At 34, and with a dancer’s portfolio that includes impressive turns as lead in Ballet Philippines’ productions of Rama Hari and Songs of the Wayfarer, Richardson Yadao can only shrug at the perception that his ballet is just a side hustle to a more traditional day job.
“Hindi naman tayo lumaki sa bansa na ang value ng sayaw ay napakataas (Our country doesn’t place high value on dance),” says Yadao, who studied dance at Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) and was an arts management major in college before joining Ballet Philippines in 2009. “Hindi pa ma-gets ng Pilipino na ang sayaw ay puwedeng maging isang career tulad ng pagiging doktor or guro (The Filipino has yet to realize that dance could be a career, like medicine or teaching).”
In fact, it was the fruits of his dancing that saw him through the pandemic. Back in the Philippines for a break in early 2020 after performing on cruise ships for five years, he used the money he earned as dancer to buy a delivery truck he could rent out.
Yet for others like Monica Gana, the lockdowns’ impact on a ballet dancer’s career and morale—abruptly cancelled shows, indefinitely closed theaters, no-work, no-pay status—left her feeling displaced and unsure of her future in a discipline she has known since she was eight. “I kind of felt lost for the past two years,” says the 28-year-old Gana, a Ballet Philippines soloist since 2013, performing arts graduate of De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (DLS-CSB), and a dance teacher in her alma mater. “There was always that question: Should I still be doing this?”
While her own retirement as artistic director of Ballet Philippines’ last three seasons leading up to its 50th anniversary was fast-tracked by the pandemic, National Artist Alice Reyes, founder of Ballet Philippines, didn’t have it in her to leave her dancers in the lurch.
“My heart broke for this current generation of dancers, some who were dancing at their peak, others about to reach their peak. In one stroke, the pandemic erased all that they could look forward to,” she wrote in an article for TheDiarist.ph in December 2020. “That I could help this group of dancers, displaced by the suspension of operations of their resident company with whom they had signed contracts, was an opportunity that I immediately embraced.”
She launched an Adopt-A-Dancer campaign, and accepted pledges from patrons to sustain the salaries of up to 20 dancers. Through the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) artistic director Chris Millado and Eva Salvador of CCP’s Arts Education Program, she found posts as teachers, demonstrators, and lecturers for displaced dancers. With the help of ballet master Adam Sage and curriculum consultant Rubylee Gomez, she brought ballet classes online, and reached dance students and teachers all over the Philippines, as well as in Singapore, Dubai, and Jeddah. Conducted via Zoom, these online classes ran for six months and culminated with a year-end Dance Showcase, a virtual dance finale featuring students (who were dancing from home) and the entire CCP Dance Workshop student community.
Writing at a time when vaccines against COVID-19 had yet to reach these shores (legally, at least), Reyes wrapped up her TheDiarist.ph essay with this bold pronouncement. “I believe that we will again witness live performances, perhaps under new configurations and settings,” she wrote. “The need for artistic productions whose audiences actively interact with the performers will remain part of our social and cultural DNA. Filipinos, with our strong inherent musical and theatrical nature, will find our way back to such a setting, within the new normal.”
That the country now has a better handle on the pandemic saw her pronouncement—and a new initiative—happening sooner than later. Alice Reyes Dance Philippines (ARDP) is “a Filipino dance company with the goal of transforming lives through dance,” reads its press statement. “By focusing on dance education, the company aims to share the gift of dance, teaching, and developing dancers and choreographers all over the country.”
Noble objectives aside, Reyes was not exactly keen on starting a new dance company. “For very obvious reasons—my ripe old age of 79!” she says in an email to TheDiarist.ph. “I thought, surely this is for those much younger souls who are more in tune with the new world we live in, full of social media channels.”
‘I believe very strongly that there should be more cultural centers out in our cities and regions’
Besides, she had already set her sights on pursuing her original retirement plan had COVID-19 not intervened: to get a sense of the state of dance in the country by traveling to different cities and universities and touching base with teachers and local government leaders. “I believe very strongly that there should be more cultural centers out in our cities and regions. These are, after all, the homes of the artists we are developing and nurturing!”
She only acquiesced when her son Christopher Upton (a member of ARDP’s board) pointed out that her name and presence “would help open doors and hopefully erase confusion with regards to similar names of other existing companies,” she says.
