Elena Rivera Mirano's “Subli: one dance in four voices” and Thick Description
by BRT Baylas
Whenever we hear the word 'subli', most of us would think that it is a type of dance. Some of us have seen it being performed on stage, while some probably had the chance to perform it in school events. In Elena Rivera Manalo's work, subli is more than just a dance.
|(c) From: CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Arts, vol.5 (1994), p.106|
The dance is just one part of what makes subli. It is a combination of the dance, the accompaniments that makes the music, the poetry that constitutes the lyrics, the stories involved, and the rituals practiced. Subli is a vow (a panata) of the people to their Mahal na Poon, their protector against danger and disaster, their giver, and their healer. It is a game, in a sense that it is a complicated mechanism, an act that needs skills, creativity, discipline and conviction; and an activity that brings amusement to people who performs it. This game is their way to please the Poon, it is what enables Him to continue blessing the people, giving them prosperity, peace and order in the society, and comfort (Mirano 99).
In the 17th to 19th century, the definition of subli concentrated on movements; dodging, hopping, changing of places, and avoiding collision while performing. In the late 19th century, historical papers included additional information on where it originated, when it was usually performed, and to which patron it was associated. A more detailed description was written in the early 20th century by Francisca Reyes Tolentino. She described subli as a ceremonial worship dance accompanied by various instruments, and documented its different floor patterns and movements. This literature, however detailed it has been, was unable to capture the true meaning of subli due to her desire to make it appropriate for stage performances, her use of weak methodologies, and the absence of appropriate technologies then (Mirano 96).
Subli, as a game and a form of vow, is composed of very different elements: dances, music, rituals, stories, and the social attitudes, which makes it difficult to comprehend and define. It is not enough to just study each element that constitutes it because, like any other system or mechanism, it is what makes subli whole. Mirano examined the past records and researches to find out which documents presented the original subli, and explored its different aspects to better understand its complexity.
The research presented four different point-of-views, or voices, as the title suggests, in giving a more detailed picture of what subli is really about. The first voice is focused on the performer, where the researcher interviewed a matremayo, a lead dancer, and gathered statements and song fragments from the manunubli (performers) to give readers an idea on how they feel and what they do, and find out the reasons behind their performances. The second voice is the examination of the historical records which gives a background on when, where and how the practice began. The third voice is the performance itself. It presented the separate elements: the song, dance, poetry and prayer, that are combined to form “a single ritual performance” which is the subli. The last voice presented gives the readers a glimpse of the author's thoughts as an observer.
The presentation of different point-of-views is what embodies Clifford Geertz's “thick description,” or the creation of a multi-layered (“thick”) description of the different elements and conditions that make the object's meaning (Willete). In thick description, all details, context, emotions and even social interactions are considered, and the significance of these elements and experiences to certain people are established to evoke a new understanding of the concepts (Woods).
Geertz borrowed the term “thick description” from Gilbert Ryle's discussion on what the thinker (“Le Penseur”) is doing, in his two essays, “Thinking and Reflecting” and “The Thinking of Thoughts”. The essays presented the difference between describing what someone is doing (“thin description”), and what a certain action means (“thick description”). As Greenblatt put it, thick description is “an account of intentions, expectations, circumstances, settings, and purposes that give actions meanings.”
Culture, according to Geertz, is a symbolic system and can most effectively treated by identifying elements, the relationships among them, and how they work as a whole. Analyzing a culture is not an experimental science, rather an interpretative one, because the concept of culture is semiotic, and in Geertz's words:
“a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which [an ethnographer] must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render.”
The approach can still be considered a science, because, culture as a symbolic system, is empirical. But instead of experimenting, the approach's empiricism is gained by “inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns” (Geertz).
Mirano did not give her own definition of the word subli, instead, she gave the readers a glimpse of the different 'voices' of it. Thus, giving the readers freedom to guess the meaning, assess and draw explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, instead of mapping out the meaning which is what Geertz wants cultural analysis should be. The research turned subli “from a passing event, which exists only in its own moment of occurrence, into a [written] account, which exists in its inscriptions and can be reconsulted” (Geertz).
Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
Greenblatt, Sal. “The Touch of the Real.” Representations. Berkeley: University of California Press. Vol 0 No. 59, 1997. Jstor. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
Mirano, Elena Rivera. Subli: One Dance in Four Voices. Manila, Philippines: CCCP, 1989. Print
Willete, Jeane S. M. “Material Culture: Art History Looks at Clifford Geertz.” Shockwrite: A Hybrid Journal of the Arts. 9 Feb. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
Woods, Peter. Qualitative Research. University of Plymouth, 2006. Web. 26 Nov 2011.