The Georgia Straight
Rare fabric reflects performer’s Filipino identity
It’s the finest and rarest of textiles from the Philippines. Made with fibres from pineapple leaves, piña (pronounced “pee-nyah”) is truly a luxury item. The textile is produced by only a few people from the province of Aklan in the central portion of the country. Because of its rarity, piña is reserved mostly for the barong tagalog, a formal men’s wear, and the terno, an elegant gown for women.
For Ralph Escamillan, the sheer, lustrous fabric presents many layers of meanings.
The Vancouver dance artist and choreographer was born and mostly raised in Canada. Escamillan accesses his mother’s Filipino culture, in part, through visual representations like clothing, and specifically the barong tagalog and terno.
As an artist, costume plays a key role in the artist’s creative process. “When I design a costume, I’m thinking about how the dancer will interpret it, how it will look with the light, how it will sound against the music,” Escamillan told the Straight in a phone interview.
In coming up with the concept for a new work, Escamillan was intrigued with the piña fibre that is intimately connected with those two items of clothing.
He explained what although the fibre is transparent, it also lends itself to layering, as well. “For me, this idea of layering is like an accumulation of histories, of cultures,” Escamillan said.
He noted that Filipino identity itself represents a layering of influences. These influences include Spanish colonization, which brought both Catholicism and the pineapple plant, the source of piña fabric.
“We found a way to make it our own,” Escamillan said. Because the tradition of piña weaving survived through generations, there’s meaning to this as well. “It kind of embodies resilience,” he said.
Another reason why Escamillan is interested in the fabric is because it evokes fragility on different levels. He notes that there is a lot of dialogue about how to protect the piña-weaving industry in the Philippines.
And he added that the human body is delicate as well, which “makes you want to protect it and take care of it”.
It’s the same for cultures, which can be fragile in the sense that it is “always shifting and that it is changing”.
Escamillan’s new production work around piña is due out sometime in 2023, and he is not in a hurry. “It’s important for me to make sure I take the time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Escamillan’s research continues, and he will offer his thoughts and exhibit some sketches in an online talk presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery. He will be joined at the event by fashion historian Gino Gonzales and textile designer Carlo Reporen Eliserio.
Ralph Escamillan’s online discussion takes place at 5 p.m. on Thursday (May 13). Register at