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December 15, 2003

EDNA VIDA

Three companies impassioned by one desire: to dance. If exceptional dancing were enough, then Ballet Philippines, Philippine Ballet Theater, and Ballet Manila can safely tuck their good track records in the folds of history. But to dance exquisitely is not enough. The costume ball is being plagued by characters with perhaps the more engaging makeup. Television, film, computers, floods, traffic, and coup d’états offer the preferred spectacles. In these times, Cinderella and Snow White are kept in the shadowy wings of the theater of life. The mirror is not saying who, in the coming years, will be the fairest and sturdiest ballet company of them all.

Although each claims to be unique, their programs read the same, a catalogue of common merchandise. All boast of an extensive repertoire, talented artists of national and international acclaim, distinguished guest artists, teachers, and choreographers. Each of the three companies volunteers its own version of the ballet classics, an all-Filipino program, a dash of new works plus repertoire pieces. They vie for the same audiences, people who are not as stirred by the saccharine fairy tales of “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” as they were before, unless these are danced by visiting foreign groups. Arabesques and pirouettes make no real statements in a society that is disillusioned. Ballet Philippines is 32 years old, Philippine Ballet Theater, 15, and Ballet Manila, 6. Who among the three will endure?

From the ’70s onward, dance as a career in the country experienced an upswing. Ballet Philippines (BP), the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ first resident dance company and considered the only professional company in the country, paid regular salaries to their dancers. Founder and artistic director Alice Reyes stewed her vision in a cauldron of success like an enchantress. Regular seasons, marketing thrusts, ticket sales, local and international tour bookings were planned with a professional staff. The members took regular classes at the CCP Rehearsal Hall, danced eight hours a day, six days a week, four weeks a month, and 12 months a year.

Financial assistance came in abundance with the support of former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos, the Zobel de Ayalas, and other affluent benefactors. This extraordinary company engaged international stars Natalia Makarova, Yoko Morishita, and Fernando Bujones to dance with local counterparts Nonoy Froilan, Ester Rimpos, and Effie Nañas. The company had sponsors, subscribers, support groups, and walk-in audiences sometimes grappling for SRO tickets. The productions of the great classics “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote,” “The Nutcracker,” “La Bayadere” advanced from the usual recital gigs to professional spectacles comparable to those of Western standards. Young Filipino choreographers developed their craft by virtue of exposure to a variety of works and close contact with foreign and senior local creative artists. Dance was no longer considered a hobby, something young girls did for posture and grace. It was a career.

BP established the foundation for professionalism in dance. The vision of Alice Reyes was to come up with an annual season of classical and contemporary ballets, present original Filipino works, and develop Filipino dancers and choreographers to be seen all over the country and all over the world and last but not least, to be world-class. This vision seems to have served as impetus for the younger companies as well. Having been a member of BP, I saw, experienced, and was part of it all.

Ballet Philippines

Now I return to the theater as its audience. From a guarded distance I watch this company as I watch my own children. It’s an entity whose heart throbs with my own blood. Where is it headed?

Alice Reyes was followed by a roster of artistic directors who sustained her vision. Included in that list are Denisa Reyes, Nestor Jardin, Cecile Sicangco, and myself. Then came Agnes Locsin whose own brand of wizardry brought about a spell of ethnic-based ballets. Her works, and those of foreign choreographers Claude Brumachon and Rheda, gripped audiences and reaped rewards for the company. During this period, my lone regret was that the dancers were mostly bound by one facet of dance—the strong, fierce aspect—while the rest of the 250-piece repertoire with its variety of styles, the crystalline jewel, remained hidden in the company’s chest.

Denisa Reyes has just returned to her former post as artistic director. She is on the upsurge with innovative ideas, daring to challenge audiences with her off-beat explorations. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from the State University of New York, and her works have been performed in the city’s Clark Center Dance Festival. Thirteen years of living in New York may have intensified the polarity of East and West in this intense choreographer. Her “Neo-Filipino Series,” “One Ton Pinay,” “Made in the Philippines,” and “Siete Dolores” show contemplation of her Filipino roots while “Love Lies Bleeding,” “Firebird,” and “Te Deum” reveal her American penchant for abstraction and self-examination.

