It’s a Tuesday night in the house of Gabby Barredo in Parañaque, and the artist, despite his tension over what might be the outcome of this evening’s proceedings, has prepared a feast of beef and chicken sandwiches, taco chips, and salsa, on a buffet table amidst a veritable slaughterhouse of naked bodies with punctured middle parts and missing breasts—just mannequins, of course. By the door, a photograph of an ancient meatshop with its butchers and attendants posing for a portrait remind one of the pictures of the dead in the film The Others. Some party, you would think, but it is not. It’s the first meeting of the creative people putting together a ballet production called Opera: A Rebirth in Three Acts.
Yes, Gabby Barredo is doing a ballet. He of the macabre kinetic scupltures and installation works filled with unborn babies, missing torsos, and all these fake human skeletons trapped in a web of distressed hosiery surrounding his guests as they bite on crunchy bread crusts and toss their salads—all to be washed down with Coke, or San Miguel Pale Pilsen, the artist’s favorite drink. Staging a ballet was a longtime dream of Barredo’s, apparently, Margie Moran-Floirendo tells me. “It was the idea of Mercedes Zobel, but it was also Gabby’s dream to turn his work into a ballet. He’s been planning this for many many years,” says Floirendo, who is president of Ballet Philippines (BP), the group bankrolling the cultural event at the CCP this February.
Zobel, or Dedes as they like to call her, is a collector of Barredo’s works, and so is Maymay Lichtenstein, another Barredo collector and BP board member. The two saw the artist’s last show at Silverlens this time last year, the one called Opera, a show Jessica Zafra described as a “nightmare laboratory.” Since Zobel and Lichtenstein always thought of collaborating with an artist for a ballet, they pronounced the exhibition the perfect piece in which to build on a dance production.
And why not a Gabby Barredo ballet, really? “I’m a frustrated ballerina,” the artist would joke at one point in the evening. Also, his sister Maniya was prima ballerina at the Atlanta Ballet. Her name comes up during the course of the discussions, but the idea of bringing her in to perform is quickly set aside. She is trained in classical ballet, and Opera is envisioned to be very, very contemporary. Hence the choice of director and choreographer, the French-Algerian Redha Benteifour, who is famous for his modern pieces and has studied with the legendary Martha Graham in Los Angeles. The two got along well pretty quickly, Benteifour and Barredo. As soon as the foreigner is ushered into the studio, he is struck at once with a wealth of ideas, awed clearly by the installation pieces. The lighting, he says for starters, should be akin to natural light. No colors! Except maybe red—“To keep it edgy.” But not too red! It will overwhelm the color of the dancers in their flesh tights. Just the right red, so you see the flesh of the dancers—it’s so carnal! Barredo, who looks as if he has just encountered a soul mate, agrees, as if Benteifour had just put into words everything that’s he’s imagined for the production. They look alike, too, these two, with their shaved heads and spectacles. Barredo is the guy with the restrained frenetic energy, and Benteifour is Barredo with movement, hands slicing the air, shoulders like the wheels of a train.
The meeting commences, and everyone is introduced. Title is the first topic, which one camp suggests has to be “Opera: Rebirth, A Ballet in Three Acts” so as not to confuse the original installation work with the ballet. On the other camp, the suggestion is to keep the original: “Gabriel Barredo’s Opera.” It’s simple and grand at the same time, and would look nice on a shirt. “Kahit hindi na ilagay yung pangalan ko,” Barredo jokes, but he can’t be serious. “Everything is based on your work,” counters Erwin Romulo, a longtime collaborator of the artist. “And I don’t mean just Opera, but your entire body of work.”
Romulo is overseeing the music and the writing of the ballet’s libretto. It will be a two-hour show divided into three acts: God, Sex, and Death, themes Barredo has obsessed over for years.
“Then there should be three climaxes,” says Benteifour.
“Don’t worry, it will be multiple orgasms,” Romulo jokes.
In the original plot, the ballet is about a boy who creates this toy that’s like a strange mirror image of himself. But that has since changed: now it’s about twins and how they stick together to fight one enemy. Something like that. “In the end it is about the triumph of one’s true self, the importance of family, and the irreplaceable power of love in its varied forms,” says Yvette Tan, the librettist. That hardly sounds like the dark Barredo production we’re expecting, but then maybe there lies the surprise. The music, which Romulo is doing with Malek Lopez, takes off from the abovementioned holy trinity of God, sex, and death. He and Lopez listened to a lot of violin concertos by Alban Berg, stuff by Throbbing Gristle, and even Jose Maceda. “I was trying to describe what we are trying to do,” he tells me, “but putting it into words makes it sound so mundane.”
Which this ballet won’t be, don’t worry. “More and more this is what modern art is evolving into,” Benteifour says, “mixing everything up: sculpture, video, performance, everything. Before you would either see an art show in an expo, or a ballet in a theater. But today when we have so much information and there are no boundaries in between them, a production like this only makes the most sense!”
Barredo is designing the stage, of course. The artist is hoping to transform not just the Main Theater of the CCP into an extravagantly eerie surgical clinic, but also its lobby, and maybe even the façade.
Benteifour says everything should begin in darkness, and slowly things are revealed to the audience. “We need to be in a completely naked theater. No traditional curtains, no wings. So we can project on the walls. Everything is more modern, contemporary, but also the experience of the spectator is, ‘Wow, the CCP looks different!’”
“Exactly what I want,” Barredo whispers to me, giddy.
“If we take out the interference of traditional theater, the effect is that the audience will be taken to a journey, a new space, a new form, new art! Everything so urban!”
“Ah,” Barredo’s voice cuts through, as if he himself has just been launched into orgasm. He’s been stressed most of the day and nervous about how this first meeting will turn out. He applauds, and lets go a smile of relief. “That’s exactly what I was talking about!”