RIGHT away you’ll notice the man’s powerful voice reverberating from the dance hall.
Clambering up the stairs in sweltering afternoon heat, it has always been like this for award-winning choreographer and stage director Victor Hao Cuenco.
No artistic and creative director in Cebu has given this much life to the Sinulog.
By far, he’s the only choreographer that has garnered a back-to-back championship plum in the Sinulog-based free interpretation category.
And now, his magnum opus staging of the recently held annual search for pulchritude and pride of the Queen City of the South, the quest for Binibining Cebu.
This well-loved artist’s prolific accomplishments notwithstanding, the dance world sees him more as a welcome game changer than the stereotype choreographer-tyrant.
A member of the the National Committee on Dance for the Executive Council of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, what makes Victor’s performances riveting is the combination of rhythm, movement, and intensity.
All but heartfelt choreography in his 30 years in the industry, Victor Jao Cuenco and his troupe have always distinguished themselves with their interpretation of soulful expression,dynamism, and rawness.
Indeed, the man is just as pure luminescence as a choreographer.
He could just set the entire production on fire.
You’re the choreographer and director of Binibining Cebu 2018. What made this year’s pageant different from last year’s?
Last year we just had the typical blast during the opening number. This year we had this concept and it’s about the transition of the role of women from pre-Spanish time as well as the Spanish period and onwards to the modern times. Why I thought of this is because we want our three previous winners—Maria Gigante of Bantayan (Binibining Cebu Charity 2017), Samantha Ashley Lo of Asturias (Binibining Cebu Tourism 2017) and Apriel Smith of Badian (Binibining Cebu 2017) to project that certain phase of the Filipina woman. So Maria represented the women during the pre-Spanish times; Samantha, the women during the Spanish era; and Apriel Smith, the women of the modern times. They had their individual spiels, broadcasted live. What also made it different was I was working closely with my creative director Mr. Kenneth Cobonpue and, hands down with no question, he also wanted it this way. We had been planning this since last year. We had live music with four groups of musicians like the choir, rondalla, the Cebu Philharmonic Orchestra, and Lupon.
Where do you usually get your inspiration in coming up with these artful concepts?
To be creative and artistic I guess it somehow has to be innate, you just have to live for it. I mean it’s already a common phrase wherein it has to be one’s passion and I always have that drive to be inspired by the culture and the arts. And always I strive to make it something new and fresh to the audience.
Amongst the many projects that you’ve worked on, what was the most challenging?
Definitely, it has to be Binibining Cebu because this is just my second year with them and it’s not easy to handle, mount, and choreograph a pageant with 53 candidates. It’s the usual, on some days you practice with 30 candidates and the following day there will be an addition or there are those that are absent… so it can bloody. But despite the challenge daghan man sab kong nakat-onan working closely with world-renowned furniture
designer Kenneth Cobonpue. So naa sab siya’y iyang mga mugna. So last year it was good enough that I was able to execute how he wanted the thing to turn out because lisod baya nga you’re both creative and artistic and dili mo pareha og direction. I have always been a good team player and sometimes different sab mi og huna-huna, yet at the end of the day makasabot ra sab gyud ko because the pageant organizers
always wanted Binibining Cebu to be different from the usual pageants.
What are you very particular about being the creative director?
It’s the loyalty and respect because with most dancers they would just come and go and dili sab ta makapugong nila. In those two or three years lisod sab baya mo eskwela at the same time doing this and in the long run, you just have the respect their choices. I was never discriminating because there are that mag-aspire nga kinda payatot or mubo and if dili sila pwede mo sayaw ngadto sila sa lain nga area like makeup, production design,
costume, or music. You just can’t discriminate because people always have a talent so most of the time for those who’d apply, I am always open with lesser requirements. And let’s also not forget, discipline and attitude.
And dealing mostly with students.
Lahi na gyud karon modala og bata because they have their own beliefs and nuances and I am not saying na everything about them is bad. Importante gyud ang respect for other people’s time, like if you set an appointment at 2 p.m. and you’d come at 2:30 that’s a big no! Because in the future manrabaho mo and if the call time is 8 a.m., you should be there on or before eight, or else you will be fired. I always share to my troupe my four Ds—
discipline, dedication, determination, and devotion. Placing more emphasis lang on devotion because in life it’s not about success and money, it’s always about the legacy wherein at the end of the day you will be recognized by your community and peers. Simple thoughts and gestures coming from clients and audience appreciating your work always ease things after a hard day’s work because you would know if the audience likes your show. Mao ra gyud na akoang i-ampo sa Ginoo to guide me for a good show and wala gyud intawn mga panghitabo beyond our control. Ampo ra gyud that everything will be smooth because bisan unsa pa ka smooth and seamless imong rehearsals everything always is up to Him.