A grant from the Asian Cultural Council enabled Reyes to research the dances of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. This endeavor inspired her to co-direct and choreograph “Unravelling the Maya” which was performed in Malaysia in 1997 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Committee on Culture and Information’s “Realizing Rama” which toured the 10 member-states of the ASEAN and several European cities in June-July 2001 with Filipino and other Asian dancers.

BP plunged into the high seas of multimedia with its Eighth Neo-Filipino Series’ “Sama Sama: Dance and Video.” Reyes’ message was “to collect the important contributions of artists who have spent many years working out their own code, searching for an immediate human truth in new forms, movements and directions.” Filmmakers collaborated with choreographers in what should have been a rich concoction of film and dance imagery. Instead, the liberty of experimentation thwarted the journey and submerged the ship into fuzzy, shadowy and indistinct propositions.

Generally, the bane of experimental work is the excuse to go overboard. There is this tempting notion to liberate oneself from the slavery of structure which gives room to excessive self-indulgence, a most boring thing to watch. Reyes’ multimedia idea was remarkable, but it should have been maneuvered with much more thought and time.

Next came BP’s 32nd season opener, “Live, Hot and Blue.” The return of Alice Reyes’ “Carmen” was a welcome event for many balletomanes. Homegrown BP and former star of New York’s Alvin Ailey Modern Dance Company, Elizabeth Roxas, embraced the role of Carmen with the ardor of the gypsy herself, mesmerizing all. Camille Ordinario, as her alternate, danced with sheen as did Irish Abejero as Don Jose. The role of Don Jose was created for Nonoy Froilan, the company’s premier danseur for two decades. In many people’s minds no one could take his place until Abejero came along. Raul Moreno Padrana, in the same role, did not have the style of Reyes imbedded in him. Although he, too, danced with passion, those who expected to see this particular modern dance style in his dancing were disappointed.

This is the wonderful thing about doing repertoire. There will always be new versions, new interpretations. It is discouraging to hear people say, “Been there, done that, seen the ballet already.” “Carmen,” “Swan Lake,” and “Giselle,” for example, are meant to be seen again and again. There will be countless dancers essaying the same roles, using their own style and technique.

The all-Filipino show stopper “Shoes ++” showcased the works of Tony Fabella, Brando Miranda, Cecile Sicangco, Jinn Ibarrola, Paul Morales, and Alden Lugnasin. It also gave us the inventiveness of set designer Gino Gonzales, student of the legendary Salvador Bernal. His lone design of a surrealistic shoe section of a department store enhanced all the ballets, a feat in set design, especially when the works are diverse.

Sneakers, stilettos, pointe shoes, flippers, and the bakya came in a volley of impressive dancing, ruffled here and there by stage actor Herbie Go’s satirical witticism.

Fabella’s “Tambol at Padyak” ignited the audience into a most fervent standing ovation with his own young dancers from the Quezon City Performing Arts Development Foundation, Inc. and the Manila Dance Center tap-dancing on bakya soles beside the members of the company. This undertaking was a smash hit.

What Reyes should do next time is to work closer with her choreographers and probe deeper into the meaning of the theme at hand. The scheme to present diversified dancing on various kinds of shoes should have led the audience to the postern of deep reflection. What is the significance of shoes in our lives, and how does our predisposition to them affect us? Go’s repartee, entertaining as it was, proved inadequate. With its shock value, “Shoes” could have been a excellent eye-opener. The choreographers should have come up with tangible statements about this thought and usher them in with the splendid movements. Without substance, brilliant dancing can become hollow spectacles. That the audiences left the theater exhilarated by the joy that is dance was not enough. They should have left looking more closely at their shoes.

“Peter Pan” ended the year with its own kind of blast. After 18 years the ballet was resurrected with the surge of vitality only young dancers can possess. Cristine Crame, Ardee Dionisio, and Clark Rambuyon danced the role of Peter with their own lucid depictions of the boy who never grew up. They danced as seasoned artists even though Peter Pan was their first leading role in a full-length ballet.

As Wendy, Georgette Sanchez was delicate where Cindy Espinas was tender and Verna Fajilan, sensitive. Naomi Matsumoto’s lighting design added a gentle radiance to the dancing and the sets of Salvador Bernal. “Peter Pan” is based on the Walt Disney cartoon version. It is a tremendous challenge for young dancers to shed off their inhibitions and go on stage daft and frolicsome. The ballet, therefore, has always been instrumental to their development. As a choreographer I am happy to see “Peter Pan” fly once more in 24 performances, all but four sold-out to schools.

