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Lisa Macuja says goodbye to ‘The Nutcracker’

Prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and daughter Missy Macuja Elizalde reunite onstage in The Nutcracker.

MANILA, Philippines - Among the ballet classics, The Nutcracker is one of prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde’s favorites. There is something magical about it, she says, that has made it the most popular ballet the world over. Indeed, when it comes to holiday fare, nothing beats the tale of the young girl Masha whose generous spirit on Christmas Eve transports her to a land of giant dolls, dancing snowflakes, the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

But aside from being a Christmas staple, The Nutcracker will always have a special place in Lisa’s heart as it has given her some of her most unforgettable moments onstage. No wonder then that she has chosen this ballet as the final production to complete her “Swan Song Series,” in which she is saying goodbye to the full-length classics. Fittingly enough, in the spirit of giving, Lisa is donating ticket proceeds to typhoon relief efforts. She is dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy on Nov. 29, Dec. 1 and 8 at Aliw Theater, CCP Complex, Pasay City.

In December 1982, two months after arriving in Russia for her ballet scholarship, Lisa was given the role of a Snowflake in her school’s annual full-length production of The Nutcracker. Though it was a minor role, she was giddy with excitement. Unfortunately, her hair got entangled in the fishnet prop onstage.

“I yanked and pulled with all my might, managing to free myself just in time for the next group formation. But it left my white wig hanging and my black hair half-exposed for the rest of the act!” she relates. Though she can laugh at the incident now, at the time that it happened, she recalls crying backstage in the arms of her mentor Tatiana Udalenkova.

Lisa more than made up for that blunder, however, when she was cast as Masha for the student performances of The Nutcracker as given by the Russian Ballet Academy at the Marinsky Theater. Her debut in the role was unprecedented as she was the very first foreign student ever given the chance to perform the lead role.

“Both casts of the school were blonde, blue-eyed little ballerinas sharing the role. Now, how would it look to the audience when, in the transformation scene, an Asian with black hair and chinky eyes would emerge? That Asian ‘Big Masha’ was me,” Lisa says, who remembers being accorded several curtain calls by an audience that was indeed taken by surprise by the Asian Masha.

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Her own company, Ballet Manila, has staged The Nutcracker several times but the most unforgettable yet was in 2010 when Lisa’s own daughter Missy Macuja Elizalde made her debut as Masha. It was also the first time that they shared centerstage in a full-length ballet. Looking back, Lisa confesses, “It was a truly emotional moment when I danced the adagio following our transformation scene. I don’t know how I held it together.”

Mother and daughter will reunite onstage anew in The Nutcracker for the “Swan Song Series.” Jessa Balote, a scholar of Ballet Manila’s Project Ballet Futures, will dance as Masha in the Dec. 8 fundraiser for the Philippine Christian Foundation, which runs the school in Tondo where Jessa is an honor student. Proceeds from this last performance will be used to establish an arts and dance center in Smokey Mountain.

Ballet Manila senior soloist Dawna Mangahas alternates with Lisa Macuja as the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Nutcracker cast also includes Rudy De Dios and Junmark Sumaylo alternating as the Nutcracker Prince, Alfren Salgado, Romeo Peralta, Glenn Ragel, Elpidio Magat and Manny Febra as Cavaliers, Marcus Tolentino as Drosselmeyer, Alvin Santos and Anselmo Dictado alternating as Fritz, Gerardo Francisco and Roduardo Ma alternating as the Harlequin Doll, Mylene Aggabao-Salgado as Columbine and Sergio Capa as the Moor. 

With music by Peter Tchaikovsky and choreography by Vassily Vainonen, The Nutcracker is being restaged by Osias Barroso Jr., Eileen Lopez and Jonathan Janolo. The  Manila Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Alexander Vikulov, is featured in select shows.

For Lisa, the final performances of The Nutcracker will add to her cherished memories of the Christmas production. “Dancing Masha in Russia in 1984 catapulted me to ballerina status. Dancing Masha as the last ballet of 2013 will bring me full circle and to the end of my “Swan Song Series.” Thankfully, I continue to look at Masha as that wide-eyed child on Christmas Eve, about to open a present that will change the rest of her life.”

For tickets to “Swan Song Series” performances on Nov. 29, Dec. 1 and 8, call Ticketworld at 891-9999 or  visit ticketworld.com.ph.

Ballet Manila’s Subscribers’ Night is on Nov. 30. For the full schedule of The Nutcracker, call 525-5967, 400-0292 or visit www. balletmanila.com.ph and www.lisamacuja.com. All performances will be held at Aliw Theater, CCP Complex, Pasay City.

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