Carnivalizing the Performance, Deconstructing Prestige and the Squabble for Political Capital in Bobby Villasis’ “Dragon Dance”Posted: March 21, 2013
(I have not posted here for some time because I’ve been busy with teaching and graduate studies. But summer is coming, and I hope to revitalize the activity here again. To begin with this, here is a product from the graduate school endeavors, a requirement done for a class in Literary Criticism under Dr. Andrea Soluta (a lovely teacher, I must say). It’s an excerpt from a longer seminar paper analyzing three short stories from Suite Bergamasque, the collection of Boulevard stories of Bobby Villasis. In it I used four theoretical approaches: Stylistics, Russian Formalism, Deconstruction, and Post-Colonialism. I’ve always wanted to do a study on sir Bobby’s work, but only now has the occassion come for me to do it. )
“Dragon Dance,” the last story of Bobby Villasis’ collection of short stories Suite Bergamasque, revolves around Edro, a young banana cue vendor. It is on the morning of the Chinese New Year, and Edro is returning home from the Market. He passes by the Boulevard.
He thinks of the opulence of the mansions that lined the waterfront, the homes of the city’s landed elite. He was once awed by them, but after having seen them too much they have become familiar. His adoptive mother Nay Ibing often told him of the doings of the Boulevard people, weddings, births, deaths and scandals, and how the Chinese businessmen were slowly dominating the city. When he chances upon the Pastorfide mansion, the lower level of which had been converted into a pub by Sabina Bonad, he recalls the detail on how Sabina had found him on the doorstep of the pub, and having no time to raise a child how she had given him to Nay Ibing. He recalled the rumours about how he was in fact Sabina’s son by Carlos Pastorfide, explaining why he was tall and had pale complexion. He was curious about this, but out of love for Nay Ibing he did not ask.
Edro is excited for the Chinese New Year festivities along the Boulevard, for not only will there be a big crowd to buy his banana cue, there will be a Dragon Dance. As he passes by the Boulevard he looks for a spot whereon to sell later that day.
At their home at the southern end of the Boulevard Edro eats breakfast while Nay Ibing does the laundry she is paid to do. He hears the crashing of the sea and recalls how their kitchen had once been destroyed by the sea in a storm. He envies the sturdiness of the Boulevard mansions.
When he proceeds to the Boulevard to begin selling banana cues his friend Martin approaches him. Martin offers him a chance to make money by letting an American, named Vernon, take a photo of him naked in the American’s hotel room. Martin offers to mind the bananas while he goes with the American. Apparently, he has convinced several other boys to agree to these, and these boys, Martin insists, have had no reason to complain.
Edro is discomforted by this by this offer, and when Martin asks him how much he wants he jokingly says he feels like banana cue (merchandise). He at first says he does not want to miss the dragon dance, an excuse so that Martin would not be offended. But when Martin persists he tells him happiness could not be bought, so he did not think it was wise to sell it. Martin gives up, exasperated.
The festivities begin, and the Boulevard people begin going up the stage set up in the boulevard’s island. Thereafter the parade arrives with a crowd. The finale of this parade is the Dragon Dance, and from his spot Edro watch amazed at the spectacle, the Dragon chasing an ornamented moon, trying to swallow it.
Then one of the Boulevard people on the stage, Carlos Pastorfide, offers an ampao, which anyone in the crowd would get by snapping it from a suspension wire with the dragon’s head.
Various members of the crowd try but none are able to get the ampao. Then, the Dragon Dancers’ leader eyes him and tells him to try. While he is hesitant, the crowd pressures him and he goes.
In the hollowness of the Dragon he feels flexible, and with natural bravura he takes the ampao. The crowd, including the lofty Boulevard people, is ecstatic at his performance, and he feels he had learned something crucial, that he had gained power over the Boulevard in being the Dragon.
The Carnivalesque of the Performance
In sharp contrast to the intricately Baroque language of most of the stories in Suite Bergamasque, “Dragon Dance” is told with tight language: relatively short sentences and general descriptions that only seem unspecific because the story follows other stories that describe with ornately diverse precision. This is functional of course, as the third person point of view is limited to young and barely educated Edro, who may not be as articulate as the older and more schooled characters in the collection. But the language still has the tendency to be poetically solid, as seen in some of the story’s most powerful lines (“Everyone on the stage was hooting and clapping now, for a dance that arrested and nibbled, like the sea, at many shores inside them, but unlike the sea made them aware of something about to collapse and made them more brave.”)