2001 saw diversity in BP’s season. It ended February 2002 with “Neo-Filipino: Baranggay Asia Series,” a concert that focused on the Asian influence on Filipino life. Reyes’ scrutiny of Asian culture in 1996-97 enriched the Eastbound themes in her mind. Asia, with its delicate contours and cryptic gestures, is undoubtedly where Reyes wants to take BP. Excavating the mines of this culture is a good venture for the company, but it must not forget its own diamonds — the abundant repertoire stored in its chest.

The company has long established itself as artistically and technically superior in both classical and contemporary ballet. Reyes faces the challenge of keeping this image, a difficult task, when the company is composed of very new and very young dancers. Besides, technical proficiency is looking solid in the two other ballet companies. It would be a shame if BP is reduced to the modern dance company it once was, doing nothing but Filipino and Asian contemporary works, even if they are innovative smash hits.

Philippine Ballet Theater

The People Power Revolt of 1986 provided the right ingredients for political and artistic alliances. Leading dance groups forged and gave birth to the Philippine Ballet Theater (PBT) a year after, becoming the second resident dance company of the CCP. With members coming from sundry schools and companies, a duly-elected artistic director serves for a term of three years while the rest, as they await their turns, become members of the artistic council. This is conceivably to give everybody a chance.

There is not much a director can do in a span of three years, much less have a body approve, oppose, or question one’s vision. To me, this has stymied PBT’s progress in many ways. In the15 years of its existence, the company has been led by some of the country’s most recognized ballet, jazz, and modern dance choreographers. Inday Gaston Mañosa, Julie Borromeo, Eddie Elejar, Eric V. Cruz, and Gener Caringal all have a propelling artistic force and a style of management that may or may not necessarily yield to the propensity of the rest. This has resulted in the termination of some terms before they were completed, leaving those involved perplexed and disconcerted.

In spite of this, PBT has gathered an abundant harvest in the 15 years of its existence. It has works that include Filipino, Chinese, American, Russian, French, and Spanish ballets created especially for the company. It also has excellent dancers in its assembly, some of whom have proven to be more loyal and dedicated than a few of their leaders.

Caringal successfully carried the banner for the longest term (six years). Coming from the BP family, he injected its brand of modern dance into the classical vein of his dancers. His works, plus those of Tony Fabella, Elejar, Borromeo, Cruz, and Felicitas Radaic, expanded the versatility of the PBT members. The presence of Bolshoi Ballet’s Anatoli Panasiukov as ballet master has proven instrumental to their technical development just as Ida Beltran, who added her contributions as associate artistic, ballet mistress and restager for three years.

International star Gelsey Kirkland restaged her version of “The Nutcracker” for PBT, and the American Ballet Theater’s Wes Chapman performed with the company in “Don Quixote.” Both were amazed by the dedication and talent of the company members.

Famous local and international choreographers were invited to include their works in the repertoire that PBT showcased in their tours to the United States, Canada, Asia, and South America.

Now Borromeo, a pillar of the dance world, is PBT artistic director once again. Having choreographed ballet and modern jazz pieces for years, she ventured into musical theater as choreographer, director, and producer of many Broadway shows. She was the important mentor of dance and theater celebrities Maniya Barredo, Nonoy Froilan, Lea Salonga, and Monique Wilson during their formative years as artists.

With her and executive director Mañosa at the helm, PBT’s 15th season opened with an explosion in the year 2001. “Gala, The Great Classics” featured Marcelo Gomes of the American Ballet Theater, with local guests Toni Lopez Gonzalez and Sonny Locsin (both formerly of BP), and its own roster of artists. Gomes’ panache and scorching flawlessness did not intimidate the local dancers at all. Instead, they wisely allowed him to whisk them off to the vault of the sky where none would have dared leap without a cohort like him.

“Don Quixote,” PBT’s second production, utilized the local talents well. Maricar Medina and Guada de Leon were cast as Kitri with Lucas Jacinto and Ronilo Jaynario as Basilio. Medina’s Kitri was pert, delightful, wholesome, the sweetheart you bring home to mama (to papa, in this case), with a lot of class and intelligence. De Leon’s Kitri was charged with a sauciness that made the character even funnier. She is a faultless Kitri, glistening with mischief, a solid technique, and a commanding presence on stage. Jaynario was a suave Basilio. His maturity is more and more evident in his performances. Jacinto has the build, looks and ability to go much further, but he must think about his career very well before time passes him by. Dance is dispassionate to those who do not serve her 120 percent.

