Dancing with Dictators

In Imelda Marcos's tawdry discotheque.

Dancing with Dictators

WHEN I WAS A YOUNG GIRL in Leyte, I danced for Imelda Marcos. The effect of that on my psyche, an obeisance innocent and obscene, came back to me in the nightclub setting of David Byrne’s oddly cathartic participatory musical event, Here Lies Love, which has been running at the Public Theater in New York City and is opening soon in London and Australia. Fatboy Slim’s catchy rhythms and the play’s choreography — involving the herding of audience members by dancing stagehands and moveable sets — trapped me in a Catch-22 of musical complicity. At the Public, I kept being repulsed by history and propelled to dance to it — déjà vu all over again.

In the ’70s in Manila, Deney Terrio of Dance Fever — later, he coached John Travolta for that other class-conscious dance saga, Saturday Night Fever — was as ubiquitous as Imelda Marcos pressed cheek to cheek against George Hamilton, erstwhile Dracula. At the end of the Marcos regime, the zombie dance of Thriller was in my bones. Whenever we were pulled out of class to rehearse for the First Lady’s birthday, July 2, none of us at her alma mater missed a beat. We took out our pompoms and shook them, swaying for Imelda Marcos’s pleasure in bare midriffs and polka-dot bloomers, to “Greased Lightningand Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive!”

The horror of the Philippines is that its tragedy is best expressed through disco. David Byrne takes the measure of that syncopated truth in Here Lies Love.

Some call Byrne out for his glib portrayal of the horrors of the Marcoses. But clearly, those critics have never cha-chaed for dictators.

The show’s immersive nature demands obedience to suspect charms. Disco is that dubious stepchild of modern culture — it lurks in the corner beyond wit and wisdom, looking addled and deranged. Here Lies Love embeds us in Imelda’s pill-popping psychodrama, not the most probing perhaps of dictator topoi, given that regime’s murderous rage. As the delirious audience twists and rattles and rolls, the glamorous Ruthie Ann Miles, channeling Imelda, croons, “When I was a young girl in Leyte, my dresses were all hand-me-downs and scraps.” Later, she confesses, “They called us garage people,” and sings her pitiful autobiographical solo about my hometown, “The Rose of Tacloban” — a city now known for that other planetary disaster, Typhoon Haiyan.

Tacky but magnetic, the Imelda character is both glamorous, sequined Supergirl and mawkish, provincial reject, more surreal than Evita, more subtly malevolent than a storm. Ninoy Aquino, “her first love” (a plot circumstance that’s quite debatable), who is later to be assassinated on stage and in history, rejects her because she is “too tall.” The dissonant disco beat strains against her aggrandized, wounded pride. But in the end, when Imelda belts out the jaunty anthem for her stupid epitaph, "Here Lies Love," I find myself sobbing.

I am not sobbing for her. I am sobbing for the tragic absurdity of that past, which is still present.

I last saw Imelda in the news in November, in false eyelashes and tears grieving over the disappearance into the sea of her beach resort in Olot, Tolosa, where once we had danced for her in sequined patadiongs.

She’s a fantastic zombie whose pathetic drama will never die, because she has yet to pay for her crimes. And the Philippines is crippled and scarred by justice that is not done.

The effect of Here Lies Love is comic, benumbing, discordant, enthralling. The disco ballads, oozing Imelda’s rags to riches tale, underline the damaged psyche that held a country in its hair-sprayed grip for 20 years. They’re songs of a broken party girl whose megalomania leads to vicious, unforgivable murder — effects of dictatorship. But after the mayhem, as we know, and as the play notes, Imelda remains beautifully coiffed, unjailed.

Filipinos and Americans alike criticize this play for its omissions. Pious and grumpy, Hilton Als in The New Yorker dismissed the musical for its attention to romantic drama over serious politicizing. But as I watch, I see his sermonizing is misplaced. The show’s curious, bemused, cock-eyed storytelling of horror relies on its gaps.  

