Lisa Macuja Elizalde on success, ‘Gangnam Style’, ballet and her National Artist nomination
WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores (The Philippine Star) - December 16, 2012 - 12:00am

It takes an athlete to dance, but it takes an artist to be a dancer. — Shanna LaFleur

The Philippines’ most famous prima ballerina, Lisa Macuja Elizalde, is 48 years old and still at the prime of her life. A scholar at Russia’s prestigious Vaganova Choreographic Institute of Leningrad (now St. Peterberg City) and graduating at the top of her class in 1984, she was the first foreign soloist who ever joined the renowned Kirov Ballet of Russia in 1984.

Lisa is artistic director of Ballet Manila, vice chairwoman of the Philippine UNESCO National Commission, and director and faculty member of Ballet Manila School, a training center in the Russian Vaganova method. She helps public school kids who want to be ballet dancers with scholarships. She also hosts the Art 2 Art radio show on DZRH.

Lisa recently granted Philippine STAR an interview at her sprawling, nearly century-old, resort-like Pasay City residence with husband, the billionaire tycoon, Fred Elizalde. Excerpts from the interview:

PHILIPPINE STAR: I know you’re famous for world-class classical ballet, but have you heard of the latest global dance craze from South Korea called “Gangnam Style”? Your comments?

LISA MACUJA ELIZALDE: (Laughs) My 14-year-old daughter Missy showed me how to do it, and we had a great laugh. We just laughed and laughed and laughed, that’s what it is for me. Wala lang (nothing), it’s this guy with dark glasses dancing like he’s riding on a horse. He has this fantasy girl, they’re in all different parts of the city, and he sings or lip syncs. It’s just very funny!

I heard you and your husband Fred Elizalde visited Casa Elizalde in Spain. Is that the ancestral home of the Elizalde clan?

Casa Elizalde is on Valeria Street, Barcelona City near Mandarin Hotel where we were staying. It’s actually not the Elizalde ancestral home, because my husband’s family roots are in Irrutria, which is a two-day trip from Barcelona. Casa Elizalde was the place where my husband Fred’s distant cousins lived after the Philippine revolution in 1896 up to 1964. These relatives sold the house to the government, and it’s now a civic center.

You’re a ballet teacher too with a school. Is it true one of your outstanding students was Christine Rocas?

Christine Rocas was my student at the age of nine. Now she’s principal dancer of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. She worked her way up. She was a soloist for Ballet Manila. We sent her to many ballet competitions abroad. In 2005, Christine participated in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in Helsinki, Finland, where she became a semi-finalist in the junior division. Also in 2005, she received the Arpino Award and was also the silver medalist in the New York International Ballet Competition — there was no gold medalist or grand prix given. More importantly, right there and then in 2005, she was offered a contract with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet.

I heard you not only educate ballet students, but also offer scholarships so that even poor kids can learn this seemingly elite art?

We have the Project Ballet Future, which is a scholarship program. We not only offer education, we even provide vitamins, transportation allowance, pati gatas (even milk). We already have 45 ballet scholars.

Is it true your scholars are from the public schools? Which schools and where?

We have five partner schools: Bonifacio in Pasay City, Sumulong also in Pasay, and three others. Our biggest and first partner PCF, it’s the Philippine Christian Foundation of Tondo, Manila. 

You were not poor in your youth, but were you also a scholar of former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos when you studied ballet in the former Soviet Union?

No, I was not a scholar of Imelda. In fact, Imelda herself said she was proud of me because I made it without her help. Her scholar in the former USSR was Rowena Arrieta, Odon Sabarre was also one of her scholars. I met Mrs. Marcos only after my studies and after marrying Fred because she and my husband are good friends.

How did you end up studying in the world-famous ballet school of the USSR?

I got that scholarship through my father Cesar Macuja, who was then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Undersecretary. He handled a delegation from Moscow. Before that, I got accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London and the San Francisco Ballet School, but when my father handled that trade delegation from Moscow, Russia became a possibility. In those days, a ballet scholarship for a foreigner like me was almost impossible, but many years later after perestroika, the situation is now different.

What are your secrets for success as a world-class artist? Is it more talent or hard work?

The secret of my success is my tenacity. I still keep on doing it. Most of us ballet dancers dance their Swan Lake, Don Quixote or other classical ballet, and we’re happy. I also once dreamed of dancing these at least once in my career, but now I have already danced Swan Lake 32 times, Don Quixote 56 times, and many others, but I’m still doing it, dancing ballet at age 48. My career has brought me to dance with so many generations of dancers for a lot longer than most of my contemporaries in ballet. 

Your stamina and artistry at age 48 are truly amazing, at what age do you foresee yourself retiring from dancing?

(Fred Elizalde, who has been quietly observing our interview, suddenly replies: “Sixty!” and smiles.)

What? (Laughs) I’m supposed to retire at 50. You’ve just added 10 more years to my career. Pity the audience na talaga. (Laughs)

By the way, you earlier mentioned Black Swan. What are your comments on that well-made and amazing movie Black Swan starring Natalie Portman as a prima ballerina?

The real ballet Black Swan is not as neurotic as that portrayed in the film. But those stories, like passing over older ballerinas for younger ones, tales of the casting couch, instances of the neurotic stage mother becoming a pushy mother passing on her dreams to a daughter, the intense competition — those things do happen in real life.

