In Constant Motion
Words by Anna Nicola Blanco
What many know of ballet is a simple truth: these are stories told through movement. The magic of ballet lies in a show’s ability to tell a story solely through perfectly choreographed turns and leaps, whether it be romantic, tragic, or funny. More than anything, this is what has captured and kept The Ballet’s audience throughout its long history.
But recent times have witnessed an evolution in the world of ballet. Dancers are constantly improving and learning new skills and techniques. New original shows are being made every year, and even timeless pieces have been adapted and reimagined by a host of dance companies.
In recent years, the three major Philippine dance companies have come out with shows like Ballet Philippines’ Opera and Rock Supermo; Ballet Manila’s Ang Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang; and the Philippine Ballet Theater’s Serye at Sayaw.
There has also been an increase in the popularity of more modern dance companies such as Airdance, Daloy Dance Company, and the UP Dance Company. Not only are companies producing a larger variety of shows, dancers themselves are becoming adept at more styles and techniques than what was required of their predecessors.
‘This shows how the Philippine ballet landscape is one that is constantly evolving. Dancers are constantly in a state of evolution; audiences have begun to appreciate dance beyond the glittering sets and elegantly pointed toes. But the push for modernity and the growing support for contemporary dance begs the question: Where does all this leave The Ballet in the Philippines?
THE FOUNDATIONS OF DANCE
Ballet Philippines Junior Principal Dancer Denise Parungao put on her first pair of ballet slippers when she was only eight years old. As a young girl, she said that the thought of becoming a professional ballet dancer didn’t enter her mind immediately. “I think I was 12 when I realized that I want to do ballet [seriously],’ she said in a mix of Filipino and English.
She later entered the De La Salle College of Saint Benilde at 16 under the dance program where, as a requirement, she became a part of Ballet Philippines. Ballet, Denise believes, as a dancer’s training and foundation, remains unparalleled. “The number one thing you learn is discipline. [You have to be] open to growth every day. [You have to have] a willingness to change.”
Professional dancers undergo daily rehearsals and exercises lasting up to eight or more hours a day. So there’s little time to do anything else but improve one’s technique and learn new ways of improving oneself. “Ballet is [the best] foundation for all forms of dance,” she says, citing that even contemporary dance companies abroad require their dancers to have classical ballet training. “Our teacher, when the steps get harder, always tells us to go back to basics. That’s ballet.”
Similarly, Prima Ballerina and Ballet Manila Artistic Director, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, believes that the backbone of any dance company is still classical ballet. “It is the foundation from which to build on,’ she says.
Before, it was normal for dancers to be either strong in classical or strong in contemporary forms. Now it is normal for dancers to be adept and experienced in both
Through her time as a ballerina, Denise Parungao has noted that older audiences still prefer classical ballet, while younger audiences are more drawn to contemporary works such as Rock Supremo, Rama Hari, Ang Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang, and Serye at Sayaw, all of which, though new and revolutionary additions to the common notion of The Ballet, retain the essence of ballet as storytelling.
Lisa Macuja-Elizalde says, “The regular Filipino audience still prefers dance performances with stories [and] full-length classical ballet warhorses like Giselle.” This explains why, no matter how modern Philippine dance companies get, the masterpieces are always given a place in every company’s annual season. Denise attributes this respect and reverence for the classics to tradition. “It’s because these are the classics,” she says. “It’s because when you say ‘ballet; you still think about The Nutcracker or Swan Lake?’
But though these works have been uplifted into ballet canon, they are not immune from change. “Because we’re so contemporary now, ballet also has to evolve,” says Denise.
Philippine audiences have seen these evolutions in the works of National Artist for Dance, Alice Reyes. Her rendition of Cinderella, a full-length ballet composed by Sergei Prokofiev, included a number of songs from Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovksy, the legendary maker of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. This has branded Ballet Philippines’ Cinderella as an original in its own right. Aside from this, she collaborated with Ryan Cayabyab, and fellow National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera to create Rama Hari, an original pop ballet musical based on the Ramayana.
In Agnes Locsin’s La Revolucion Filipina, known simply as “La Rev,’ audiences witnessed the translation of Apolinario Mabini’s The Philippine Revolution to dance. In Ballet Manila’s Ang Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang, the stories of Severino Reyes came alive on stage with an actual storybook as its set. Serye at Sayaw by the Philippine Ballet Theater mixed classical ballet and Philippine teleseryes, incorporating live musical performances to create a ballet that could appeal to more audiences. Rock Supremo by Ballet Philippines was a rock concert and full-length ballet all in one.
It is such landmarks and innovations in Philippine ballet’s history that have shown that classical ballet is able to move and work within the contemporary scene, driving both dance companies and its dancers to find new ways of telling and re-telling stories.
THE BIRTH OF DISCOURSE
Lisa Macuja-Elizalde says that it is normal now for dancers to be adept in multiple genres. “Before, it was normal for dancers to be either strong in classical or strong in contemporary forms. Now it is normal for a dancer to be adept and experienced in both.”
Ea Torrado, founder and Artistic Director of the contemporary and experimental dance collective Daloy Dance Company, was a professional ballet dancer for nearly two decades before she decided to put her pointe shoes to rest. During her time as a ballet dancer, she danced for both Ballet Philippines and Ballet Manila. After a stint with the Dance of Theater Tennessee, Ea came back to the Philippines with the intention of pursuing contemporary, modern, and improvisational dance above all others. “I’ve always felt that my body resonates a lot with contemporary work. I like to improvise and compose things,” she says.
Despite her transition to contemporary dance, Ea admits that her background in classical ballet is what has honed her holistically as a professional dancer, artistic director, teacher, and audience member.
She says that, while she no longer performs classical ballet, she understands that this genre of dance retains its relevance in the Philippine dance scene.
“As long as there are people behind it who believe in it [and] who believe that it does good to dance training,” she adds.
And just as dancers are learning to explore new genres and avenues for dance, so too are audiences becoming more acquainted with both classical and contemporary bodies of work. Today’s dance audience is becoming more exposed to the different varieties of dance, allowing a kind of discourse to be born.
“The audience today is more discerning,” says Liza Macuja-Elizalde. They have begun to ask more pressing questions: What is dance? What is ballet? What is contemporary and modern? And it’s pushing companies to create more original and even riskier productions, those that explore the relationship between classical and contemporary. The Ballet as a form of theater and dance is indispensable. That much is true. But no longer is it the end-all be-all of a company and dancer’s repertoire.
The dance.MNL: The Philippine Dance Festival was a collaboration between The Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ballet Philippines, The Philippine Ballet Theater, and Ballet Manila shows how open to growth the dance community in the Philippines has become. It was created not just to showcase the wealth of talent that Filipino dancers
have, but to engage with audiences through dance forums and talkbacks, allowing companies to get a better understanding of the contexts they’re moving in.
“No doubt, classical ballet will be here to stay,’ says Lisa. But where it is going and what more can be done with it is an open-ended question—one which dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, and audiences have only begun to answer.