’s Daloy Dance Company found ways to collaborate over the course of several weeks. Thomashow had met Daloy founder, Ea Torrado, the previous year, and was invited to join the Daloy dancers for a project in June. When C19 prevented them from traveling, they decided to do a digital collaboration. While Thomashow and the Daloy artists had never met before, they not only completed the film but also organized a summer intensive, Ugnayan, in the midst of filming.

Thomashow directed Mamahay from the Adirondacks, New York, while the Daloy artists collaborated from Manila and nearby locations in Luzon. With a thirteen-hour time difference and eight different schedules, the Mamahay artists explored collaboration through asynchronous rehearsals and filming times.

In a talk-back on Facebook Live, artist Chloe Alcid recalled, “I was afraid [that if] we were never all together working on this ... I don’t know if we’re all going to have the same idea”. She continued, “But when I saw the final product … there was still that common thread of understanding and integrity”.

This sense of shared understanding developed from a strong collaborative process. The collective met through weekly video chats to listen to the music together, often in smaller groups due to the artists’ availability. After listening to the in-progress score, they would discuss themes and ideas related to their concepts of home, and transition into movement improvisation.

Thomashow gave prompts and suggestions based on what they observed during these periods of exploration. They would then further develop the score independently, drawing inspiration from recordings of the dancers’ movements. The collective would meet again in small groups the following week, for a new iteration of listening, discussion, improvisation, and curation.

Outside of small group video chats, the director also met with each artist individually to build their choreography and contributions to the film. Each artist uploaded videos of their improvisations and movement ideas to a shared Google Drive, and produced new ideas from viewing each other’s recordings.  

In this way, while each segment was filmed separately, the dancers move with shared questions about home and similar relationships to the music. Thomashow recalled that many times the dancers worked off open-ended prompts, yet still produced similar interpretations that complemented each other. This democratic approach to dance-making not only generated interesting movement ideas but also bolstered the artists’ confidence in dance-making and agency in the choreographic process.


Agential collaboration, artistic growth

In the screening talk-back, each artist reflected further on their experiences during the filming process. Dancers enjoyed collaborating and even discovered new skills and creative frames.

Trained in dance sports, Joemarie Cruz reflected on uncovering interests in photography and film through the project. “We [had] the liberty to express or improvise on what feels good and what feels right, or organic. I discovered I really like taking photos, taking videos … I really enjoyed it,” he said.

Artists developed in other ways through their collaboration. Dancer Chloe Alcid was inspired by viewing her collaborator’s recordings, and their use of different frames and types of light. Cristina Gimenez took inspiration from the flowing, liquid way her collaborators moved their upper body and hands.

Buboy Raquicito, a choreographer as well as dancer, described his appreciation for the process and level of agency centered in the project.

“What’s new for me is the diversity of input and exploring … it felt like the direction is democratized among the dancers ... I felt it respected the pace of the dancers … the pace of processing, or exploring…” he said.

Thomashow confirmed that centering their creative practice around each dancer’s autonomy and artistic growth was “huge”. While dancers were used to learning choreography from a director, they seldom had the opportunity to explore concepts themselves. “I want dancers to feel like they put their own voice into the project, I want to give them a chance to say what they need to say,” they said.


Redefining the home

Mamahay develops from a democratized and practical process for collaborating across distance, all the while investigating shifting relationships to home under lockdown. Artists developed new and creative ways to inhabit their home spaces, defamiliarizing the everyday and crafting strange new worlds through movement and sound. With solemnity, absurdity, beauty, and a bit of humor, the artists propose alternative ways to make a home.

Daloy held a film screening and talk-back on Facebook Live on July 3rd, 2020. Since then, Mamahay has screened at Fifth Wall Fest and Oberlin College and Conservatory. The film can be accessed for viewing on Youtube and on Thomashow’s site.

Thomashow’s forthcoming project, “And the Breath In-Between”, will perform June 2021 Burlington, VT and Vermontville, NY. Their collaborative process can be supported on Patreon.