Passions and ObsessionsVideo

The pandemic didn’t stop PH ballet

In a world turned upside down, Alice Reyes
and Filipino dancers take a leap of faith

The CCP Dance Workshop performs 'The Nutcracker Ballet Act 2' in 'Tuloy Ang Pasko' to be broadcast on CNN Philippines, Channel 9, SkyCable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10 on December 24, 25.
The CCP Dance Workshop performs 'The Nutcracker Ballet Act 2' in 'Tuloy Ang Pasko' to be broadcast on CNN Philippines, Channel 9, SkyCable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10 on December 24, 25.
National Artist Alice Reyes, the CCP and its Arts Department gave virtual dance classes for six months to students and teachers here and abroad. (Photo by Noel Poblete)

National Artist Alice Reyes, the CCP and its Arts Department gave virtual dance classes for six months to students and teachers here and abroad. (Photo by Noel Poblete)

With email questions from Joy Rojas

In 2017, Margie Moran Floirendo, who was then the president of this Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) resident dance company I founded 50 years ago, brought me back from New York to help prepare the company for its 50th anniversary season. I came out of retirement, and signed on for three seasons. My term as artistic director was to end officially on March 31, 2020.

But in fact, it ended sooner and quite abruptly.

The COVID-19 virus first made its mark last February, when the fourth production of the 50th season was cancelled by the dance company’s administration, due to its concerns brought on by the initial news of the virus.  We were to present Itim Asu and Other Dances from February 21 to 23, 2020. This marked the dates of my very first modern dance concert at the CCP 50 years earlier (February 19-21, 1970), as the Alice Reyes Modern Dance Company.

It was to be a nostalgic presentation for me and for many of those who had worked with me. Among the notable collaborators were noted filmmaker and poetess Virginia Moreno, and Jaime de Guzman, the painter who designed the sets for Itim Asu. Serendipitously, the CCP stepped in and gave me a venue and production grant, just as it did 50 years ago.

With the help of young performing artists, who offered to dance without pay, and so many other former members of the company, and with the Production Design Center of the CCP donating time, costumes and whatever was needed, I was able to present a production called Alice & Friends on February 21, 2020.

Unbeknownst to all, this would be the very last stage production presented at CCP Main Theater for 2020.

We did go back to the CCP Rehearsal Hall and continued preparations for the last production of the 50th season—Rama Hari, the rock opera ballet I produced, choreographed, and directed in 1980, and with collaborators no one else could boast in one breath—National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera provided the libretto;   National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab composed an incredibly rich and fun score for soloists, orchestra and chorus.  National Artist for Design Salvador Bernal gave us a most magical production design that transported us all to the land of Mithila in India, home of the Ramayana epic.

Again, COVID-19 struck. The production was cancelled.

The CCP theaters were closed down.

Everyone’s lives turned upside down.

Everyone found themselves staring into a sudden void. The Unknown.

I quietly said my thanks to all the spirits of our dance universe for all the wonderful artistic challenges met, and the vast range of productions we were able to mount in the three years of my artistic directorship, surrounded by the artistic and production teams who had joined me. I valued all the new opportunities to learn new stuff in theater and social media, and the joy of working with some really incredible artists, young and older. I felt all the richer for this experience.

Artists of the CCP Dance Workshop and the production and artistic teams on the set of 'Tuloy Ang Pasko'

Artists of the CCP Dance Workshop and the production and artistic teams on the set of ‘Tuloy Ang Pasko’

ADOPT-A-DANCER

In the US and many other countries, employees, including dancers and actors, whose contracts ended and found themselves without jobs, could sign up for unemployment benefits. They would receive a monthly stipend for months until they found a new job.

Here in our country, there was no such safety net.

The CCP Arts Education Department  had educational programs where we could fit them in—as teachers, demonstrators and lecturers

I thought I could, at the very least, help these dancers (who suddenly found themselves having to survive on P1,500 a month from a one-time payment of P10,000 for six months) by trying to raise funds to help cover their rent, food, utilities, etc.