Both productions were gems added to the company’s treasure chest. The dancing was excellent, but lack of deliberation in set and costume design withdrew precious focus from it. It is not an offense to pilfer from previous productions in the name of austerity. But doing so without alteration is. The costumes, for instance, have to have unity in color scheme and one characteristic appearance that ties up the story and setting of the ballet. PBT’s production department must seriously consider its accountability to the production and not bring the company to apprentice level with slipshod work. That is, if it has a production department at all.

The sizzle of the two productions simmered to a tranquil conclusion with “Tribute to Maestro Lucio San Pedro,” an all-Filipino production. Paul Ocampo and Tony Fabella created pieces that translated into dance the floating lullabies and regal marches of the phenomenal composer. The Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company and the Madrigal Singers added the right seasoning.

Although I admire PBT’s crusade in presenting Filipino artists at their best, Borromeo and her staff ought to brainstorm a bit more to come up with resourceful ways of doing this. The combining of Filipino artists in one evening was done by BP in the days of Alice Reyes 32 years ago. For the sake of identity, PBT ought to comb the sands in search of more clever ideas in presenting contemporary Filipino works.

By and large the company has progressed well and should not go on struggling the way it did in the past decade. It would be good for the artistic council to reexamine the company’s representation, goals, and objectives. Like a young woman blossoming into maturity, what is she to be in adulthood? The members of the board can be more resolute in their efforts to provide support. The company needs aid and sustenance in their artistic pursuits, and supporters must come in with much-needed capital. The strength of PBT lies in the classics. This is the more expensive enterprise. It is difficult to produce a ballet that involves hundreds of dancers. A company has to dress them up, buy their pointe shoes, and pay for rehearsal and performance fees. PBT has under its employment exceptional artists, all beaming with passion and determination to dance. They should be allowed that with the essential security.

Ballet Manila

Ballet Manila is certain about its image. It is a classical ballet company whose roots are firmly grounded in the Russian Vaganova soil. Its chronicles begin with an exodus. From the chilly halls of the PBT Meralco Theater studio, principal dancers Lisa Macuja, Osias Barroso, director Eric V. Cruz, and a flock of neophyte dancers took flight and settled in a small, sweltering studio in Quezon City. Then they set about the difficult task of forming a company of their own which they called Ballet Manila.

Macuja-Elizalde is a well-known dance figure in the Philippines. She was a scholar of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Culture and a graduate of the Vaganova Choreographic Institute in St. Petersburg. Under the tutelage of Tatiana A. Udalenkova, she graduated at the top of her class after which she was invited to dance the lead in Kirov Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” “Don Quixote,” and “Giselle” at the Maryinsky Theater. She is the first foreigner to be invited to join the famous Russian company. Upon her return to Manila, she became CCP artist-in-residence and performed as lead in many full-length ballets with BP. She later joined the PBT as principal dancer.

As director, choreographer, and designer, Cruz is best remembered for his works with the Dance Concert Company which he co-founded with ballerina Vella Damian in 1970. He was a principal dancer of the Filipinescas Dance Company, the premier danseur of the Hariraya Dance Company, and later artistic director of the PBT. He is a Master of Fine Arts graduate from the University of the Philippines, its first artist-in-residence for theater production design.

Macuja-Elizalde’s indefatigable spirit and Cruz’ unruffled composure as director came as a beneficial combination. Ballet Manila metamorphosed from a fledgling group to the distinguished dance company that it is today. In a short span of six years, the company has come up with its own regular seasons, a list of subscribers and sponsors, a school, and its very own theater.

The company’s record of over 200 performances all over the country brings to fruition Macuja-Elizalde’s dream of delivering ballet to the bamboo portals of the Filipino masses. The company has also extensively toured various countries, bringing with it a repertoire of classical and contemporary ballets. January 2001 saw it come full circle when Macuja-Elizalde brought her company to St. Petersburg (Leningrad) to perform in the very same theater where she danced 15 years ago.

Under the watchful eyes of their dance mentors, Macuja-Elizalde and principal dancer Osias Barroso, the neophyte dancers blossomed into accomplished artists. The women especially clinch the various classical and neo-classical roles with self-confidence. In 2001 Cruz opted to retire and settle down as a consultant, and Macuja-Elizalde added the more complex artistic director’s feather in her cap. Barroso has branched out to choreography as he continues to dance and guide the male dancers to his premier status.

