Madge Reyes was a professional ballerina in a former life—flying up the ranks of Ballet Philipines when a foot injury halted her career. With her stage career over, she threw herself into her final year at the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Still searching for a new path, in 2019 Reyes received an Asian Cultural Council research fellowship to study the art of dance film in New York. In this interview we discover how she launched FIFTH WALL FEST, the Philippines’ first international dance film festival, a festival that is free to all, in a time when we most need the performing arts.
I spoke with Madge via Zoom, with Madge dialling in from the Philippines, and myself in Australia. The following is edited for clarity.
Claudia: How did you come to launch the Philippines’ first International Film Festival celebrating dance on film?
Madge: In February of 2020, I had just flown back to Manila from a six-month research residency in New York—and this was under the Asian Cultural Council fellowship. And, you know, that experience was really very eye-opening for me, because it was my first time to live abroad, live alone even, and so to be immersed in culture, outside of the Philippines was very, very enriching.
So, coming back from the fellowship residency—it was right before Manila had its very first lockdown. You can only imagine how confused I was. I was a bit depressed because I was coming from this life where everything was open, everything was alive and kicking in New York to just isolation. I was sad, of course, you know, that’s the case for everyone having to deal with a pandemic.
CL: The pandemic has been hard on so many, and especially those in the performing arts.
MR: Right. I spent the first two or three months of the lockdown just watching dance films and online dance performances. And true enough, the companies that I frequently visited in the United States had a fast pivot to the digital space. I just binge watched anything on dance for months, and then, you know, honestly I got sick of it. Then it hit me: because of the current situation in the Philippines—like for a time there was no outdoor dining, no takeout even, so everyone was just like, ‘what is happening?’—so, this crazy thought first of all was actually just supposed to be like a little book club for dance.
Coming home from New York, I had no intentions, honestly, of setting this up so quickly. But, I guess a lot of reflection and contemplation, coffee and wine and I just pushed myself to start it because it was a way of staying involved—and how do you stay relevant these days for the performing arts with no live performance?
CL: And so you launched in October 2020, the inaugural Fifth Wall Festival and it was received such acclaim. I mean, I bet you couldn’t imagine that this festival came out of that six months of lockdown?
MR: I wouldn’t say critically acclaimed, but we did receive great feedback. And yes, I believe we were noticed in a good way. I work with a very small team, all female, who all have dance background. I would always say to them, we’re definitely new to this, but everyone’s new to this pandemic, so we’re learning as it goes. And I think that’s the beauty of it because we can do whatever we want.
CL: And so of the films this year, what are you most excited for people to see?
MR: As a programmer/curator for this, I was very intent on bringing intimacy and indulgence as the themes for the putting the program together—and not just skin on skin or like close ups, but technically. So, how we connect to the filmmakers, how we connect to our audiences—here, I wanted it to feel intimate, because it is, as we’re all sitting at home.
Also, a big part of this edition was trying to elevate the home-cinema experience. For our local audiences, we have partnered with some beloved local food and beverage establishments as well.
In terms of the films, we added a Butoh section this year, dedicated to the Japanese art form. And, of course, we have a small but beautiful Filipino collection—works by Filipinos from across the world. And we have our competition section. And I am happy to say that the Asian entries and the Filipino entries really stood out.
CL: So that really elevates dance film in the region?
MR: Yes. One of my personal goals this year, coming into our second edition, was how to get better representation for Asians in the global dance scene? Because I watch a lot of dance films, and I noticed that the majority are Western or of Western descent, and I’m not complaining, it’s just that I’m curious—where are the Asian filmmakers? I know there are a lot, so where are they? So, yes, they’re in Fifth Wall Fest!
CL: Your injury ended your dancing career really much too soon. But did it allow you the space to have ideas like this, to launch a film festival?
MR: Oh, yes, definitely. At that point of my life I thought the world had ended. I was dancing full-time and I was at the peak of my career, so I thought it was just the end for me and I didn’t know what to do. But I was also, at the time, in my graduating year at university. So, I was at a crossroads. If I hadn’t been injured, I think I would have continued dancing and maybe not have even graduated. So the injury definitely allowed me to have my space, just take a break from dance, and I think that’s important. I was able to step back and really just enjoy life. I would see daylight, because in the studio we’d be there from morning until evening so I wouldn’t even have time to appreciate nature, or even just appreciate having a cup of coffee with a friend. I felt normal, whatever that means. I embraced that time and yes, I got into dance film in particular. So that’s how it all started.
CL: It’s really an incredible story. And how did the festival get its name?
MR: You’re familiar with the fourth wall? I did a little digging and apparently there’s this term called Fifth Wall, which is this imaginary barrier that separates the audience from a cultural experience. So, for example, you are watching the ballet at the Sydney Opera House—once you step out of the theatre, you’ve already crossed the fifth wall back to your normal life. So it’s a very thin line.
CL: So, the fourth wall is the space between the audience and the performer or performance, and the fifth wall is the next step, that invisible wall that the audience crosses as they leave the performance experience?
MR: Yes, yes!
CL: So, how can people access the festival this year?
MR: You just go on our website www.fifthwallfest.com and you just pick whatever you want to watch. Everything’s for free, everything’s on our website, that’s it!
CL: Wow, amazing, all free.
MR: Yes. Also I should say if you do want to attend our Black Box Events, they are also free events—they are our talks, Q&As, sidebar events that supplement the films where you can get greater insight into the creators, dancers. You need to register for those, but they’re still free, all on Zoom.
I guess the one big plus of coming out of a pandemic is really accessibility to what we’re trying to push, which is at the end of the day, presenting dance in a myriad of formats.
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