Still from Man@ng is Deity
Jose e Abad and Jonathan M. Mercado Production still from Man@ng is Deity dance film. Photo by Hana Sun Lee.

Even people well-versed in California’s demographics often come up short when trying to name the group that makes up the state’s largest population of Asian descent. Chinese? Nah. Koreans? Nope. Japanese?? No, no, no. For at least three decades, Filipinos have topped the list, at nearly 1.5 million. They also arrived before any other settlers, first setting foot here in the 16th century with Spanish galleons on the way to Acapulco. 

But it was the end of Spanish rule in 1898, and the American defeat of the Philippines’ independence movement a few years later, that ushered in an age of mass migration to California. From agriculture and labor to music and the military, the presence of Filipinos has often shaped the Golden State’s history while largely going unnoticed by fellow Californians. 

“Filipinos are very good at not rocking the boat. We blend in,” said Alleluia Panis, a choreographer, director and activist who grew up in Bernal Heights and remembers when many of the schools in the Mission had large numbers of Filipino students. It wasn’t always apparent, however, “because a lot of Filipinos have Spanish surnames,” she said. “My mother still lives in Bernal Heights. There was a feeling of safety and home in the Mission, with Latin immigrants who came from countries with the same colonizers.”

Alleluia’s latest project aims to make the Filipino experience both more visible and emotionally tangible, particularly the world of the pioneering wave that arrived between 1910 and the 1940s (known as the Manong Generation). Focusing on the stories of laborers remembered only by their families, her multimedia production, “Man@ng is Deity,” premieres Friday at ODC Theater and run through Dec. 5. Presented with KULARTS, which promotes contemporary and tribal Pilipino arts in the United States, the piece is part film and part dance theater production. Panel discussions with the artists, dancers and the production team follow each performance.

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Rather than telling the stories of specific people, Alleluia created “archetypal characters, using what we know about particular folks in a certain era,” she said. “I wanted to portray the average person who doesn’t get the limelight, drawing on family lore. I’m not a historian and I didn’t want to do the story of Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong,” the labor leader who spearheaded the 1965 Delano grape strike with fellow Filipino activist Philip Vera Cruz. 

Trained in ballet, modern dance, indigenous Philippine dance forms, and escrima, the stick-based national martial art of the Philippines, Alleluia has developed a highly personal movement vocabulary that reflects her hybrid identity. “My creations are anchored in the fluidity of traditional dance and the arm and leg movement of martial arts,” she said. “That’s the core that I go to. I’m also a practitioner of an indigenous belief system, what you could call animist, and the elements of the world, earth wind, fire, water and the void, anchor my characters.”

While “Man@ng is Deity” started as a theatrical presentation, the original March, 2020, production was canceled due to the pandemic (the work in progress received a prestigious Gerbode Foundation Special Awards in the Arts in 2019). “With our new insight from the sold-out. In the process of bringing it back to the stage, Alleluia decided to create a film version, so the ODC presentation layers the dance performance with the films “like an EP with several different tracks of the same songs,” she said. 

Both parts are set to an original score by Vallejo guitarist and composer Joshua Icban, who has worked extensively with dance companies and adventurous performance artists like Cellista. While “Man@ng is Deity” is his first collaboration with Alleluia, he got to know her beyond her reputation as a powerful creative force while participating in two of the TribU Tur (tribal tours) events she regularly brings to the Philippines, connecting West Coast artists with indigenous peoples of the southern islands of Mindanao. He wove some of the sounds and sonic textures he experienced during sacred rituals into the score, though it draws more heavily on contemporaneous Californian cadences. 

Still from Man@ng is Deity
Ladislao ‘June’ Arellano and Frances Sedayao. Production still from the “Man@ng is Deity” dance film. Photo by Hana Sun Lee.

“This piece talks about a certain time period and some pieces geared toward that time, like a swing piece for a section focused on the farmworkers,” Icban said. “At another point there’s a jarana, a song form with roots from Spanish colonizers. Those are so melancholic, and I used that composition style to create my own jarana. I took cues from the times, but some pieces get ethereal, evoking experiences past the earthly life, and I experiment with more futuristic sounds.”

Alleluia was leading force in the Filipino arts movement even before 1985, when she founded Kulintang Arts, Inc. (now known as KULARTS); she spent some of her formative years as a dancer, performing for Manongs at the I-Hotel in the mid-1970s. The residence for many low-income, elderly Filipinos, I-Hotel was demolished in 1977, and the protest movement to preserve the housing and its historical role in the heart of San Francisco’s now vanished Manilatown sparked a wave of Filipino American activism that endures today. 

Her involvement with the martial art escrima, which is known as arnis or kali, provided another avenue to connect with first-generation Filipinos, she said, “driving to Stockton every Saturday in the late 1990s to meet up with living Manong at the time. I got to be close with their children and grandchildren, and some of them are appearing in the film as farmworkers. I wanted to get their human experience, to portray these dapper beautiful men in their McIntosh suits, or really tough, hard-working farmworkers.”

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