Spiritual Ecology & Visayan Theater Arts

November 4, 2018: Although the story behind Pintaflores Festival borrows a myth about pre-Spanish Visayan princesses & priestesses, the festival actually celebrates the Feast Day of San Carlos (Saint Charles) Borromeo, the patron saint whom the town San Carlos City is named after.

What appears to be festive carnival of ethnic-inspired aesthetics is, in fact, rooted in religious ritual. One of the events during Pintaflores Festival demonstrated the role of the church as a powerful site not only for faith-based ritual, but for community theater arts and ecological activism. 

Upon the bishop’s arrival, a few seconds before the start of Sunday mass, another priest snaps a selfie with the crew 😀 “Is nothing sacred anymore?” Hehe #itsmorefunnyinthephilippines

Churches are, architecturally, similar to theaters; with two entrances on the left and right, a stage and a seated audience, churches offer a ritual space outside of everyday life. Stories in Christianity echoes a primal narrative structure of the cycle of life and death through representations of incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection. Whether as priest or devotee, actor or spectator, one must involve oneself in the reproduction of the symbolic image & submit oneself to an ‘otherworld’ time.  Thus, there is a natural relationship of churches to the symbolic and temporary realm of theater.

from Kanlaon Theater Guild


The bishop invited leading Visayan theater arts directors Rudy Reveche, Tanya Lopez and Ricardo Salnap, Jr. to demonstrate work under the theme of environmental awareness.

The global effects of climate change might feel distant for those who benefit from the comforts of Westernized industrial civilization, yet for those live off the land and seas of Visayan islands, Philippine archipelago and across the planet, the vulnerability of the environment to rising seas, increased typhoons, exposure to pollution is deeply experiential; climate change cannot be reduced to mere scientific reports when it is the material reality of people’s survival. 








Once the human separated himself from its link to the ‘animal’ world, all of the world’s living species are likewise affected. Is this yet another egoistic idea of mankind or does it also reflect a reality of the changing landscape of the planet? This idea represented here through movement and performance arts, reflects an ongoing discussion around the notion of the “Anthropocene” -which recognizes how humans have permanently impacted the geological and ecological histories of Earth. 

From The Yale Forum on Religion & Ecology to the Green Faith fellowship, around the globe, religious communities have proliferated discourses & activated projects that address spiritual ecology, ecotheology & environmentalism as religion. I am deeply moved to see Visayan theater arts directors developing movement-based stories and performances that reflect eco-spiritual values of connection and community.



Kudlitan” by San Augustio Collegio Theater Choreographer: Danny Vale

Inspired by the legendary narrative of the three warring indigenous communities in Southern Negros in the pre-Hispanic period. The dance drama highlights the peace pact among the Maghat, Ituman and Bukidnon when they had realized they learned they share the same bloodline.

Much of this spiritual ecological activism, though not necessarily directly linked, is connected to ecofeminism. Ecofeminism’s “earth-based spirituality” argues that there is a parallel connection between humanity’s perceived domination over the planet and man’s projected control over women (see Carol J. Adams, Starhawk). I mention this here, because I do think these discourses deserve more attention in the Philippine spiritual context, where ancient baybaylans” – female priestesses (babaye = ‘female’), or community faith healers channeling sacred divinity– were effectively eradicated or driven underground with the successful institution of the male-dominated Catholic church. How might this patriarchal history have also affected Visayan islanders’ relationships to the environment?




“Tubig” by Kagayon Dance Troupe of Colegio San Agustin-Bacolod (Artistic Director: Rodolfo Reveche (Performing Arts Director, CSA-B) / Choreography: Georgette Sanchez / Text: Rudy Reveche.)

The dance depicts the healing and destructive nature of water…be it streams, rivers and the seas.

Even if religious faiths like Christianity operate through symbolism of ethics in storytelling modes, these environmentalist initiatives demonstrate their deep connection to the material real. This inflects and reflects the importance of spiritual faith to address climate change alongside secular sciences. Whereas scientists often work in institutional laboratories, faith leaders embedded in their communities strongly impact the creative imagination, hope for survival and ethical compass of its peoples.















