The Philippines’ premier classical ballet company Ballet Manila opened its 20th season of storytelling though dance with Tatlong Kwento ni Lola Basyang. The material, the cast, the treatment is easily relatable and highly entertaining. First you have a lola (grandmother) who indulges her grandchildren with tales from lands not so far away and then you have comic characters who do the Nae Nae. Family and novelty are two things you can’t go wrong with and these were creatively woven into the company’s first offering.
Promotion of Filipino Classics
The featured ballets were based on Severino Reyes’ stories. Reyes used Lola Basyang as a pen name and came to be known as a staunch purveyor of Filipino fairytales and folklore. These stories were once communicated to the public through the radio. They have also served as inspiration for many movies and television shows and were included into the basic education curriculum. Perhaps it can be made available as podcasts so today’s children can enjoy them and learn from them as they are means though which cultural values were effectively socialized.
Set on solid libretto and accompanied by carefully curated music by the country’s best arrangers and composers, Ballet Manila’s artists turned literary fantasy into a visual feast. Words flowed as gestures and mime and the storytellers’ visions were realized with technological aid and imaginative choreographic devices.
The Saturday matinee show had an additional treat for the audience. Company directors Lisa Macuja Elizalde (Artistic Director and CEO), Osias Barroso (Co-Artistic Director and Ballet Master) and Christopher Mohnani (Managing Director) opened the show with what they called Ballet Mime 101. They taught the audience classical ballet gestures that were to be used in mimetic scenes so that we could follow the story with ease. It was delightful to watch the audience mime along with Macuja Elizalde and her team. It was an invitation to the dance that the afternoon crowd gamefully accepted. The performance had not yet started but people were already engaged.
Old Material, New Revelations
Ballet Manila’s Tatlong Kwento ni Lola Basyang first premiered in 2008. This year’s restaging is made special by new faces and new realizations.
BM’s newest dancer Katherine Barkman is every inch the people’s princess. Her audience was enraged when her father broke his promise. They grieved as she nursed a broken heart and they celebrated when she finally married the love of her life. As Prinsesa Singsing, Barkman was delicate but decisive. She showed her beautiful attitude, literally and figuratively (an attitude is a leg extension to the back with a bent knee). Unlike the usual foreign air that we are all too familiar with– boisterous and imposing, hers is a quiet elegance that very much agrees with our Filipino sensibilities.
Osias Barroso’s movement design for Ang Prinispe ng mga Ibon showed his deep understanding of ballet as an art form. The symmetry of shapes (individual body positions and group formations), the plot build-up through movement, and the pas de deux (partner dance) between the leads all convey familiarity with the genre and utmost regard for tradition. His corps de ballet (group dancers) was impressive in their synchronization and management of space. Hopefully, he takes on more choreographic assignments in the future.
Ang Kapatid ng Tatlong Marya began with the most beautiful looking stage tree. The audience broke into applause when the snake came out of the tree and circled the stage and the house in the manner of Chinese dragon dance manipulatives. This segment featured dancers Alvin Santos, Joan Emery Sia and Abigail Oliveiro who showed strength and confidence in their performances. Alvin Santos flew across the stage with powerful jumps and high extensions. Good thing he holds the title role because his dancing can (and did) upstage his stage sisters.
Gerardo Francisco as Rodrigo in Ang Mahiwagang Biyulin is truly remarkable. His energized performance and funny facial expressions drew laughter from the crowd. It helped, too, that the character that he portrayed was one that many could associate with. Rodrigo is a laborer who is not appropriately compensated by his employer.
Tony Fabella’s choreography accentuated Ryan Cayabyab’s dynamic musical composition. Movement ideas were simple and were repeated throughout but the spirited and intelligent dancing of the cast made all the difference. Francisco has been with the company for over a decade and his stint as Rodrigo further solidifies his stature as one of the country’s most reliable danseurs.
Missy Elizalde’s role tied the narratives together and the corps de ballet was effective in providing the necessary support and additional landscape for the tales. The curtain call made it even more obvious how deep Ballet Manila’s ballet bench really is. The company’s wealth of terpsichorean talents prepping for the spotlight makes one hopeful for the future of Philippine dance.
Ballet for the People
Dance artistry is not limited to choreography and performance. Macuja Elizade’s strength may not be putting steps together into a dance but audience aptitude is a great and important talent. She knows her audience and values them enough to give them what they want. The use of flying mechanisms, less sophisticated musical choices and transitions, and other production devices, choreographic and otherwise, made the show exciting and palatable.
It is uplifting to be in a theater where people would clap and feel with the performers. It is uplifting to be in a theater where there would be people who are not performing. Others would consider this to be hard sell but maybe it is time that we consider it as community and community-building.