Passions and ObsessionsVideo

Why Lisa Macuja-Elizalde is even better—and wiser now

Like a phoenix rising, the icon of Philippine ballet marks Ballet Manila’s 25th season of hope and homecoming

An emotional Lisa Macuja-Elizalde fights back tears as Ballet Manila returns at last to its home and performance venue, Aliw Theater. Photo taken during the media launch of Aliw’s reopening in August 2022.

Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde

Upheaval is nothing new for Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.

In her lifelong pursuit of dance, it’s something she has faced time and again, as if fate was testing her to see how far she would go for her dream. When it occurs, Lisa, obstinate and driven, faces whatever obstacle awaits her and emerges a changed person, wiser and better—even if a bit scarred—from the struggles she has gone through.

One such monumental shift happened when she accepted a scholarship to Russia at age 18. The chance to learn in the heartland of ballet was too good to pass up. But it also meant dealing with harsh winters, bread lines, homesickness, an alien language. Moreover, it called for immersion in a technique vastly different from what she had grown up on back home. She came perilously close to quitting.

Two years later, she graduated from the Leningrad Choreographic School at the top of her class. On top of that, she was invited to join the revered centuries-old Kirov Ballet—the first and only foreigner to have received such an honor.

Another upheaval came along decades later upon her controversial departure from the ballet company she had been part of in the Philippines. She was headed to foreign shores to start a new chapter in dance in 1995, but unexpectedly, was convinced by colleagues, led by long-time dance partner Osias Barroso, who had also left the company to form a new one instead. With a mere 12 dancers in all, led by an artistic director in Eric V. Cruz, they became a touring ensemble with a mission to bring ballet to the people.

One columnist infamously wrote, ‘There is no room for a third ballet company …’ Ballet Manila turned 28 last February

Traveling from Abra to Zamboanga, Ballet Manila danced the classics in town plazas, basketball courts, school gymnasiums, and even a cockfighting arena. Lisa, aside from being principal ballerina, assumed various roles such as marketing person, ticket seller, and all-around rah-rah girl to push the fledgling group which one columnist infamously dismissed by writing, “There is no room for a third (ballet) company (in the Philippines).”

Time has proven that columnist wrong, with Ballet Manila turning 28 last February. It has established itself as the country’s “storyteller on toes,” steeped in the Russian Vaganova method, and known for staging classic warhorses such as Swan Lake and Giselle. Pushing boundaries along the way, it expanded its repertoire to introduce contemporary pieces and transform Filipino literary classics such as the stories of Lola Basyang and Ibong Adarna into ballet blockbusters.

But as far as upheavals go, none matches the one-two punch that Lisa has had to endure in the past few years. For most, the pandemic has been an agonizing period of uncertainty, and it has certainly been that for Lisa, too. But in her case, the situation was even more pronounced because she had already been experiencing an extreme level of anxiety following a massive fire that hit the Elizalde-owned Star City entertainment complex in Pasay City, damaging BM’s performance home, Aliw Theater.

‘Personally, I think my lowest point was the fire’

“Personally, I think my lowest point was the fire,” she muses about that incident which happened, even more painfully, just a day before her 55th birthday on October 3, 2019, and shortly before Ballet Manila was to open its latest staging of Giselle at Aliw Theater.

But then the pandemic came and proved to be another wrenching hit to the gut. When the first Luzon-wide lockdown was announced in early 2020, Lisa at first felt relief that Ballet Manila was able to finish its 24th season, even if meant the last three productions had to be done in three different theaters. She also welcomed somewhat the “forced” vacation, considering it a good time to rest after the nerve-wracking rollercoaster of emotions of the past season. “We even had that end-of-season cast party. Everybody was so happy. It was such a high. Wow, we were able to do it! We were able to push through with our 24th despite what happened.”

But when two weeks extended into a month and the quarantine became longer and longer, there was dread in the air. It suddenly became apparent that her school’s summer intensive slated in March and April would not be happening for the first time in decades.

“I already had everything mapped out, including what was supposed to be a banner 25th year, plus we had planned the local tour of Ibong Adarna, an international tour…Then Shaz (BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso) got sick, all the other dancers started leaving, with no chance of them coming back. I was planning our 25th anniversary on the premise that Aliw Theater would reopen with a bang a year after the fire on my birth month, and all of that didn’t happen. Then we didn’t know when Aliw Theater would reopen. Everything was in limbo,” recalls Lisa of those days.