For restoration artist Tats Manahan, who sits on ARDP’s board as president, the company isn’t just about creating opportunities for dancers to perform. It’s about upholding national identity and cementing the legacy of a woman who didn’t let anything—neither politics nor a pandemic—get in the way of her passion for dance.
It is the only dance company where dancers are honed in both the classical and modern styles, and specifically Filipino ethnic, developed by Agnes Locsin
“It’s preparing this group of dancers who have so much potential for bigger things, the continuity of their individual careers as dancers,” says Manahan. “But also, the continuity of what Alice had started 50 years ago; how a ballet company that carried a national identity made an impact worldwide, with its signature style and Filipino-centric repertoire. It is the only dance company of its kind where dancers are honed in both the classical and modern styles, and even beyond that, a specific style that emerged from this baseline: the neo-ethnic style, specifically Filipino ethnic, developed by Agnes Locsin, a mentee of Alice. These dancers would comprise a third generation and hopefully from their ranks, one or more of them take up the cudgels of both Alice’s and Agnes’ legacies.”
Reyes, who goes by the initials “AR” in the company, is privately called “Mama” by her young talents. “She’s so nurturing and she’s always watching out for us,” says Gana. “But, of course, in the studio, she makes sure we do our job, so there’s that discipline and aim to reach a certain standard. You must be quick on your feet. You have to think and be prepared.”
“She has a gift of seeing beauty in each of the dancers. Nagagawa niyang ma-appreciate kung ano man kayang ibigay ng mananayaw (She appreciates whatever the dancer can give),” says Yadao. “She’s also familiar with classical and modern ballet and she’s open to the development of dance in the country. She knows how to run a company. I trust her.”
Even Michaella Carreon, who started dancing with Reyes only this April, is eager to be mentored by AR after observing how the National Artist kept dance alive even with the pandemic’s limitations. “She has a clear vision and knows how to execute it,” says Carreon, who graduated with a performing arts degree from DLS-CSB and is with Philippine Ballet Theatre. “Marunong siyang makitao. (She knows how to deal with people.) She’s not just a boss, she’s a leader who’s in touch with her dance community.”
This September, ARDP and the artists of CCP’s Professional Artists Support Program launch a series of live performances at CCP, ranging from the classics to new chorography and creative collaborations.
Pulso Pilipinas I (September 23, 8 pm; September 24, 3 pm) showcases “diverse dance culture with works across different dance styles and regions.” Highlights include the choreographic works of The Company by Reyes; Moriones by National Artist for Dance, Agnes Locsin; We Men by Lester Reguindin; Asong Ulol by Denisa Reyes; and Mamang Kutsero from Edna Vida’s Ensalada.
Pulso ng Pilipinas II: Alay nina Alice at Agnes (September 30, 8 pm; October 1, 3 pm and 8 pm; October 2, 3 pm, and 8 pm) presents the iconic works of two National Artists for dance. Featured are Locsin’s Igorot, Moriones, and Elias at Salome, and Reyes’ Carmina Burana.
Premieres and Encores (October 28, 8 pm; October 29, 3 pm and 8 pm) commemorates the 75 years of diplomatic ties between France and the Philippines. Included in this creative collaboration between the CCP and the French Embassy are pieces by French choreographer Redha Benteifour, and acclaimed works by 21st-century Filipino choreographers John Ababon, AL Abraham, JM Cabling, Lester Reguindin, and Erl Sorilla.
Puso ng Pasko (December 2, 8 pm; December 3, 3 pm and 8 pm; December 4, 3 pm and 8 pm) is described as the first full-length, all-Filipino Christmas ballet. Conceptualized by Ronelson Yadao with musical arrangement by National Artist for Music, Ryan Cayabyab, the ballet captures the beloved traditions of Filipino Christmas through song and dance.
Dancers who’ve been cooped up from COVID-19’s restrictions in the past couple of years surely can’t wait to get back on stage again. But for ARDP’s bright talents, the return of live performances and tours gives them the chance to do as AR has done as a dedicated artist, mentor, and champion of dance.
“I also look forward to the community-building,” says Carreon. “Workshops are always affiliated with our performances and they allow us to spread dance education, to touch other people’s lives through the art of movement, which is a main priority of ARDP.”
“The exciting part is to share,” adds Yadao. “When people watch us, they’re also learning.”