Behind ‘Arkipelago’

Chancellor Michael L. Tan, UP Diliman
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I thought I should do a behind-the-scenes column about the opening ceremony titled “Arkipelago.” The responsibility for organizing the opening event rotates each year among the eight members of the UAAP, and this year it was UP that took charge, the Diliman campus in particular.

This opening is no small matter, given that Smart Araneta can hold up to 16,000 people, with ABS-CBN’s broadcasts—live and reruns—and the Internet reaching many more people. In the end, I think we all saw this as a grand learning opportunity on launching such a mega production, with strict time limits.

It seems, too, that the public does look forward to the UAAP’s opening ceremonies. At the beginning of this year, sports reporters were already calling me from time to time to ask how preparations were coming along. There was even a report in Rappler saying, with great confidence, that the UAAP board had decided to hold the opening at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan, which can take 55,000 people.

No, early on we decided that the Arena is much too far, but who knows, maybe in quieter times one of the UAAP members might want to take the challenge.

I did alert people in UP to begin preparations as early as October 2014, and I was confident that the planning had started. But last February I still hadn’t gotten any update, and when I checked, I found out that all we had was a concept: a day in the life of a UP athlete.

I quickly had the team reconstituted, led by Dr. Anril Tiatco, who already has his hands full as head of UP Diliman’s Information Office but wears another hat as theater expert.

Cast of hundreds

We agreed that it would be exclusivist to do a day in the life of a UP athlete, and the team brainstormed on possible themes. Rej Cruz, a member of our anthropology faculty who is also active in promoting local sports and music, did an inventory of Filipino festivals and sports to see if we could link them. A theme used in the chancellor’s investiture last year—that of the Filipino nation rising from the sea—was modified into “Arkipelago.”

We worked on a shoestring budget… and a surplus of goodwill and enthusiasm. We had chosen particular cultural and athletic groups but still required auditions, and in the end, we had 480 performers from UP’s Varsity Pep Squad, Streetdance Club, Dance Sport Society, Filipiniana Dance Group, Concert Chorus, Tugma and ROTC Symphonic Band.

There were another 58 production people, to make a 538-member dream team. The members came from nearly every college in UP Diliman, but the strongest participation came from the College of Arts and Letters (theater in particular), the College of Human Kinetics, the College of Music and the College of Fine Arts. (I have to say that for the performers, we had a surprisingly large contingent from our Asian Institute of Tourism, as well as the colleges of engineering, home economics and social sciences. Which just proves that nerds can dance, too.

Three kids from UP Integrated School—Sabien Ongtengco and Jose Rafael and Jose Gabriel Alcazar—sang the opening number. They are new celebrities. The Alcazar brothers are both with the choral group UP Cherubim and Seraphim.

The sets were specially made for the event, and what we had was really UP’s Lantern Parade held three months early. Fine arts faculty members Manolo Sicat and Mel Silvestre were perfectionists, and the students had to deliver the best in less than a month: an entire menagerie of marine and terrestrial fauna (the favorites were the maroon jellyfish made out of umbrellas), as well as a mini botanical garden, including a deodorized giant Rafflesia. The fine arts students also did eight rubberized bancas, one for each school and designed to reflect the universities’ colors.

But even the best of props and sets would not have been maximized for their effect without lights, and here UP will be eternally grateful to alumnus John Neil Ilao Batalla, who accepted only a tiny fraction of his usual professional fee for his services.

Human movement

The director of “Arkipelago” was Dulaang UP’s Dexter Santos, and as I watched the dress rehearsals, I realized that it was more than a theater production. It was a celebration of human movement, and no wonder we had to have nine choreographers, headed by Peter Alcedo. Coordinating the movements of several dozens of students at a time was no mean feat. The students practiced, and practiced, in UP Diliman’s gyms and, during the home run week, at Smart Araneta Coliseum.

I was worried that we’d have syrupy background music like Enya or Josh Groban, but no, all our musical scores were local, including pieces by National Artists Ramon Santos and Francisco Feliciano, as well as by Col. Antonio Buenaventura. Linguistics professor Jem Javier produced lyrics for a new song, “Binukot,” about a woman who is kept secluded and keeps memories of chants, songs and rituals. Krina Cayabyab handled the musical arrangements.

In the parade of athletic team heads, our performers enacted a particular festival. There’s a long story behind the assignments, but Adamson got the Higantes, Ateneo the Panagbenga, De La Salle the Pintados of Leyte, Far Eastern University the Masskara Festival, National University the Sinulog, University of the East the Tinulok Festival, University of Santo Tomas the Kadayawan Festival, and UP the Agal Agal of Tawi-Tawi.

There are so many more stories to tell, including a devious plan to have UP president Alfredo Pascual and myself harnessed to fly in from the ceiling. Fortunately, the organizers remembered that we’re both senior citizens. I was also originally supposed to blow on a tambuli (carabao horn) to mark the formal opening; fortunately, the organizers realized that it might not work out too well.

After all has been said, what made me truly proud last Saturday was the way the production team and the performers finally caught on to what the UAAP means, as reflected in a segment in the show that proclaimed, in Filipino, that the history of our archipelago is the history of the UAAP. More than an athletics group, the UAAP brings together universities, and a nation, through sportsmanship.

It was a long day, and as I was preparing to go home, Anril told me they had one last “small” problem to refer to me: Where could they put the eight bancas (which we are donating to the UAAP members), the menagerie, the botanical garden, the uniforms and a dozen balikbayan boxes with other props?

If you drive past the Balay Tsanselor, or the chancellor’s residence, one of these days, don’t be surprised if you see sting rays and jellyfish floating in the air, or two carabaos grazing on the lawn.

If you didn’t catch that opening extravaganza, or want to watch it again, google ABS-CBN Sports and UAAP 78 opening ceremony. Make sure you get the full one-hour version. Enjoy!

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