“Oh it’s good to see H.R. again,” TheDiarist.ph writer Glenna Aquino muttered under her breath, as she stared at the iconic H.R. Ocampo mural curtain onstage before the performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last December 12.
“That production was even done in Tokyo,” Glenna recalled the printing of the mural as she kept her stare on the giant H.R. of fiery hues which has become identical with the CCP through the decades.
Glenna was going down memory lane about her stint at the CCP in the late ‘70s, when she worked under CCP’s early stalwart Ray Albano, the painter, scholar who was then the museum director of the CCP.
The audience that early December night might not have as detailed a memory of the CCP but nonetheless they must have shared Glenna’s disbelief that finally—finally—they were back at CCP for a live performance. “I can’t believe we’re watching live,” said fashion designer Chito Vijandre and retailer Ricky Toledo as they took their seats on the front row, so close to the stage.
Last December 12, the CCP Main Theater Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo was filled to allowable capacity as the audience returned to the CCP to watch A Christmas Celebration—the first live performance in the country (perhaps aside from Ang Huling El Bimbo at Resorts World stage) after two years of on-and-off lockdown in the pandemic.
Aside from fierce artistic commitment, it apparently took a collective will just as fierce, hard work and tenacity on the part of CCP officials led by chairperson Margie Moran Floirendo, CCP president Nick Lizaso, its board of directors, artistic director Chris Millado, and the National Artist (Dance) Alice Reyes who never gave up despite the odds, not even when her house had to serve as “bubble” for a few dancers preparing for the performance.
A Christmas Celebration was staged by the CCP with the Ballet Philippines Alumni Association, Inc. featuring the dance artists of the Professional Dance Support Program (PDSP)—a relatively small group of dancers from the CCP Dance Workshop, Philippine Ballet Theatre, Ballet Manila and Steps Dance Studio.
The PDSP is a CCP project created for displaced professional dancers. During the pandemic they trained in classical ballet and modern dance, worked with choreographers on new choreographic works presented online. Towards the end of 2021 they were to film excerpts from Sleeping Beauty for an online presentation, but as restrictions eased, the CCP allowed the performances as this year’s culminating program.
The group staged Divertissement from Sleeping Beauty as restaged by Victor Ursabia with Eugene Obille, and Tuloy ang Pasko, which was first staged online for Christmas 2020. With music arranged by National Artist Ryan Cayabyab, it was choreographed by Erl Sorilla, John Ababon, Lester John Reguindin, Bonifacio Guerrero, Jr., Dan Dayo, Jr., Al Abraham and Ronelson Yadao.
That night the audience was casting the net of hope for the country’s artists
It was about old friends touching base online, now that one is based in the US, reminiscing about the Filipino Christmas of old. With production design by Eric Cruz and lighting direction by Barbra Tan-Tiangco, the setting of a traditional town plaza, during Simbang Gabi, complete with puto bumbong and Christmas buntings, gave the audience a feeling of nostalgia and hope, especially when they mounted pink parols around the plaza and the young dancers did their upbeat contemporary moves.
The repertoire showcased the versatility of today’s generation of dancers, their pursuit of technical proficiency in Sleeping Beauty, their exuberance in Tuloy Ang Pasko—this even as the pandemic almost drove the Philippine performing arts into extinction. It was touching how in video clip interviews some dancers recalled how they had to pick up other jobs to survive.
Generous sponsors also helped support the dancers.
That night, the audience felt not only were they watching a performance, but also, just by being in the Main Theater, they were casting the net of hope for the country’s artists.
This was because the performance came at great sacrifice.
“We did not expect to open this year because we were closed from the pandemic’s start. So when theaters and entertainment sites were permitted to open at 50% of total capacity, we were unprepared to present a live performance. So instead, resident companies were filming their Christmas presentations. For example, in November, the PDSP of the CCP, led by National Artist Alice Reyes, was preparing to record its Christmas presentation when the Artistic Director (Chris Millado) invited them to reopen the theater for live performances,” Margie Moran Floirendo told TheDiarist.ph.
