Arts and Culture

Still bringing ballet to the people after 20 years

The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - When Ballet Manila was launched in 1995, naysayers predicted it wouldn’t last long, with some even giving the group a “sentence” of only two years. A columnist meanwhile wrote that there just wasn’t room for a third ballet company when there were two established ones already competing for a limited audience.

But the 12 dancers who formed Ballet Manila — led by Lisa Macuja and Osias “Shaz” Barroso, together with their artistic director, the late Eric V. Cruz — didn’t let such comments dampen their enthusiasm. In fact, it even fueled their desire to succeed and to tirelessly pursue their twin mission of “bringing ballet to the people and people to the ballet.”

This year, the people of Ballet Manila can rightly proclaim they have proven themselves as they are celebrating their 20th anniversary. Lisa and Shaz — dancing partners for 16 years and now the company’s co-artistic directors — admit to feeling a sense of wonder that they’ve reached this milestone.

“Sometimes, I still can’t believe it’s been 20 years!” Barroso declares. “I realize it’s been 20 years when I see the kids who started out with us are no longer kids. Then I see more kids coming in, following in the footsteps of those that came before them.”

Ballet Manila’s first year tested the fledgling group’s resolve. “We had no studio, parang squatters,” Barroso recalls. “We had a makeshift studio in Lisa’s house in Quezon City where we would warm up, but we had to do it in two batches because the space was small. Some of our friends who had studios would allow us use their facilities for classes whenever there’s free time, so palipat-lipat kami.”

Ballet Manila’s 12 pioneer dancers with artistic director Eric V. Cruz in one of their earliest promo shots in 1995. STAR

Lisa believes what worked in their favor early on was choosing to be a touring company. This steered them from a head-on collision with the two other ballet groups, while also allowing them to cover uncharted territory for classical ballet. That first year, they covered “A to Z” in the Philippines — that is, Abra to Zamboanga, and many obscure places in between.

“But we really saw the potential of ballet in the provinces because we saw how effective the shows were, even if we were presenting pure classical ballet. We performed in basketball courts, gymnasiums and town plazas and we would always get a positive response from people who weren’t really exposed to ballet. They were very appreciative,” notes Lisa.

Since they were just a small band of 12, it was easier to move from place to place — although it also meant the dancers had to do double or triple duty by acting as their own production staff.

“Costume change lang ang pahinga kasi every other dance kasama kami,” recalls Eileen Lopez, one of the pioneers who is now the company’s rehearsal mistress and a teacher at the Ballet Manila School.

“Everybody was pretty much in every number,” agrees Christopher Mohnani, another pioneer who is now back as Ballet Manila’s managing director. “We would have a motorcade or radio guestings to promote the show, kami rin ang tagadala ng linoleum, at maglalaba pagkatapos ng show.”

Though they had a lot of good experiences, Lisa says there would occasionally be adverse ones during those early days: like being duped by producers who would not pay them and worse, leaving them with bills to settle.

They also had to contend with the most unusual situations. “Sometimes, there would be no dressing room in the venue so we had to improvise. Or, merong palaka backstage, or may pusa, may paniki, may kambing! Ballet for the people talaga!” Lisa remembers.

But the effort was all worth it, says Shaz. One of the most memorable performances for him was Ballet Manila’s first show, held at the Francisco Santiago Hall at the old PCIBank Building in Makati. “We weren’t expecting people to come pero maraming nanood. Nakakataba ng puso, kasi we were acknowledged agad as a ballet company.”

Credit for that warm reception must go to the dancers’ parents, led by Cesar and Susan Macuja, who acted as a support network that sold tickets, helped get sponsors and watched the shows of their children.

When Lisa married business tycoon Fred Elizalde, Ballet Manila got an unexpected boost. Lisa is grateful for her husband’s support, building studios and eventually two theaters that allowed the company to flourish.

The original group of 12 has grown into a company of 57 dancers today, with many more trainees and scholars. The company’s repertoire has also expanded, with international choreographers being tapped to create new pieces and in-house choreographers being developed who have all produced staple pieces and crowd favorites.

Ballet Manila has been sending dancers to international competitions, many of them making it to the finals and even winning top honors. One of its biggest success stories is Christine Rocas who emerged as the silver medalist in the New York International Ballet Competition and received the Arpino Award that secured her entry to the famed Joffrey Ballet. Rocas has been with the Chicago-based company for eight years, reaping critical acclaim for her performances especially in last year’s Romeo and Juliet.

Asked what made him stay with Ballet Manila for 20 years, Shaz says, “I think it’s the genuine love for ballet and our vision to really preserve the classics but at the same time, branch out. Sometimes, dance is no longer in its purest form because it’s not being preserved. What’s good in Ballet Manila is that we’re keeping the tradition.”

Indeed, what Lisa learned from her Russian mentors — classical ballet done the strict Vaganova way — is the same thing that has been imbibed by all Ballet Manila dancers through several generations.

For Lisa, the fact that Ballet Manila can be classical and commercial at the same time is a source of pride. “We’re able to show world-class dancing in extremely difficult full-length classical ballets and yet we’re also able to successfully stage the more mass-oriented programs. I’m pleased with the diversity and flexibility we have in repertoire and capabilities. Clocking as much as 300 performances a year, the company reaches an astounding amount of people of all ages, from all walks of life. And that, for us, is the fulfillment of our mission which we hope to continue for a long time to come.”

Ballet Manila stages BM 2.0, The 20th Anniversary Concert, on Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m., with a matinee on March 1, 3 p.m., at Aliw Theater, CCP Complex, Pasay City. The show is co-presented by Ballet Manila, Manila Broadcasting Company, Aliw Theater and Star City, in cooperation with ACS Manufacturing Corporation, BPI Express Credit, Island Rose, Ralph’s Wines and Spirits, First United Travel, Papa John’s Pizza, Krispy Kreme, The Food Club, Tokyo Bubble Tea and radio partner Crossover.

For tickets and other inquiries, call Ballet Manila at 525-5967 or 400-0292, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.balletmanila.com.ph; or Ticketworld at 891-9999 or ticketworld.com.ph.










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