Amid such immense uncertainty, Lisa and her team started studying alternatives. Sometime in mid-2020, Ballet Manila experimented with doing company classes via Zoom, while the Lisa Macuja School of Ballet eventually started offering virtual classes. It was not the most ideal situation, what with spotty Internet connection and the fact that teaching ballet is ideally done on-site where students can be corrected on the spot. They made the best out of it, however, and gradually things improved to the point that it became viable.

“It was creating a revenue stream in a way I never expected, plus what happened was that I was giving classes in Taiwan, Malaysia, Portugal, the US…I was getting these students logging in from all over the world. Ah, puwede pala ‘to. (So this is possible, after all). In retrospect, we turned out okay because we were able to transition to online, and really develop the school.”

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde hosts Dance Day Live!, a monthly series streamed online from Ballet Manila’s Studio 1 in Pasay that gave dancers a chance to perform amid the pandemic.

For Ballet Manila, the shuttered theaters and performance venues also called for online options. To mark its 25th anniversary in 2020, with the pandemic already wreaking havoc, the company organized a Silver Linings program that happened virtually. It consisted of Ballet Minis, a series of short dance films done through a grant from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and later on, Dance Day Live!, a series of short programs livestreamed from the company’s Studio 1 when the dancers could already go back to the studio.

Manila Broadcasting Company chairman Fred J. Elizalde and wife, Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, are in a jovial mood as they prepare to cut the ribbon opening the new Elizalde Complex in August 2022.

When the pandemic restrictions eased further in early 2022, Ballet Manila returned with a weekly live show at the reopened Star City. By August, as the situation improved even more, things began to see light. That month, Lisa—with husband Fred Elizalde—led the reopening of the improved Elizalde Complex with three distinct facilities: Aliw Theater, for concerts and theatrical performances; The Custom Space, for rehearsals, intimate performances, recitals, exhibits and social events; and Elizalde Hall for business meetings, training events and small conferences.

In October, Ballet Manila had its comeback live performance with Rise!, a one-of-a-kind show that Lisa is proud of as it combined ballet with opera, pop music, and a 60-piece orchestra in one package. True to a promise she made after the fire in 2019, she was finally able to declare that “the phoenix has risen,” echoing the mythical bird emerging from the ashes and beginning a new life.

‘The plan is to slowly rebuild, and it starts the way we’re doing it this season—with a bang’

“As far as the company is concerned, the plan is to slowly rebuild, and it starts the way we’re doing it this season—with a bang, with a completely new production, one classical, one contemporary,” Lisa says.

She has restructured Ballet Manila’s calendar, streamlining the performances to three shows to be staged in February, May, and August, meant to also avoid clashing with the schedule of competing ballet companies. Other activities would then be worked around that calendar, with a special show to be put together to mark Lisa’s birth month of October, touring in November, and a Holiday Cheer series and a Nutcracker collaboration between the company and the school in December.

There was a time when Ballet Manila had a hefty roster numbering between 50 to 60 dancers, which included a corps de ballet that exemplified precision, strength, good technique, and teamwork. Sadly, those figures dwindled due to the pandemic, as dancers from abroad returned to their home countries and the ones left in the Philippines opted to study or seek other means of earning a living. Because of limited resources, the company had to let go of its junior company, while dancers who stayed were encouraged to take on double duty as teachers or demonstrators with the school.

At the beginning of this year, dancers numbered just 28, composed of principal dancers, soloists, company artists, and apprentices. Lisa describes it as a “leaner but stronger” company, although, with things opening up for the performing arts now, she is already thinking of beefing up Ballet Manila’s ranks.

“Primarily, we want to build a solid corps de ballet again,” she admits. “I can’t do Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Giselle, I can’t do all these classics that I used to be able to do at the drop of a hat; now it’s gone. I’m not saying it’s building from the ground up, it’s not. But I’m not going to rush, I’m not going to hurry. Because the audience also has to be ready.”

