Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Return to the Ballet

(paul with iya in photo from the 1995 season)

After an absence of more than 10 years from the Philippine Ballet Theater, I had the rare pleasure of revisiting my past when we danced at the recent 20th anniversary Gala of the PBT. The vantage of time spent outside the company afforded me a special peephole to review my time at the PBT; the factors that brought me there in the first place, revisiting the season I performed with them and finally to ruminate on the company and the art of dance that has enthralled so many like me.

In truth the dance world in Manila is a small community. I had started ballet as a scholar at the Dance Theater Philippines with Tita Radaic and Steve Villaruz, one of the companies that would eventually form the PBT. DTP was one of the ‘Festival Four’ companies that as Steve points out in his must read book on Philippine dance history ‘Treading Through 45 Years of Philippine Dance” was founded to ‘open up the cultural policy (of the CCP) and to accommodate more groups’ particularly The Festival Four companies, from which from their eventual demise ‘out of their ashes, rose the PBT’.

As a young scholar of dance I had the opportunity to observe and admire the dancers who were already performing at that time. This included the dancers who were part of the newly formed PBT or would figure prominently in the company in the future. In my first ballet class I was simply dumbfounded, trying to follow the complicated dancing that was explained just by their names! It seemed an impossible task. I watched the other dancers for inspiration including Katrina Santos, a ballerina I would come to greatly admire for her elegance and drama, (her Juliet to Osias Barroso’s Romeo for PBT, which I saw in a matinee is still a distinct highlight in my dance memory) and hoped that I too could one day perform the intricate footwork.

My pursuit of dance led me to being a scholar at the CCP dance school and eventually a member of the first batch of Ballet Philippines 2 with Agnes Locsin. This turn of events shifted my focus to modern dance. Thru BP I was also able to get a scholarship to the Laban Center in London where I trained, performed and toured with the Transitions Company, an experience that would greatly influence my work as Artistic Director to Airdance, an independent contemporary dance company.

In contemporary dance training the study of ballet is included, but is not the basis for the technique and aesthetics. This allows a lot of dancers without ballet training to excel in the field. Returning to Manila I became a freelance dancer/choreographer eventually taking class where I could, including at BP and PBT, as dancers do. Despite my rigorous training in contemporary dance, I always enjoyed the challenge of ballet which is how, I did in a roundabout way, finally become a member of the PBT, a professional ballet company. In a sense this honors my early training with the DTP and is perhaps but one of the surprising spirals of my fate.

It was 1995, the year of the great migration of dancers from the PBT to form Ballet Manila which in turn opened up opportunities for dancers like me to join the company despite not training there. Ballet companies are notoriously hierarchical; one was always expected to go up the ranks, from scholar to apprentice to member and so forth. It seems we were just taking class at the right place at the right place. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more a fortuitous turn of events. Still we only bolstered the considerable talent already present at the company. Among the members who joined the company at the time with me include Ron Jenario and Kit Sanchez, dancers whose dedication to the art, staying on with the company in the intervening years, would be rewarded by their eventually assuming leading parts in the company. In this aspect dance even from a spectator’s point of view can be very fulfilling, observing how dancers grow and mature over time.

It was the first year of Mr. Karingal’s leadership and we went all out with re-staging classics from the PBT repertoire as well as working with leading international choreographers to stage works with the company. Among those who worked with us that year were Jean Paul Commelin (for “Cinderella”, his Barber Adagio and “Daughters of Mourning” based on Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba”), prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and Micheal ____who came to stage a new Nutcracker for the company (one of Ms. Kirkland's most famous ballet roles), and David Campos and his wife Irene Sabas who came to stage his “Carmina Burana” for PBT, a work which would become a landmark piece for the company. Working with great artists is perhaps the only way of elevating our art. Being coached, observed, and collaborating with such stellar international artists help form our craft, let us glimpse possibilities outside our present level of dancing.

