Project Philippines 2008, an exciting four-week project funded by a Juilliard Summer Grant, was inspired by a wish to address the lack of arts education—and more specifically, in dance—in the poverty-stricken areas of the Philippines outside the capital of Manila. A passionate team of six Juilliard dancers (Kendra Samson, Norbert De La Cruz, Anthony Lomuljo, Nathan Madden, Timothy Ward, and me) and one visual artist (Gianina Ferrerya) shared its talents with children in the Philippines in the hope of providing them with opportunities to build confidence and find a new method of self-expression.
We boarded the plane at J.F.K. on July 21. Upon arriving in Manila, our group headed to the Philippines High School of the Arts, where Kendra Samson, a fourth-year dancer at Juilliard, was once a student. We taught a combination of movement classes and drama games to a group of 50 students, including theater arts majors and dance majors; these workshops offered them something they had never experienced before or even heard of.
One day, after teaching a group of dancers and theater majors a piece from our repertory, I asked the students to review the movement in their heads while I went and got water. I returned to the stunning sight of students holding hands and dancing in silence as one unified community. Holding my tears back, I realized that our team had encouraged these students—who had never had the chance to collaborate in school—to hold hands and dance together, fully embodying the fundamental idea of a community after a mere four days.
As a prompt for keeping a journal, we asked the students what community and art meant to them. Jerry Aguilar, a 14-year-old theater arts major, wrote: “I want art to be my medium in helping the society. Well maybe the American Society is not that bad but I’m telling you our community is really sinking into a corrupted mud and I want to make change. I know that art is the only key for development, I want to uplift the standing of the Philippines society through my art, the theatre.”
The Juilliard team and the folk-dance majors also took time to share performances with each other. And each Friday, we took a trip with the ballet majors to the Cultural Center of the Philippines, a studio in Manila, where we took ballet and taught classes in Limón and Taylor technique for the Ballet Philippines company.
At the end of our two-week stay, we performed for the high school students, while they performed the repertory we had taught them. Now functioning as one community of teachers and dancers, we all had grown physically, mentally, and emotionally. Exhausted yet inspired, our Juilliard team continued on to teach two different university groups at the Ayala Museum, after which the students performed for us, and we for them.
By the end of our first two weeks, our lives were changed—just as much as our students’ lives—by the connections we had made. We had fallen in love with these wonderful artists, with their bright new ideas and the inspiration they had shared with us. With a newfound hope and confidence, our group traveled to Samar, the poorest of the Philippine islands.
Samar was a shock we had not expected. As our plane landed on the runway, the sight of half-dressed children and dilapidated houses provided the first of the many upsetting images that were to come in the next two weeks. For the first time, we were confronted with a kind of poverty that is found only in third-world countries.
We taught classes to students in two schools, San Isidro and Bobon Central Elementary, every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The first school had only two teachers and two classrooms, with 40 kids in each. The most disheartening aspect of this setup was the lack of differing criteria for the grades. Kindergarteners through second-graders are taught on the same level, in one room; third- through fifth-graders are taught in the other. Sitting in on one of the classes, I was dismayed to notice that not all students had writing utensils, and there were only four books in the classroom. But the students’ dedication was clear: arriving two hours early every morning, they swept the entire building, prayed, and then sat together to wait patiently for their long day of learning to start.
Inspiring them with English words such as “respect,” “trust,” “exploration,” “possibility,” “uniqueness,” “imagination,” and “the chance to dream,” we gave each of the kids we worked with the opportunity to create something on their own: a story, a dance, or just pure movement. As the excitement and the trust between our team and the children grew, so did the interest from other students. More and more young, shining faces would timidly peek in from an open window or doorway, interested in our music or drawn by loud fits of laughter. With a flexible schedule at Bobon Central Elementary School, we were able to accommodate a growing number of students every day. Suddenly, kids who had previously only played in the streets with toy guns were in our classroom instead.
Hearing the students calling “Ate [Sister] Chelsea” or “Kuya [Brother] Anthony” down the streets of town, and feeling their huge embraces after a successful student performance, assured me that these unbelievable kids would carry the tools we were able to give them throughout their lives. Performing for the community more than 13 times, our team became a symbol of hope for many of these students and a symbol of hope for their parents.
With our art, we can inspire the next generation and provide opportunities even in places that seem to have run out of the barest of necessities. In the words of one of our students at Philippines High School of the Arts: “Art bonds everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. As long as you have the passion and the eye for it, then you are a part of art.”
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from—this is the beauty of a language that everyone can speak: Art.