Lisa expects to resume building up BM’s repertoire too. While the company already has a deep reserve, she believes it is always a good idea to keep adding fresh works in the mix to challenge the dancers. A perfect example is BM guest choreographer Martin Lawrance’s take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to open the 25th season in February. The contemporary reimagining sets the romantic tragedy in urban Manila and replaces the renaissance gowns with jeans, T-shirts, and current trendy wear.

‘It’s super out of the box. The first brawl is set in a karaoke bar…’

“It’s super out of the box. The first brawl is set in a karaoke bar. Music is going to be synthesized Prokofiev, OPM music…You can expect the score to segue into different melodies. The balcony scene uses Sana’y Wala nang Wakas, Juliet’s duet will be on an entablado in the town fiesta, the scene of the double suicide will be in a hospital. There’s going to be texting, cell phones. It’s unlike any Romeo and Juliet you’ve ever seen,” Lisa promises.

Fittingly, the 25th season is dubbed “Of Hope and Homecoming” as it mirrors the current vibe being felt in the company, their return to Aliw Theater, and the return of ballet to the live entertainment scene. After Romeo and Juliet, Ballet Manila will stage Don Quixote in May and will bring back Gerardo Francisco Jr.’s Ibong Adarna in August.

The semblance of normality now is a far cry from those pandemic days characterized by vagueness and ambiguity. Channeling her energies into keeping busy—particularly teaching, even if it was only online—proved to be a boon for Lisa then. “Work was definitely, for me, sanity-saving,” she declares. “What also saved me was the realization that I wasn’t dancing anymore, that I was retired. Because keeping in shape through Zoom in a space like that at my age, I would not have been able to do it. The inability to plan was frustrating but I was dealing because I had the school. And what really helped me was being in touch with (my Russian mentor) Tatiana (Udalenkova).”

The world had become smaller, and the lockdowns allowed time oddly enough for reconnecting with loved ones even if it was just online. Technology was a life-saver for Lisa as she and Fred managed to stay in touch with their children Missy and Manuel, easing their worries as COVID cases in the US—where both are studying—surged and became deadly.

‘Ultimately, it’s the relationships that make you happy…’

“Ultimately, it’s the relationships that make you happy, definitely. You realize life is very short. It’s really health and happiness that count the most. You have to be happy with what you’re doing. You want your kids to be happy—not just successful, but happy in what they’re doing.”

For Lisa herself, that means still being in the midst of dance—her lasting passion, the one constant in her life. Even if she is no longer a performer (although she has answered the call of the stage a few times post-retirement), she is there as the full-time leader of her company and the director of her school. She remains a steadfast creator as artistic director of Ballet Manila and as a choreographer bent on expanding her credits past the fairytale trilogy of Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty and the achingly tragic La Traviata. But most of all, she considers it a great blessing that as a teacher, she continues to mold dancers of all ages.

What keeps her going is the creativity. “What I like about dance is it’s a physical activity that’s never boring. Every day I go to company class and I can do things differently if I choose to, of course as long as there’s a logic to it. The constant discovery and rediscovery of things that you can do, things that the dancers can do. Nuances of the music, nuances of a movement.

“It’s not a tried and tested formula na every day is going to be the same. Of course, every day you have class, you have rehearsal, and then in a performance, more or less, you expect these things to happen, but it’s still an evolving art form and it’s the kind of interaction you have with people that changes all the time, that improves, that grows with you. It’s an art form that will be passed on from one generation to the next. I’m able to mentor more actively now, and it’s what’s interesting about the work now.”

From the depths of despair she was in as a result of the fire and the pandemic, Lisa has grown more optimistic, but still and understandably, cautiously so. But she is full of joy that Ballet Manila will be holding a 25th performance season—live and onstage after a long drought. “I’m just glad we’re able to celebrate it. I think we’re over the hump. That’s a relief and we can already plan from hereon in. We have our theater back, the possibilities are there…I feel the worst is over and it can only get better.”

Perhaps, Lisa’s journey in dance—with all the turmoil and trouble she has encountered and overcome—is best summed up in the words of the American poet and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

“Artfulness is not simple entertainment, especially during upheaval; unleashing creative life is sacred duty.”

About author


She is a veteran lifestyle journalist who has covered the visual arts and performing arts.

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