Monday, March 08, 2010

In search of talent

This is my column today.

Now that the local franchise of the “Got Talent” television show is under way, there’s this whole preoccupation once again with the issue of “talent” and just how talented we are as a people.

And luckily for all of us, even if we don’t get to watch the talent contests on television, there’s always a video of the performance on You Tube, which we can watch anytime.

We all like to lay claim to being the most talented bunch of people in the world. If we are to go by the sheer number of Filipinos (or half-Filipinos if we must nitpick about it) that steal the show and end up as finalists in the talent contests staged in other countries, there seems to be evidence to back our claim. Why they end up as “mere” runners-up rather than as winners is understandable— most of these contests are decided by text voting by the general population who will naturally be partial to homegrown talents.

Madonna Decena and Charlie Green created waves at Britain’s Got Talent the other year. Jal Joshua, a 10-year-old Filipino placed runner up to an opera singer in last year’s Australia Got Talent. We’ve had quite a number of Filipino singers as finalists in American Idol—one of them, Jasmine Trias, placed third in the 2004 edition of the singing tilt. Even the Jabbawockeez, who first appeared in America’s Got Talent before winning MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew title, has four Filipino dancers in its roster. Incidentally, I am glad that the group’s trip to the Philippines coincided somehow with the showing of Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland so people will at least get some idea of the etymology of the group’s name.

Lest we forget, I would like to remind people that the distinctions are not really just limited to performing artists. Just recently, Filipina scientist Lourdes Junsay Cruz of the University of the Philippine was adjudged one of five winners of the 2010 L’oreal Unesco “For Women in Science Awards.” There a number of engineers, physicists, medical practitioners, teachers, athletes, etc, who have won international acclaim for outstanding talent in various fields of discipline. The problem is that their talent is not celebrated in the same way we do singers and dancers.

Anyway. As I was saying, there’s now this whole discussion that is raging among households about what talent is and whether certain people have it or not. I expect this discussion to get more intense as the competition in Pilipinas Got Talent becomes more pronounced and people start rooting for their own contestants. This is why I hope that ABS-CBN takes pains to use the show as a springboard for more in-depth discussion about what talent is, how to develop or nurture it, and how talent plays an important role in one’s personal growth and destiny.

I know this is a tall order and I’m probably crying for the moon here but given how performing artists seem to be our most popular (second to domestic helpers, it is said) export to the world, it’s really about time we become more serious about helping people nurture talents. Aside from amateur singing contests we don’t really have mechanisms to discover and hone talents. I am sure some people from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority will try to assert that they’ve been doing something along this line such as providing training in classical dancing for entertainers bound for Japan or somewhere else. I will try to be charitable and ignore what they do rather than label it correctly with a term that is not acceptable in polite conversation.

Unfortunately, we all know that our local television networks, particularly ABS-CBN, tend to see only human-interest drama in each of the situations and cases that they find worthy of some airtime. In Pilipinas Got Talent, for example, we’re seeing a definite trend—more attention and more airtime is given to contestants with more “entertainment value.” Thus, there’s this whole preoccupation with the bizarre, the unique, and the grotesque. The very few gems that they have so far given ample playtime were those with a sob story to tell.

The choice of the three judges in the show is indicative of the direction Pilipinas Got Talent is heading towards. They are going for “kwela” or mass or commercial appeal and will tend to focus on form and entertainment value rather than substance. Forget about making distinctions between superior skill and genuine talent. Forget about in-depth analysis of, for example, the real artistic value or the nuances of a particular performance. As it is, there is now this whole focus on “raw talent”—people who are able to sing their guts out or hit notes as high as the stratosphere, contort their bodies to shapes never before imagined possible, or do stuff beyond expectations.

The obvious question that we need to ask is this: Is being able to entertain the end-all and be-all of a genuine performing artist? The reality is that most people equate talent with the ability to make people stand up and notice. This has happened many times in many talent searches. Some ingénues take our breath away with their initial performance mainly because we had very low expectations of them either because they look plain, or impoverished, or too young or too old, or have physical limitations. We crown them as talent. And then we realize later on that what they had was not sustainable. We realize that talent needs to be constant and enduring. The poor guy ends up even more broken than when he or she started when the attention is heaped somewhere else and another flash in the pan “talent” is discovered.

Our penchant for entertainment value has resulted in more people with dubious talent auditioning for talent searches and —ironically enough—being given more exposure than the ones with real talent. Also, talent that is polished—say, performers who have spent years perfecting their crafts—are deemed too schooled and, strangely enough, ordinary. The ballerina who glides around the stage like she is floating on air is relegated in favor of the fire-spewing contortionist whose main talent really is that she is able to escape third degree burns.

What is talent? My hope is that the answer to this question also gets enough airtime along with the supposed examples of the diversity of Filipino talent out there. In doing so, people hopefully become better viewers and critics and are able to recognize genuine talent when they see it.


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