We were unsure if people were ready to go to the theaters
“There were challenges, however. First, we were unsure if people were ready to go to the theaters. Then, we adjusted ticket prices to make the boxes the premium seats, considering the perception of safety. Unfortunately, the decision also left the marketing department with little time to sell. As a result, what could have been a two-evening and two-matinee performance ended up to a one-night and one-matinee show,” she added.
“Back-of-house health protocols were a significant challenge. Dancers and the production crew had to quarantine for a week at the CCP. In addition, since the Center does not have a dormitory for artists, the beds were inappropriate for use. Dressing and bathroom facilities still need improvement.”
The audience went through the safety protocols the moment they stepped into the building, having their temperature taken and filling out contact tracing forms. In the theater, one had to get used to seeing ushers in PPEs. After the performance, disinfecting procedures were done swiftly, discouraging the guests from lingering on.
Moran Floirendo stressed the big picture: “Despite all the challenges, it was essential to have our dancers perform onstage to regain their confidence, show their skill to an audience, and be acknowledged for an excellent performance. That is what artists live for.
“Secondly, the economy is opening up, and the creative industries are at the forefront of economic recovery.”
TheDiarist.ph interviews Alice Reyes on the first significant live performance in the country in this pandemic:
Just how difficult was it to mount a live show?
It is a balance between “not difficult” and “difficult.”
Not difficult, so to speak, because as a company of dancers and ballet masters, teachers and choreographers and staff, we had been training together for over a year, with the exception of four dancers added to the roster of grantees to the PDSP 2, from July to December 2021.
We had trained and worked together on the classical dances to be filmed as the culminating production this December 2021. We even planned to have two casts for the Divertissement from the Sleeping Beauty. But when the plan to change to a live show was confirmed, things went on to the difficult level.
One, the CCP theater was now open to other activities, such as the regular showings of films and a previously planned necrological tribute to National Artist (Amelia Lapena Bonifacio). This meant that we could no longer use the Main Theater Lobby dance floor where we had been training since January 2021. We had to move our “studio” to the Little Theater Stage.
Two, to be able to present a full live show, we had to add a major dance piece.
We chose the Filipino Christmas theme dance, Tuloy ang Pasko which premiered last year, on film, streamed online for the CCP’s 2020 Christmas presentation.
This meant we now had two major ballets to rehearse. And that we had to revert from two casts for the Sleeping Beauty excerpts to only one cast. There would be no time to rehearse two casts.
The training for a year meant dancers breathing as one, an essential quality to precision dancing
The real hardship for us was that we had no definite venue for classes and rehearsals.
The Rehearsal Hall was occupied. The Little Theater had encountered construction problems and we could use only a narrow strip of floor meant for the orchestra pit, in front of the Curtains.
One of our dancers slipped and fell down, and had to be taken to a hospital for an emergency medical checkup. The prognosis was that she could not dance and had to rest for two weeks. Another dancer had to step immediately into her dances, with only two days to rehearse before the curtains went up on opening day.
But the fact that we had been rehearsing with two casts served us well.
And the training for a year meant dancers breathing as one, an essential quality to precision dancing.
But still you did it, why?
We were all delighted we could present live onstage the very popular Christmas piece
Tuloy ang Pasko as it featured beloved Filipino traditions at Christmastime.
We all loved the music and the dancing. And the story line was so moving!
We thought it was worth all the extra work to bring this piece with the Divertissement from the Sleeping Beauty onto the stage to be seen live by our audiences who had been deprived of live shows for so long.
This is, after all, what performing artists and production designers and staff train all their lives for—to get on stage and perform for live audiences.
And here we were given just that opportunity to bring theater back to life at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
In dance, there is no such thing as WFH!
What other extra preparations did you make to go live — like the dancers were even in a “bubble” in your home?
The pandemic had caused great concern not only because it kept the theaters closed (thus we could not complete the final production of Rama, Hari in March 2020) but also because the dancers could not go to the CCP to take classes. In dance, there is no such thing as WFH!