This piece, in particular, really impressed me with its haunting masks, music and movements. The piece evokes humanity’s blindness to its future, swimming in an ocean of suspenseful terror.









The last 2 dances showed here reflect both the joys of life, and also the struggle to find meaning in its everyday movements. Contemporary society, despite being connected via the digital, normalizes hyper-individuation, as a kind of performance of self that masks our conditions of interconnectedness. This is an important aspect to consider when organizing towards environmental causes, which often








Regardless of my own complicated relationship to the Catholic Church, as an embodied researcher studying butoh dance, I felt deeply moved by these performances and their artistic rendering of environmental activist concerns. While this performance arts activism does not absolve the Catholic Church of its problematic social contradictions (including, among other issues, rampant child abuse & women’s autonomy for reproductive health), I do think it is valuable to see church leaders curating theater arts productions that initiate new speculative imaginaries and activate ancient stories of human life in a connected biosphere of living spirits. 


There is much, much more research work to be done on Visayan Philippine theater, ecological performance art, religious environmental activism and spiritual environmentalism that this blog post can realistically cover at the moment.

I hope that by presenting these works, as they were originally represented (((in the context of a church-curated & ecologically-oriented performance arts night during a patron saint’s festival with neo-ethnic aesthetics & environmentalist themes))) that they invite other researchers, artists, performers, dancers, ecologists, activists, faith leaders and community members to seriously consider the intersection of embodied arts, religion, spirituality and ecology as its evolves in the Visayan islands and across the world, continuously transformed by climate change.


Below is a limited list of religious/ecological initiatives & research mentioned:

*Launched in 2007, GreenFaith’s Fellowship Program is the world’s longest-running religious-environmental leadership program. The program equips lay and ordained leaders from diverse faith traditions for religiously based environmental leadership, providing a unique opportunity for education, spiritual and vocational growth, and skill development.

*The Forum on Religion and Ecology is the largest international multireligious project of its kind. With its conferences, publications, and website it is engaged in exploring religious worldviews, texts, and ethics in order to broaden understanding of the complex nature of current environmental concerns. Check out it’s “Engaged Projects” section, organized by spiritual tradition, which comprehensively lists worldwide projects related to spirituality and ecology.

*Spiritual Ecology is a spiritual response to our present ecological crisis. It is a developing field that joins ecology and environmentalism with the awareness of the sacred within creation. It calls for responses to environmental issues that include spiritual awareness and/or practice. The principles of spiritual ecology are simple: In order to resolve such environmental issues as depletion of species, global warming, and over-consumption, humanity must examine and reassess our underlying attitudes and beliefs about the earth, and our spiritual as well as physical responsibilities toward the planet. Thus, ecological renewal and sustainability necessarily depends upon spiritual awareness and an attitude of responsibility.

*Center for Babaylan Studies bridges those in the diaspora with living babaylan of the Philippines and with indigenous living traditions.

*Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology by Sarah MacFarland Taylor (Harvard University Press). I had the honor to have Sarah in my Media in the Anthropocene course with Elizabeth Ellsworth in my first semester of grad school. As a research scholar of religion and ecological activism, Taylor’s book shares the story of the “Green Sisters… environmentally active Catholic nuns working to heal the earth as they cultivate new forms of religious culture. Inviting us into their world, Taylor offers a firsthand understanding of the experiences of women whose lives bring together orthodoxy and activism, and whose lifestyle provides a compelling view of sustainable living.”

*Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication with an annual printed edition. Each issue features a theme explored through innovative digital media as well as the written word. It has always been a radical act to share stories during dark times. They are a regenerative space of creation and renewal. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the earth, we look to emerging stories. In them we find the timeless connections between ecology, culture, and spirituality. Emergence Magazine is an editorially independent Initiative of Kalliopeia Foundation.

*The Anthropocene Project is a multidisciplinary body of work from world-renowned collaborators Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal. Combining art, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research, the project investigates human influence on the state, dynamic and future of the Earth.

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