What has been your most unforgettable experience as choreographer and stage director?
Many incidences to mention (laughter). In any event, it’s already a mortal sin to have a lull moment, even a lull second. So in a recent staging that we did when it was already cue for them start, I don’t know what came up but the intro was just not on point and on time and that’s a big palpak para nako. One time in one of our performances abroad we overlooked the necessary AVP that was supposed to be downloaded. All the while I thought
everything was already ready but by the time we were already set for the show… Oh my God! Dili siya mosalida sa screen! Nagkamuritsing gyud ko adto nga kulang na lang ko moligid. That show was something sometimes kampante ra man gud ta ba na bisan pa nga repeat show pa na siya dili gyud ta angay makampante. Ako by experience I learned that everything has to be checked and if you have AVPs ipa-run gyud na nako kay we all don’t know if mokalit lang na og kaputol. Lesson learned that in stage performance everything has to be rehearsed.
Did you always want to be into performance art?
I was a graduate of Commerce but I did not pursue it because after graduating na busy naman ko sa dance troupe, shows and from there I already had the realization nga dili gyud to para sa akoa. But somehow the degree is of use to me in terms of mathematical counting and gihatag gyud ni sa Ginoo para sa akoa because pulong pa, it’s just destiny. From a dancer to the stage manager, nahimo kong floor director then dance master and then a choreographer. Niagi gyud ko step by step until naabot ko sa ani nga point that I handle big events as artistic director. Giagian gyud ko na tanang mga bato-bato ug tunok sa industriya.
Would you still remember your first choreography?
That was for Sinulog in 1988 for UC. If you still remember, we used to have a school-based competition before. I was teaching in UC back then and if I can remember we landed third place and the following year we were the first.
What would be your dream production?
We have been handling international events like the Asean Summit but in the long run, with God’s will, I hope to be a be a part
of an international production like Broadway.
How do you destress?
I play mahjong! I travel, of course. If I have mga hinanakit or frustration I always make it a point to share it with my closest friends. Yawyaw gyud ug yawyaw bahala na og wala’y hunong. Tanan tawagon gyud, kanang tanan akong i-vent gyud. Pahungaw because lisod man iluom basin makahuna-huna ta og bati. I always go out with friends for movies. Also, when I am stressed, that’s when I eat a lot.
What was the last thing or performance that you’ve seen that wowed you?
I went to Vegas twice and got that chance to see Le Rêve was quite an experience for me. I was totally moved by it, unlike Cirque du Soleil. Also, one time going there we got to pass by the Grand Canyon and knowing that it’s one of the most amazing wonders of the world it… was majestic.
Greatest lesson you’ve learned from your mentors?
Daghan sila. One, I have to mention Mr. Amirhassan Csar Nimor because from the time I started dancing until I became a director he has taught me the ABCs of the dance, its origins, measures, and its characters. These elements are crucial because we can also impart these lessons to aspiring or upcoming choreographers. He was strict in terms of discipline, time, and attitude. And of course, sa stage because theater man gyud ko, si Mr. Orlando Magno. Kulit man ko sa una and as stage director I remember in one of our productions that I insisted that we should have side lights for the stage and his reply is that those sidelights are only important for the contour and makeup of the performers. It’s the minute details, the many things that I learned from people I always value because I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for these lessons.
What can we expect in the coming Sinulog?
It would really depend on how the contingent would want it and so far wala pa’y niduol. There are a lot of things to consider like how our creative juices would flow and of course, there are budget considerations. Anyhow there are a lot of things to focus on since I have been directing the Sinulog finale since 2005.
You seem to be a busy person. At the end of the day, what’s your prayer?
Good health, because we cannot move or create or be of service to the community if we are not in good shape. Though I’m not really in good shape
because wala sab baya ko’y exercise, so good health lang gyud. More blessings for us to share more of what we have. And I always wanted to help people and leave this kind of legacy for the next generation.