We had to make sure we helped the displaced dancers we were supporting to continue to build their strength and stamina as they tried to work in much smaller spaces in their homes We did this by adding daily conditioning classes like Pilates and HIIT mixed with the usual technique classes of classical ballet and modern dance.
It was also extremely difficult for the choreographers commissioned to do new works for the culminating events of PDSP. This was a program for displaced dancers spearheaded by Margie Moran Floirendo, CCP chair, with the support of the president, Nick Lizaso, and its board of trustees.
To choreograph in one’s home, physically separate from dancers who were in their own homes, would have been, for me, impossible. I was awed by the determination of our choreographers to push through and try to create new dance works despite such difficulties. That they succeeded is obvious in the very successful and well-received series of new works presented by the CCP in Dance On! These were presented every Sunday in October and November leading to mid-December.
There were also a few dancers who could not work from home. There was no space available for such activities as classes and rehearsals. Fortunately I had empty bedrooms so four dancers came and camped out in my home.
I also had two bedrooms which I could empty of all furniture and these became impromptu dance studios.
They stayed for two months during the ECQ level. We became one happy family.
It was a fun time—they cooked meals in my kitchen which they all kept very clean and tidy.
I would look for recipes of interest and would challenge them to try those. Victor Maguad and Justine Orande became very good at making Eggs Benedict.
Monica Gana and Boni Guererro produced new creative dishes from leftovers.
We had the most varied assortment of fried rice as well as exotic curries and noodle dishes that ranged from Korean kimchi noodle dish to the baked Greek Pastistio. We made appetizers and soups and salads galore.
We all teased them and called them the “Dancing Chefs”. And my house became CasAR.
Invitations to our Sunday brunches were much desired. Happily we could often accommodate other dancers because I had an open patio which was conducive to safe meals.
I made sure to have lots of fans blowing away at all times.
The first part showed their technical prowess which they built against all odds in this pandemic. Was that the intent for that repertoire?
Yes. I wanted to be sure we continued the vision I had from the start when I founded the first resident company at CCP back in 1970, with Eddie Elejar and Tony Fabella. This was to train all our dancers in both classical ballet and modern dance techniques. Jazz and later on hip hop were added to our classes.
The idea was to have dancers who could work with any choreographer because their bodies were technically able to move in all dance genres. And their minds were open to all kinesthetic movements and experiments.
Our company’s repertoire carried this vision all throughout the company’s existence. Thus we have a repertoire that is rich and varied, deep with classical and modern pieces, Western and Asian in themes and styles.
We pioneered this approach to dance training and creative processes, though there certainly was resistance in the beginning. People were more comfortable keeping things neatly in separate boxes! Folk dance. Classical ballet. Modern dance. Flamenco.
Today, dance companies all over the world do the same and mix all styles of dances in their presentations.
How do you feel having staged the first ever live performance at CCP in the pandemic?
Happily blessed! Thanks to hard work, perseverance and a dedicated team of dancers, ballet masters/teachers, choreographers and production experts with whom we worked for almost two years, we had artistic content ready.
And thanks to good fortune, we also had the theater bookings. We were scheduled to film our presentation for streaming online. We had booked the Main Theater to do this.
Thus when CCP Artistic Director Chris Millado realized the time for a return to live theater had arrived with the more relaxed protocols announced by the government, and was looking around for artistic content, we were ready and able to offer our Christmas Celebration.
A friend reminded me of this trivia : That our Alice & Friends production staged February 21, 2020 was the last live dance presentation at CCP Main Theater. And now we were also the first back live onstage with A Christmas Celebration Dec. 12, 2021.
Yes, I feel very blessed and certainly very grateful.
The CCP is looking forward to 2022. Moran Floirendo told TheDiarist.ph: “Major CCP projects and Board initiatives will be relevant, impactful, and necessary. Furthermore, it will fund innovative projects of artistic groups to contribute to their recovery. In addition, the rehabilitation of the main building will begin in January.”
On the artistic front, there’s cause for hope indeed.