Ballet Manila opened its sixth season in February 2001 with Paul Vasterling’s “Dracula,” followed by Jean Paul Comelin’s “Firebird,” Sergei Vikulov’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and ended with Barroso’s “The Nutcracker.” “Dracula” and “Firebird” were restagings while “Romeo and Juliet,” the most ambitious project of the season, premiered. The full-length ballet had full orchestral accompaniment and was performed at the CCP Main Theater instead of the smaller GSIS Theater. Although the production had all the flourish and grandeur of a serious classical production, aspects of it remain debatable.

Vikulov’s son, Alexander, conducted the orchestra with too much caution, leaving the passion of the drama loafing in the orchestra pit. The choreography struck me as elemental, something I did not expect from a celebrated dancer like Vikulov. If his creative impulse was to sink into the genius of Shakespeare with uncorrupted simplicity, then the sets should have been designed accordingly. The modernistic approach of designer Egay Gonzales did not compliment the traditional character of Vikulov’s version. Even the costuming of Cruz failed to hit the identity of Renaissance Italy in some of the characters.

Being gifted artists, Macuja-Elizalde and Barroso should have been allowed to soar on their own. Their passion was instead locked in obedience to the blueprint supplied by the choreographer. Despite its deficiencies, “Romeo and Juliet” had full audience attendance and exalting ovations. The company danced extremely well and should go on exploring the great classics with the same intensity and fervor.

Because Ballet Manila has reached its full potential with remarkable speed it must now proceed with caution. It faces many avenues, and Macuja-Elizalde, as grounds keeper, can do well to slant the company’s roots beyond the Russian soil, fertile as that may be. Her dancers need to draw from other types of nourishment.

She must also be conscious of the fact that as principal dancer, she will be forced to focus on her own artistic competence instead of the general needs of a production. How ready is she to break loose from the sanctity of her dressing room to face the turmoil outside? The company needs a good eye in the theater, carefully examining the field and making artistic decisions that should intensify the success of a production.

Throughout the years, the three companies have produced some of the country’s finest ballerinas. PBT’s Maricar Medina, Guada de Leon, Cathee Lee-Roslovtsev, and Katrina Santos-Mercado, BP’s Georgette Sanchez, Camille Ordinario, Judell de Guzman, and Cristine Crame, and BM’s Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, Melanie Motus, Aileen Gallinera, Pamela Asprer, Elline Damian, and Sandra Huang are world-class. It would be a shame if the audiences do not see them perform at their peaks. These dancers have no fear of complicated steps and can slice through allegros, pirouettes, contortions and balances with the precision of a surgeon holding a scalpel.

What we lack are male danseurs. Irish Abejero, Ardee Dionisio, Clark Rambuyon, Biag Gaongen, and Jojo Mamangun of BP, Ronilo Jaynario and Lucas Jacinto of PBT, and Osias Barroso, Christopher Mohnani, brothers Jeffrey, Eduardo, and Jerome Espejo of Ballet Manila should not be discharged to the world of business and economics where they will certainly earn more money. Neither should this country give them away to the companies abroad. Art in the Philippines has been unable to feed male dancers as soon as they mature and have families of their own. Something must be done about this.

Although our political landscape keeps changing over the years and affecting our artistic community, the three major ballet companies have kept their artistic resources intact. They have given this society the pride and recognition it desperately needs. Yet, their efforts seem to move only a handful. Where I thought our pains would have transported the younger generation to the heights we never reached, I am appalled that everything is back to where we began. The theater seats are empty, sponsors are hard to find, and some of the shows have gone back to recital level, not so much in technical proficiency but in the directors’ and choreographers’ concept, design, and creativity.

It would be good for all three to do some restructuring, go beyond the mainstream and look at what they can offer dance in the 21st century. Having withstood every financial affront imaginable, each one can remain steadfast. I do not agree that merging is the answer. Competition is good. What happens to one artist if the sole company, the one that has all the resources, does not like him or her? Someday the country will realize that its artists are unrivalled in Asia and able to meet the expectations of the world. Ballet Philippines, Philippine Ballet Theater, and Ballet Manila must wait and carry through their lifework until this happens.