Dance review: Manila Zoo turns Zoom’s difficult gaze on its audience

Manila Zoo

Eisa Jocson
da: ns festival
Studio at the Théâtre de l’Esplanade, Saturday (October 9), 8:30 p.m.

Is Manila Zoo the answer to what the dance of the future will be? A grim proposition, when I consider the fact that I had to drag myself in person to the studio at the Esplanade Theater to watch the dancers perform on a big screen on Zoom.

Manila Zoo is the third installment in the Happy Land series designed by Filipino choreographer Eisa Jocson in response to what she sees as the conditioning and co-opting of the Filipino body as a workforce for amusement parks.

These thoughts were inspired by the hiring of many senior Filipino performers for the Hong Kong Disneyland parades and shows when it opened in 2006.

I was very amused and touched when I watched Princess, the first in the series, at the Esplanade for the 2019 da: ns festival.

Jocson and his colleague Russ Ligtas, disguised as iconic Disney Snow White, recreated scenes from the animated film.

Their stint between the unwaveringly sweet princess and their own tired, repressed selves faced the facade of happiness that Disney and the theme park culture nurture through the work of their performers.

Where Princess began with the pristine image of a delicate Disney Princess, the Manila Zoo begins by emphasizing the work involved in preparing for the show.

On a big screen in the middle of the stage, the performers in their individual Zoom frames endure a grueling fitness regimen.

Against the melodic buzz of The Little Mermaid soundtrack, soothing voices whisper “always there for you and me”, “yes, at your service” and “have a nice day”. Below we hear grunts, bodies breathless and dripping with sweat.

The dancers begin to roam their rooms on all fours, stretching and yawning, going from wolf to lion to fish. In their cages, they hiss, growl and get wilder.

The energy peaks and everyone is brought to their senses, reconnecting with human civility with a call for an aquatic break.

The artists introduce a page where the public can chat directly with them. Through their responses, I learn that the show was initially planned for 2019 to be in person but had to adapt due to the different immigration and border control measures.

The performers always insist on the “living” of the experience. A request from an audience member appears on the page: “Are you really live right now?” If you are, everyone says ‘cheese’. They oblige.

In addition to the common audience experience, the strict control of theatrical protocols offers some protection to the performers of this show, which is rated R18 for full frontal nudity and highly suggestive gestures.