The Singkil is a Filipino dance that tells the story of a Muslim Filipina princess who gets through a forest safely while the gods send a terrible earthquake to trip her up. It’s danced with fans and bamboo poles, and is an expression of grace delicately balanced within danger, as the dancers must step nimbly between moving bamboo poles that could trip them up or crush their ankles with a single mistake.
Catherine Hernandez’s play Singkil is a highly symbolic and evocative expression of this dance. It tells the story of Mimi Perez, a Filipino-Canadian woman coming to terms with her mother’s death. Her mother Maria used to dance the Singkil, but then gave up her dancing when she and her husband Nestor moved to Canada to build a new life for their family. Mimi has never learned the dance but somewhat auspiciously discovers her mother’s Singkil headdress in her apartment.
The play moves back and forth in time, showing Mimi dealing with boyfriend troubles and the complex emotions dredged up by her mother’s childhood friend and fellow dancer Norma coming for a visit, then flashing back to Maria and Nestor’s life in Manila and in their first few years in Canada. It’s a complex story, and Hernandez includes a lot of choreography stage directions that sound beautiful and evocative.
It sounds like a beautiful play and I think it’ll be incredible on stage, but it doesn’t quite translate as well onto the page. The fluidity of the time periods and shifting character roles felt confusing to read about, and the parts about the voices Mimi hears and the choreography the characters go through lose some of their power in book format. Still, I love the photos of the production included in the book, and I’d love to see the play — and the Singkil dance! — performed onstage.
Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.