My first encounter with the term cultural performance was about 20 years ago. I was still a student at the Mother of Good Counsel Seminary – its minor seminary. Minor seminaries (High School seminaries) in Luzon back then annually meet for a sports festival called Sangkan (short for “Isang Angkan kay Kristo,” One Family in Christ). All high school seminarians from the Cagayan Valley to the Bicol Region meet up for two to three days to compete in ball games and individual sports (I do not remember all the names of the seminaries but the most memorable are those where we went for the Sangkan: Oblates of St. Joseph Seminary in Batangas; Diocesan Seminary of the Heart of Jesus in San Fernando, La Union; St. Joseph Seminary in Bangued, Abra; and Maria Assumpta Seminary in Cabanatuan City). While student-athletes prepared immensely for these sports events, another group (ahem, I was part of this group) was also preparing for what Sangkan organizers call cultural performance competition. Usually, this cultural competition was held on the first night of the sports meeting, popularly labeled as the Sangkan Cultural Evening.
Back then, cultural performance was used as if the term was something commonsensical: that it embraces anything belonging to the performing arts, particularly festive dancing. This is because cultural performance then and now, is somehow used fleetingly and synonymously with festive competitions, especially street dancing.
Today, local government units publicize these cultural competitions as community traditions such as the sinulog in Cebu, ati-atihan in Aklan, masskara in Bacolod and the dinagyang in Iloilo. This is one reason why for many, cultural performance is equivalent to these extravagant and spectacular competitions and festive street dancing.
Cultural performance once again appeared 10 years after my initial encounter with it in high school. I was reading related literature for my graduate thesis and came across the term. I realized the context was not in sync with the commonsensical festive competition. I remember some examples provided by the text: prayer rallies, public demonstrations, rituals, and even beauty pageants. Since then, cultural performance became a complex phenomenon paving for me to rethink what it really means. At the same time, it made me reflect what it really does on a personal level and what it may do to a group of people other than the usual association with fun and festivity associated with it. Finally, it also dawned to me to question why it even exists.
Cultural performance first appeared in the language of the academic community when anthropologist Milton Singer published his book When Great Tradition Modernizes in 1972. Singer was investigating what anthropologists back then were identifying as “little tradition” and “great tradition” in the Southern Indian village of Madras. He was conflicted on how to define the units of observation because as he observed, Madras is a rich center of activities ranging from story-telling, rituals, prayers to name but a few. In the end, he proposed the concept of cultural performance as a unit of observation in anthropological inquiry.
Generally, Singer was writing against the Western models of ethnographic epistemology and methodology especially on a generalization about a culture based on a comparative approach of the Western ideas to the one being engaged in. In short, Singer was an advocate of looking at culture in its own terms.
Later scholars found this new mode of inquiry especially the notion of cultural performance as a useful tool that provides a frame for the understanding of the self, the society and culture. In Verbal Art, for example, Richard Bauman invited a critical reflection on communicative processes as bounded events or in the interactions of daily life through cultural performance. In Anthropology of Performance, anthropologist Victor Turner shifted anthropological focus on cultural performance by transcribing structure to process and from competence to performance. Deborah Kapchan explores performances as “repetitive aesthetic practices” and “multisemiotic modes of cultural expressions,” transforming the individual into a consensual membership of a group. Moreover, she posits that performance processes contribute senses of agencies making the structural ideas of culture difficult to find.
Following Singer, folklorists, particularly those whose area of interest was verbal art, saw the potential of cultural performance as an alternative lens for the understanding of folklore and tradition vis-à-vis culture. Kapchan explains this group of scholars began transforming their ethnographic works from the investigation of static texts to the more dynamic utterances and enunciation to the context of interpretation and their potencies for cultural enactments and events. Dell Hymes saw performance as an artful accomplishment instead of a flawed representation of the ideal structure of culture. Richard Bauman extended this work to assert that performance displays communicative competence. Today, cultural performance is argued as a paradigm in the discipline of performance studies. In Perform or Else, Jon Mckenzie asserts how cultural performance produces efficacious encounters of transgressions and subversions, transforming the personal into a community or a collective.