The show’s cunning is conspicuous. In the opening song, “American Troglodyte,” the show’s hip white audience stamps its feet to the song’s breezy anaphora — “Americans are wearing those sexy jeans, Americans are driving that fancy car, Americans are playing that rock and roll, Americans are buying that real estate.” This is exactly what Americans were doing when Imelda was dancing with Andy Warhol at Studio 54 and waltzing with Reagan in California, to the tune of millions of American tax dollars — which went into the dictators’ Swiss accounts, remnants of which are revealed on Wikileaks, though a few paintings have been pilfered by Imelda’s assistants. These secretaries who stole the paintings seem to be the only people successfully prosecuted for Marcos loot.

“Americans are paying that income tax, Americans are dancing on Friday nights,” so sings the Filipino DJ in the play, rousing the crowd to dance. The show mirrors Filipino complicity and American blindness through its disco-controlled experiment on its audience — our need for bliss.

The play understands that meaning lies in what’s absent. Dissonance is the message. After all, David Byrne wrote Psycho Killer — in which menace is gleeful and trippy. He strips the Marcos biography of its violence and lethal greed, its wanton shoes and unspeakable carnage. Unspeakable is key. As the poet Luis Francia notes — no mention of the loot, of hamleted peasants and tortured students, of Filipinos losing lives and livelihoods in a vicious counterinsurgency against communists (the war paid for by American aid), or of the criminal indifference of a woman with such an “edifice complex” that when workers fall to their death to build her Film Center, the order is to bury them in concrete, stay calm, and keep on cementing, so that Imelda can greet on schedule such luminaries as Brooke Shields and Franco Nero in 1981.

To detail carnage in a musical would be vulgar. To remember it, buried through disco, is weirdly apt. Whether he intended it or not, at David Byrne’s nightclub, I kept seeing dead people. I watched Imelda and Marcos’s famous courtship in horror, the singers chanting the magic number that leads to their marriage — “Eleven Days.” I knew full well the denouement of those 11 days — a country plundered, a population savaged, a people betrayed for 20 years.

If you watch the show with alertness, the play has tragic irony of the Sophoclean kind — beneath every beat of this pop-Cinderella story is nightmare. But in our current history, where Imelda remains free to cry over her beach resort, demolished by Typhoon Haiyan with a vengeance that Filipino citizens have not been able to enact — for us, there is no catharsis, only a terrible, raw, and gaping wound.

That’s why the propulsive beat of disco — or of certain rhythmic orders — which creates hypnotized swaying, a mindless obedience to thrill, is the rhythm of our horror.

Disco is a kind of dictatorship in itself. The sense of not being completely in command, because pleasure dictates existence (even as one’s existence might not quite give pleasure) — that is at the heart of disco. What is erotic about disco is simplicity. The dancer just wants to have fun — and the singer only wants to indulge the dancer. And in a deep, inexpressible sense, this erotic interplay between the song and its dancer is what all art is about. But as the show exposes, that pulsing erotic strobe is also the engine and hum of power and dictatorship.

But the persistence of art tells us that it is this dim wit of pleasure that allows humans to survive. This does not dispel the horrors of dictatorship — but in Here Lies Love, the paradoxical pull of movement, music, bread and circuses and dance reminds us. We forget, in our critical analysis of the world’s nightmares, the gap in our souls that makes us fall under tragic spells in the first place.

In the world of Imelda Marcos, indulgence came at the expense of everyone else. I grew up on Imelda’s island, trapped in the tawdry discotheque of her appetites, the gap in her neurotic soul. Sometimes it seems that all Filipinos have to show for it is our zest for karaoke and our addiction to American Idol. But at least, so we say — we know we can dance. And yes, we have survived.


Gina Apostol is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American War, William McKinley’s World.

LARB Contributor

Gina Apostol was born in Manila and lives in New York. She went to college at the University of the Philippines and earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, Bibliolepsy, won the 1998 Philippine National Book Award for Fiction. Her third novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, is a comic historical novel-in-footnotes about the Philippine war for independence against Spain and America in 1896. Her latest, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, recently won the PEN/Open Book Award and will come out in paperback this fall. She is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American War, William McKinley’s World.


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