Backstage again at the Main Theater stage at the CCP for this year’s staging of Carmina Burana, I find the value of repertoire companies that can re-stage works; keeping alive in the evolving cast of dancers the creators’ vision and enabling the company to share this to a broadening audience. As I watched the young dancers take our old places in the choreography, I realized again that dance is truly an art of mentoring and continuity.

Anatoli Panisukov had joined the company as ballet master at about the time we did and it is truly amazing how he was able to produce arguably the best classical dancers presently dancing in Abigail and Jared Tan. Their consecutive victory at the NAMCYA competitions is a testament to the long process making dancers, and the exemplary quality of Anatoli’s training.

What is disheartening is the state of the company, the lack of dancers and the seemingly dwindling audience. Many fine dancers have been produced only to be lost to more ‘profitable’ careers. The dancers themselves have always felt that perhaps with the backbreaking work involved with staging ballet, perhaps a better mechanism for marketing could be also be prioritized. From the dancers to the dance parents; a truly professionalized management style that honors the dancers work is still being hoped for. Indeed, how can we share more of this magic of ballet to a greater number of people?

The amazing thing is that when the company invited the past members to perform they came back in droves, Guada even coming all the way from New Jersey, to dance with the company again. Maritoni and Kathee took time off from their respective careers and families to come back to the fold. In the senior dancers we really find the fruit of the company’s work and it is telling that so few, Joel Matias perhaps being the exemplar, stay on with the company. Again this is a complex question that might be in general, reduced to economics. When the structures for sustaining dancers in a truly professional standard can be achieved is perhaps the time when dancers would then be able to stay, dance, inspire and further develop. I left PBT after that one season precisely because of these factors - but perhpas in the end my path was really taking me another way.

Despite these misgivings, events like the anniversary are truly fulfilling. It links the younger dancers to their elder peers, (as they would have if more dancers stayed on) allowing them to witness and benefit from the advice and example of those that came before them. For me it was the pleasure simply of sharing that elusive stage again with great dancers who truly enjoy and shine in the dance.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

For The Love of Dancers

(paul with myra beltran for 'sigh')

I love dancers. Because of the nature of our art dancers often tend to be soft spoken, humble, disciplined and hard working. It takes years to train a good dancer. For ballet it is said that at least 10 years of training is needed. As a young dancer you would think this is an exaggeration. But as you mature you realize that it is true; only with time can you truly master your body. It does take years until your muscles and your mind can connect and begin the work of art.

You have to realize the value of time. As an element in composition – outlined in the music you are dancing to for example. And also time as an element in life – you have to come and take class daily, and performances are always accorded your timepiece’s respect; one must never be late especially for your own show.

Working alongside others in a company or school you must become your own person in a sea of personalities. You learn silently to respect the space of others as you strive to fully occupy your own. This silence can be a double edged sword. The old school adage “dancers are seen and not heard” can mean that you might loose your right to express your grievances, loose the opportunity to be an empowered voice in ‘real life’.

The paradox there is that you strive all along for personal empowerment. You work to master your sinews and gravity to enable you to be an ideal; flexible, sure footed, heroic and even tragic.

In the end the challenges in dance are for all of us, dancers, dance makers and the audience alike. For dancers we have to truly question our reasons for dancing. To connect to this passion for dancing in our daily lives so that it may blossom on stage and in turn connect to the audience we work with. For the choreographers and dance leaders there is the constant challenge of community development as well as inspiration and craft on the stage. For the audience the challenge is allow the dance to take away the layers of mass media conditioning allowing us again to be transported.

Dance indeed is the oldest art. It is the witness to the primal mimetic energy that fills us as we dance, allowing us to transform into conduits for our archetypal heroes and presenting our human quests in realms of the romantic, the idyllic, the contemporary and even the sacred. In our dancers the spirit moves.

It is fascinating how despite the grave economic and political situation of the Philippines at present, dance continues its age old cycle of discovery, teaching and performances. Keep your eyes and ears open for classes, festivals and presentations and experience dance again.