That scene in Black Swan of the director tapping on dancers and telling them to go to rehearsal, that does happen. It’s also true about ballet dancers pushing themselves until their toes are bleeding, that also happens, just look at my toes here… they’re already black (she brings up her feet to show her blackened toes).

You’ve been hurt, but why do you keep on dancing and why this drive?

It comes from my passion for dancing. Even after so many operations (she shows several on her feet). It’s basically a love and passion for dancing. I’m really lucky I can still dance.

So the Black Swan of Natalie Portman has elements of truth, but just less neurotic?

Those things do happen, but masyadong negative yung movie, mas masaya naman kami (the movie portrayal was too negative, we’re really happier than that). We enjoy what we’re doing; if not, why do we do it?

Is it true this concept of “muscle memory” I heard that from golfers and athletes, is it the same in dance and ballet? Maybe that’s why Malcolm Gladwell wrote his book Outliers saying that 10,000 hours of practice can make people world-class successes?

Yes, it’s true about muscle memory, that’s how people become great after 10,000 hours. But our muscles easily forget too. After only two weeks of vacation (laughs). Actually, after only three days of vacation, there’s already muscle amnesia (laughs), so we should continuously practice and keep on learning nonstop — that’s one real key to success.

Are we in the Philippines the best dancers in Asia?

No.

Why? Is it because we lack the tenacity or long-term discipline?

No, a lot of it has to do with genes and body structure, because we are small for classical ballet where there is an international standard. Classical ballet requires long limbs, long neck, a small head, flexible hips and arched feet. We in the Philippines are not that way.

Developed societies in Asia like China, Korea and Japan, they have the luxury to select the best young bodies of kids to give you athletic and dance training for 10 years. Even in my ballet school, we do not have the luxury to screen and turn down students. But one advantage we have is we have heart. Dancers with heart or passion can still excel.

So passion is the main key to success in dance and ballet in your opinion?

Talent is also important. Even if one has 10,000 years of passion, you still have to possess a certain amount of talent.

Your view of dance as sport? Gymnastics and ballet have many similarities.

Dancers can be called performing athletes, but dance as a sport is still different from dance as an art.

Again on success, I heard your paternal grandfather had an inspiring success saga?

My grandfather Julio Macuja was governor of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). As a kid, he would walk 10 kilometers just to go to school in the province everyday, and then walk 10 kilometers back to go home. He studied well as an accounting student and later topped the CPA board exam. That’s where he met his wife and my grandmother Stella Pongos Macuja, who also topped the CPA exam. She was accounting professor at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), then also dean of Miriam College.  That is the reason they wanted my dad to study in Harvard, but he married my mother Susan Pacheco Macuja.

Your family is one of the Philippines’ richest and your husband is “King of Philippine radio”. What are your views on wealth or how should families with great wealth utilize money and also plan their future estate? 

At the risk of sounding cliche, financial wealth cannot buy you happiness. Definitely, life can be easier — but not a walk in the park, as other people may have painted it to be. It’s the way you use wealth that really affects you — personally, or as a family.

We are free to make choices. Hopefully these choices are made to create greater good, instead of selfish wanting. We can always make plans in order to take care of our children and their children’s children --- but I believe that giving your kids the right values and principles will make them ready for the future. There’s this play entitled, You Can’t Take It With You, and it’s true. You really can’t take it with you, but you can also ensure that what you leave behind will not break families, but unite them.

What are your views on May-December romances like in your case with your 24-year age gap, what is your advice to couples in a similar situation?

When I met Fred, I did find him on a league of his own. He was this Renaissance man who excelled in everything. He was an astute businessman, an artist, an architect, a dreamer — very set in his ways and he knew what he wanted and had no qualms on being honest and open about it.

At that point in my life, I needed a very strong man who could actually control me and whom I respected and cared for more than say, my dancing. He swept me off my feet. I didn’t stand a chance. You commit to the man, the person you fall in love with — and what his age at that point when you make such a commitment doesn’t really matter.

Admittedly, as your relationship grows together, there will be instances when the big age difference will be felt and sometimes even cause friction. With me, it was more the physical strength and mobility issues that caused conflict. I was a very active person and Fred’s deteriorating hip condition would affect our lifestyles.

My advice to couples in May-December relationships is to talk. Communicate your feelings, your problems, your thoughts to each other. Like any relationship, communication is the key to a healthy one that will last forever.

What is your reaction to Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago this July filing Senate Resolution 808 officially nominating you as National Artist for Dance?

I’m flattered, very flattered, but there is a process. We are all determined to follow the process. It’s very flattering, because her nomination was unsolicited. She goes to watch my performances, and she goes backstage to congratulate me. Once she asked me: “What can I do for you? Are you a National Artist?” When I answered that I’m not, she replied: “We’ll do something about that.” Not many people were to go out on a limb for you.

If your life story would be made into a film, who among our actresses would you want to play the prima ballerina Lisa Macuja Elizalde and why?

Heart Evangelista, the reason being, we have the same features. She has a theatrical face. Also, Heart has been to my performances, she has watched along with Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

* * *

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BALLET BALLET MANILA BLACK SWAN CASA ELIZALDE CHRISTINE ROCAS DANCE ELIZALDE FRED ELIZALDE
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