She Who Dances Stories into Being

“In the last twenty years, we (Kularts) have been very focused on storytelling among our people because WE need to wake up. We need to SEE ourselves. I recreate these stories, our work that is very specific to our way of telling things, so that WE can see them.”

Alleluia Panis (Photo by Gene Alejo)

Alleluia Panis (Photo by Gene Alejo)

On September 26, Alleluia “Manai” Panis was honored as the very first recipient of San Francisco Art Commission’s Artistic Legacy Grant. The grant recognizes “the impact of an artistic director that has served the organization consistently for twenty five years or more. Through the vision of the artistic director, this organization is considered to be a vital member of the respective community that they serve and has a history of working to educate the broader community on the importance of their culture and/or artistic genre.”

When asked what she sees as the reason for being the inaugural recipient, Panis said that at first, she didn’t really believe it when SFAC told her that she was the one to be awarded the Artistic Legacy Grant. In fact, even when she accepted it on stage she expressed that this grant really represented Kularts, the organization, not her specifically. Panis credits her parents with having ingrained this broader outlook into her and her seven siblings.

“This was my parents’ own ethic, about life: You don’t do the work because you’re gonna get praise. If it’s something that’s driving you, then you have to fulfill it to its fullest… Don’t look at the thing as just a job. You gotta look at the whole thing. My work is so specific and within a particular community; given the racism and all the -isms that we have, recognition for the work would not have happened without the community.”

Alleluia receiving the San Francisco Art Commission’s Artistic Legacy Grant (Photo by Gene Alejo)

Alleluia receiving the San Francisco Art Commission’s Artistic Legacy Grant (Photo by Gene Alejo)

Panis and her family emigrated from the Philippines to the U.S. in the mid-‘60s when she was 12, joining her grandparents who were already living in the Fillmore district. They lived on Turk Street in the building which later became known as the Pink Palace, which is now no longer there. “We lived on Floor ‘I’; the floors were named by letter rather than by number. It was clean in terms of what it looked like, but going up and down the stairs, I remember the smell of piss and chlorine. But this was America.” That it was a cement house, and not the typical Filipino house, made her feel that America was rich.

As a young artist, Panis was afraid to deal specifically with subjects such as incarceration, or having ability to see spirits, or discrimination, and other taboo subjects—things that parents or relatives might not discuss, for example. But in the ‘70s, at the age of 24, the first such subject project she took on as a young choreographer was “The World of Suzie Wong.”

“Suzie Wong was iconic, the cliché that society gives to young, beautiful women of Asian descent. In the film she was a prostitute; she was happy to be a prostitute and was living with an American man in Hong Kong. And I was like, there is something missing in that story. So, what’s my take on that—around Asian American females?”

Alleluia with the author during the reception (Photo by Gene Alejo)

Alleluia with the author during the reception (Photo by Gene Alejo)

The trajectory of her work evolved from being a dancer to later discovering that being a choreographer was what was more “delicious” in terms having the luxury of doing intense levels of research, to get into a subject and develop it over a couple of years.

Perhaps the collective experiences of her family members have provided deeper meaning to one of the words that defines her work: Resonance.

“If there isn’t a deep resonance, then I won’t do it. As a theatre person, more than anything, the subject is greater than the action. In other words, what is the internal story?”

Panis’ creativity thrives in the art of storytelling—writing in movement. “You start out as a young artist trying to prove that you can tell engaging stories through movement—that you can physically do these things, and I think you focus on the physical. Because that’s what a dancer does. And, as a young person, you wanna look beautiful, even tragically beautiful, or monstrously beautiful (laughs).

Likewise, when choreographing dancers, Panis treats the guidance as if she’s directing a play. Of course a dancer needs to have strong physicality, but utilizing each gesture and movement to illuminate the subtext beneath the dance is what is essential; thus, “every movement needs to resonate with the dancer.”

Alleluia Panis is laying the groundwork for future Filipino American generations. Her vision of continuing to re-create stories will continue until there are no more stories to tell because “if WE can see them, then we will value them. And we are becoming more visible.”

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Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a third generation Filipina-American whose personal path in the healing arts has led her into the company of indigenous Philippine mumbaki such as Lagitan and energy practitioners. Lisa is on faculty at College of San Mateo in both the Language Arts and Kinesiology divisions. She is the author of #30 Collantes Street (Carayan Press, 2015).

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