I started an Adopt-a-Dancer campaign. We asked for donations to cover salaries for 16 dancers, which later grew to 20 dancers.

With the help of so many friends and dance benefactors, donations started to pour in from all over. I was especially touched when a former company dancer and her son, who were also affected by the COVID-19 situation, insisted on sending a monthly donation of $100 each to this fund. Filipino friends who visited and saw the dancers perform with the company last season sent in assistance.

At the same time, these dancers, who were now “displaced” artists, wrote Chris Millado, the CCP artistic director, to ask if there was anything they could do to help.

Fortunately, the CCP Arts Education Department under Eva Salvador had educational programs where we could fit them in—as teachers, demonstrators and lecturers. The dancers even got creative and suggested they create short videos for dissemination to teachers and dance students all over the country.

It was indeed a very good fit. We threw ourselves into the planning of dance classes for all ages and different genres of dance, and discussed formats with teachers who could teach, dancers who could demonstrate, others who could give lectures—all these, plus how to strictly observe the protocols of the Department of Health (DOH) and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATC). We were blessed to have our own in-house doctor, Sarah Alejandro, one of our dancers acting as our safety officer, in consultation with Dr. Maria Teresa Mateo.

I suggested that we call the group the Faculty of the CCP Dance Workshop. The name first came up in April 1970, when after that first modern dance concert by the Alice Reyes Modern Dance Company (which toured the country and then returned to the CCP for repeat performances), I worked with Eddie Elejar and Tony Fabella on a highly successful CCP Summer Dance Workshop. This was followed by the very first 3-series subscription of dance at the CCP.

We decided to call that group the CCP Dance Workshop.

That’s how the CCP Dance Workshop came back to life again. The CCP agreed that this would be a good name for the group.

BALLET ON ZOOM

Adam Sage, with Rubylee Gomez as our curriculum consultant, and I planned and scheduled daily classes with a consistent format: a teacher, a demonstrator, and a technician to run the online classes.

We limited the number of bodies in the ballet studio to three. Each class lasted an hour, and we set aside 20 minutes in between classes for sanitation and maintenance. Our production staff would sanitize and wash down the floor and the barres used, spray all tables and chairs and equipment in the room. Then we let the room “breathe” in between classes.

We also had our own thermometer, footbath, and alcohol spray bottles all over the room. We marked the benches, tables, and chairs outside for proper distance seating arrangements.  Everyone had masks and face shields.

It was visibly and visually a different ballet world!

We had students from Singapore, Dubai and Jeddah…. Since June 16, 2020, we have taught an average of 140 classes a week

We organized and ran two sets of dance classes. One was completely free for those invited by the CCP Arts Education Department, as part of the CCP Arts Online Program and its educational thrust, in partnership with the Department of Education. These were designed for teachers and dance students from all over the country. We had students from Singapore, Dubai and Jeddah.

The other set of classes was under a tuition scheme to cover additional salaries for teachers and dancers. The latter set was offered to our former dance students who wanted to continue taking classes with their teachers.

Many were so delighted when we opened these dance classes, over 150 students joined. The teachers were pleased to be able to continue teaching their students. It was a mutually happy arrangement!

Classes for both sets ran for an hour, and ranged from 5-12 students per class, all on Zoom. We felt this was the best range for the teachers to be able to focus on each student.

After each class was an active question-and-answer discussion, a very popular part of our classes.

Since June 16, 2020, we have taught an average of 140 classes a week.

We invited all students of both sets of classes to all the online lectures last July for CCP Arts Online. All lectures, including those with dance history materials, were given from the viewpoint of professional artists who incorporated their personal professional experiences in the historical narrative.

I am most proud of these historical yet highly personal lectures. I foresee being able to present the set of videos of these lectures again and again, for they will remain relevant and of great interest to many dance teachers, students, and aficionados here and abroad.

In August, we worked closely with Eva Salvador and the Sining Galing team, who, for almost 15 years, have been running classes that focus on the basic idea of using arts as basis of transformation through creative expression. We worked with a psychologist to develop classes for very young children and children with special needs. The reactions the CCP received at the end of these lecture-and-class series were most rewarding.