The story primarily carnivalizes wealth and poverty in terms of happiness and success. The Boulevard people, while wealthy with their opulent houses and deprived with their promiscuities, are in fact unhappy – a detail of the story established by the mention of the impending death of Patricia Alba from the collection’s title story, but reinforced by the preceding stories in the collection. Conversely, while Edro is only a banana cue vendor and the adapted son of a laundrywoman, his happiness is so concretely established in the story that it is hardly surprising for him to turn down Martin’s offer. The Boulevard people are also portrayed as being derelict, just waiting to collapse from their ascendancy into misery as the Chinese businessmen begin dominating the local economy. This sharply contrasts with the world of promise put before Edro, who has “learned the game” and is poised to rise from his lowly livelihood to future success.
In an even more subtle way, the Dragon Dance is also a carnivalization of the roles of patron-audience and performer. When Carlos Pastorfide gave the ampao to be taken by whoever dons the dragon, it seems as if he (and consequently the Boulevard people literally mounted on a pedestal) were being charitable to the contestant. But with Edro the power is inverted: Edro is not immediately interested in the ampao, but he ends up thrilling the Boulevard people. Rather than Edro being at the mercy of the Boulevard people’s monetary generosity in asking for money, it is the Boulevard people who are at the mercy of Edro’s theatrical powers, and it is they who are moved by his actions.
Begging for Prestige: The enclosed system of Symbolic Capital and Deconstructing the Boulevard Ascendancy
This carnivalization of the most blatant demonstration of the Boulevard people’s prestige ends up unwinding their very ascendancy by deconstruction.
As the dance demonstrated, it is not the patronizing audience member who dominates the paid performer but the performer who has the audience member at his affective mercy. In a general sense, the Boulevard people can similarly be said to rely on the mercy of those whom they lord over to gain what Pierre Bourdieu calls the symbolic capital. In the enclosed language of prestige, the haciendero’s elite status is solely reliant on the esteem accorded to him by the lower class he is elite over. In the case of Carlos Pastorfide, this dependency is heightened not only by the fact that Edro has found happiness in his simple life with Nay Ibing, rumors that Pastorfide is Edro’s father further render him useless. Edro has no reason to treat him with lordly reverence, and to further castrate the haciendero the coming of the Chinese businessmen has significantly reduced his economic capital as well (although we can argue that the system of prestige is an enclosed one, independent of political or economic capital). If we were to say that the system of prestige was enclosed (and even if we were to include political and economic capital, considering the presence of the Chinese) we can say then that the Boulevard haciendero, having nothing to offer to the lower class, subtly begs for symbolic capital. The haciendero is a beggar for prestige.
If it is this that Edro comes to realize by the end of the story, then he will be a complicated problem for the Boulevard people!
The Coming of the Chinese and The Rise of the Filipino: From Binary Opposition to Heterogeneity
Central to the story of “Dragon Dance” is the presence of Chinese culture. In the collection’s portrayal of the postcolonial situation in (roman a clef) Dumaguete, “Dragon Dance” offers another character in the cultural power-play, ultimately destroying the Hispanic hegemony.
While the coming of the Americans consternates the Spanish elite in earlier stories (most notably in “Looking at Hecla”) with their liberal culture and otherness, an equally opposing culture, the Chinese, cause a different kind of consternation. The Chinese, unlike the Americans, can adapt to the locale’s situation if the demand arises, and the Spanish cannot fault them of being Others in terms of nativeness (many of these Chinese businessmen are at least second generation locals already) or of morals (many of them are also Catholics). Their presence no doubt complicates the colonial situation in the locale, which is saying much because it has already been complicated by the coming of the Americans.
Since Pierre Bourdieu has been mentioned, we can point out that the different types of capital are divided among these foreigners. The traditional Boulevard ascendancy enjoys symbolic capital as the elite of the society. But cultural capital is in the Americans’ hands, as it is they who offer the most accessible education in the area. Economic capital of course goes to the Chinese, who have come to own big businesses. Political power is squabbled among these three. This division of capital ultimately destroys the binary colonizer-colonized paradigm and replaces it with a heterogeneous locale engaged in tight power-play.
The resulting diversity of this heterogeneity is clearly visible in “Dragon Dance,” as we get to see a Chinese spectacle with Spanish elites as guests of honor and with Americans as bystanders.
And the story ends with promise of social mobility: the lower class Filipino represented by Edro has finally come to understand the rules of power-play, and the Filipino side may emerge as another contender in the locale’s squabble for capital.
Deconstructing prestige by carnivalization, “Dragon Dance” concludes Bobby Villasis’ collection of stories that are told in a post-colonial milieu as high drama in its complex dynamics as the stories’ lurid plots themselves. “Dragon Dance” theatrically moves forward as it brings a closure to the collection.