LOOK: Behind the scenes at the 2017 ASEAN gala dinner

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President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed the world leaders who attended the ASEAN gala dinner under a facade of a bahay na bato designed by Ito Kish. “[I thought of the bahay na bato] because it looks grand, it looks celebratory, and [it] represents who we are, from the Spanish era,” says Kish. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The special gala dinner of the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) put a spotlight on Filipino creativity and artistry.

“Normally, when you do APEC or the ASEAN, it’s always a feature of technology, or intense architecture,” says production designer Gino Gonzales, who was responsible for the look of the centerstage. “But this one, with the resources that we have, we thought we should put talent [at] the center of everything. So it’s all about our music, our dances, and just the performers. It’s just a focus on human capital and talent [since that’s what the Philippines is known for].”

The gala dinner, held at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay, had at least 1,500 guests with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcoming ASEAN heads of state, as well as dialogue partners from the United States (represented by President Donald Trump) and Canada (represented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).

Upon entrance, the guests encountered a hall with a grand gazebo conceptualized by award-winning designer Ito Kish.

The welcoming area is divided into three parts, representing the past, the present, and the future of ASEAN nations. For the “past,” Kish designed a facade of a bahay na bato, made of tarpaulin mesh and metal connectors. “The first thing that crossed my mind was really hospitality,” says Kish. “[I thought of it] because it looks grand, it looks celebratory, and [it] represents who we are, from the Spanish era.”

The bahay na bato was also an answer to a challenge of putting something impressive in a wide area with a 40-meter clearance.

“You can’t come up with miniscule props or else it will just disappear,” says Kish. “I was always thinking of how to make it big. We have 20 Talisay trees that all came from Laguna and Batangas [brought in here at the venue], which we all started sourcing three months ago. I wanted to make sure they’re all 18 to 20 feet high so they’ll fill up the space.”

Bahay na Bato ASEAN The welcoming area of the gala dinner is divided into three parts: the bahay na bato facade where President Duterte welcomed the world leaders, the Talisay tree garden where cocktails were served, and the photocall wall decked with 119 parols. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH

Stars Backdrop ASEAN The photocall backdrop is a 31-meter wall with 119 parols made of metal rods, which was meant to represent the future of the ASEAN. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH

Ito Kish Basket Lamp ASEAN The venue is essentially a black box and is lit by the clusters of basket lamps and the light coming from the facade of the bahay na bato. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH  

President Duterte welcomed the leaders under the bahay na bato, and led them to the garden of Talisay trees. From the garden, guests were also immediately greeted with the photocall backdrop: a 31-meter wall with 119 parols made of metal rods, which was meant to represent the future of the ASEAN.

“It really looks like a traditional garden party but the stars really ginawa namin nasa wall instead of nasa sky,” says Kish. “We really added a story to the whole thing. That’s what I’m known for, creating a story.”

The whole area was lit by the parols, the dream-like silhouette of the bahay na bato, and a cluster of Bicol-made baskets, representing how the ASEAN region is woven together.

In conjunction with Kish’s design for the welcoming area, the dining and performance hall’s centerpiece had a hanging piece designed by Wataru Sakuma and MASA Ecological Development Inc., which is based in Tagaytay.

“There was a directive from [the show director] Monino Duque to put something that is sculptural, something that doesn’t have walls,” says production designer Gonzales. “He wanted a circular stage with almost a 360-degree view with something that was hovering. We asked Wataru to do paper discs in silver and gold. It’s really the idea of almost like an aurora borealis, the idea of having everyone under one sky. It’s a very simple thought.”

The design of the whole area was intended to be reminiscent of Christmas decors, welcoming guests to the country’s festive tradition of a long Christmas (some of the designs will also be sent to Malacañang after the event as the palace's Christmas decor). Outside the venue are five traditional giant parols from Pampanga hanging on tall cranes (five to represent 50 years of ASEAN). Poinsettias were also installed along the red carpet.

Wataru Sakuma ASEAN This centerpiece at the ASEAN Gala dinner by Wataru Sakuma is made up of 5000 pieces of gold and silver textured paper. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH

Gala Dinner ASEAN Lamp baskets made in Bicol represent how the ASEAN region is woven together. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH

Gala Dinner ASEAN Guests were served a four course meal of Filipino dishes by Chef Jessie Sincioco of the Sofitel group. Photo courtesy of ITO KISH

For the show proper, Duque faced the challenge of making a short program with a time limit. “[I was told] that President Duterte only wants his entertainment fast, easy and sweet,” says Duque. The program proper titled “Bravo ASEAN!” ran for 30 minutes and was divided into three symphonies featuring performers from across the Philippines.

The first section was a new take on Hotdog’s iconic song “Manila,” which served as a musical welcome to ASEAN guests and delegates and was played by a mix of an orchestra, a brass band, a rock band, and string and vocal soloists.

The second number, called “Partners,” featured different dance forms, such as ballet, contemporary dance, hip-hop and tap dance. The performers featured were Sining Kumintang from Batangas, Davao Tappers, and Belinda Agora Dancers.

For the third number, called “Jubilare,” exulting and celebratory songs were chosen and were performed by some of the country’s best talents: Lani Misalucha, David Ezra, Darren Espanto, Elha Nympha, Sam Shoaf, Jona, and Jed Madela.

Everything was bound by simplicity, from the design of the venue to the production. Like Kish and Gonzales, Duque wanted the talent to take centerstage.

“I want to impress [the world leaders] with the wealth of talent and artistry of the Filipino,” says Duque. “As a matter of fact, in the curtain call, when they take their bows, I don’t want them to take individual bows. You all bow as artists, you’re taking a bow for the country, you’re not Lani Misalucha the singer, you’re Lani Misalucha the Filipina. We all bow together. That’s what I want the leaders to see.”