YEAR-END DANCE SHOWCASE

Our students joined a year-end Dance Showcase we offered as culminating activity this December. Living with the restrictions of online classes, each student performs her dance at home. But we worked out a dance finale where he or she dances with the entire CCP Dance Workshop student community.

The entire faculty of the CCP Dance Workshop felt so strongly that we answer the need of all our students to experience once again dancing as part of a strong community. So together, we worked long and hard to produce our CCP Dance Workshop Students Showcase of 2020. And we are proud of it.

For the professional dancers of the CCP Dance Workshop, the culminating activities are two separate productions that were done for the CCP’s year-end 2020 holiday presentation.

One is a new mounting of The Nutcracker, Act 2 by Adam Sage, our outgoing ballet master and school program director. It is a most exuberant and delightful version of this beloved Christmas story.

The second production is a world premiere, Tuloy Ang Pasko, choreographed by the workshop’s young choreographers headed by Ronelson Yadao, to National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab’s beautiful Christmas carols.  We were fortunate to have Carlitos Siguion Reyna join us as director of the dance film, with Nonoy Froilan as associate director and editor.  Eric Cruz designed the wonderful sets, and Barbie Tantiongco was lighting designer and technical director.

This collaborative experience of cinematic and theatrical dimensions was such an eye-opener for all of us behind this project. And hopefully, it will be a precursor of similar projects at the CCP’s theaters in 2021 and onwards.

I felt it was important for us to define ourselves visually and virtually with a unique format 

In a most competitive world of online dance classes, it was truly a new experience for all of us!

Many other dance teachers went online and taught classes from their own homes. I felt it was important for us to define ourselves visually and virtually with a unique format. This was one of the first things we set about accomplishing.

We did all our classes at the CCP Dance Studio, with banners carrying the CCP logos and our own CCP Dance Workshop logo in the background. Our teachers sat close to the camera and TV monitor, carefully watching and talking to students, while another dancer demonstrated all the exercises and dance movements. Thus each teacher could watch and correct each student by name.

The rapport between teacher and student became very strong with each class.

After six months of classes, our students showed remarkable improvement in their technique and approach to dance—a good feeling!

There is nothing like actual dance classes in a dance studio with teachers walking around the room correcting dance students. The dancers taking the class feed off each other when it comes time to move the ballet barres for the center floor exercises and combinations.

But now, we at the CCP Dance Workshop have developed technical data to compensate for the virtual nature of the dance classes.

With the depth of experience gained after running online classes since June, we have the confidence to move forward with online classes, run by highly experienced teachers and production staff headed by Jai Ibarrientos, as technicians for the classes.

In fact, we have a few dancers who are so tech-savvy they easily stepped into the technician’s seat—like Ace Polias, Stephanie Santiago, and Ivan Castronuevo—and helped run online classes without missing a beat.

I am so proud of all our talented dancers and staff who had to work with very inexpensive low-end webcams and speakers, and yet produced classes and lectures with great technical savoir-faire!

There will always be the one constant worry: the lack of a dependable internet. We are at the mercy of this sad fact of internet life here in Metro Manila.

My heart broke for this current generation of dancers…. In one stroke, the pandemic erased all that they could look forward to  

We also know, moving forward, that we need to save funds to buy better technical equipment—that would be a dream come true.  But the priority remains the focus on reaching more and more students so our teachers can continue to share their expertise and grow the next generation of dancers.

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.

All other generations of dancers had a choice. To go and join another company elsewhere. To dance at Disney World for much higher pay. To go join a cruise ship for much higher pay.

Or to do something totally different, like teach Pilates. It was their choice.

But for this generation of dancers across dance companies, here and elsewhere, they had no choice.

There were only closed theaters. Closed ballet studios and all the many prohibitive government regulations for lockdowns and ECQs, then MECQs, back to ECQs, and the lot.

My immediate plan upon retiring last March was to travel around the country as National Artist for Dance, with the help of Nick Lizaso, chair of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and check on the many universities and colleges who had dance in their curriculum and theaters, as well as the many private dance schools. I wanted to get a sense of dance in the Philippines today.

The pandemic put this plan on hold.

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.

I would have been happy to help many others, if given the opportunity, financially and logistically. I did reach out to other dance companies to invite their artistic directors and teachers for classes and lectures for the CCP Arts Online Program.

As has been my personal MO, I focused on making sure that everyone in the CCP Dance Workshop adhere to the highest of standards, in all aspects of the work at hand. In turn, so many gave back more, pushing themselves to find new ways to grow.

One of our beautiful ballerinas, Katrene San Miguel, surprised us all with her talent for editing videos! This gave the CCP Dance Workshop a handful of dance videos that we happily handed over to CCP Arts Online.

Another dancer, Monica Gana, gamely established an organized collaborative system, which helped us all through the several stages of our partnership with the CCP.  Yet another dancer, Sarah Alejandro, took it upon herself to handle accounting chores, which enabled us to send bi-monthly payments to all our teachers and dancers, on time, all throughout these six months running.

Many of the male dancers (Ronelson Yadao, Lester Reguindin, John Ababon, and Victor Maguad), took leadership positions organizing video and choreographic tasks, for both big and small projects.

How could one in my position not respond and give more of myself, inspired by such generosity of spirit among the dancers themselves?

I also looked for every opportunity to find choreographic projects for our many talented creative souls in the group. Again, the response was electrifying!

There was the immediate creative teamwork, which put on a video for the CCP Dance Workshop’s contribution to the celebration of the CCP’s 50th year, last September. It was so cleverly done that it was featured most prominently on the CCP’s facade that one beautiful evening of celebratory offerings to the CCP.

There was Erl Sorilla, working with Joseph Morong, producing the hauntingly moving dance film called Ghostlight, an ode to a shuttered CCP. This is a short film that needs to be shown again and again, on a larger format, like on PTV 4 with its national market reach.

There is the joint creative work of the six choreographers who did the dances in Tuloy Ang Pasko, shown this December as part of CCP’s 2020 Christmas offerings. (It airs December 24, 25 on CNN Philippines, Channel 9, SkyCable Channel 14, Cignal Channel 10.)

And there will be Ronelson Yadao’s concept and choreography, Kabaliktaran ng Gunaw, to music by Jerrold Tarog, who also directs the film, to be shown in February 2021, in celebration of the National Arts Month.

I will vigorously continue to encourage choreographic projects being researched on and developed by these young Filipino creative talents with the help of the CCP and the NCCA and other remarkable corporations with cultural programs.

I believe that we will again witness live performances, perhaps under new configurations and settings. 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 is me, speaking as the eternal optimist, with great hopes and a deep belief in our ability to forge ahead with determination and to harvest what we plant, as a continuing chapter in our Filipino arts and cultural history.

Catch the TV premier of Cultural Center of the Philippines ‘Tuloy Ang Pasko’ Christmas dance films on CNN Philippines on December 24 and 25! To give you a glimpse of this Yuletide treat, here is the behind-the-scenes feature documenting the process of putting up this post-pandemic production. Witness how dance, culture, and the arts were heavily affected by pandemic and how ‘Tuloy Ang Pasko’ aims to bring hope, joy, and a bit of magic as an unforgettable year comes to a close. The double bill composed of The NUTCRACKER BALLET ACT 2 and TULOY ANG PASKO dance films featuring the artists of the CCP Dance Workshop will be broadcat by CNN Philippines on Free TV Channel 9, Sky Cable Channel 14, & Cignal Channel 10.

About author

Articles

As National Artist, the author has received the highest accolade the Philippines could bestow on its artists, but instead of resting on this distinction, she continues to create, to mentor, to share with the upcoming generation of dancers, indeed to build dance in the country. If not for the pandemic, upon retirement, she would have traveled all over the country this year, in her words, “to get a sense of dance” in the Philippines.

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