Witnessing Cecile Licad, American Ballet Theatre Studio Company wow Manila, Cebu, Davao

Ballet and music—a rare fusion experience after a long time, from Chopin to Scarlatti, from the classical to the neo-classical

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company
Takumi Miyake in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky pas de deux in Cebu
American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

Cecile Licad and ABT Studio Company dancers at curtain call (Photo Laarni Dawn Ilan)

Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (April 20, 22,23) in Makati City, Cebu, and Davao respectively, the second visit of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company (ABTSC) dancers was greeted with its share of euphoric curtain calls.

On their opening night in Makati last April 20, they attracted dance crowds from Metro Manila’s ballet schools and dance studios, among them Cecile Sicangco, formerly from Ballet Philippines, and Melanie Motus, formerly from Philippine Ballet Theater.

Ballerina and ballet teacher Melanie Motus gushed: “The ABT Studio Company performance Friday night brought fresh, brilliant talent to our shores. Sofia Elizalde and her team at Steps Dance Studio are tireless and always enrich the dance scene in our country. For that, we are grateful. Because of this, we are able to watch and enjoy performances of up-and-coming dancers and see our very own Vince Pelegrin dance with this young troupe.”

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

ABT Studio Company dancers with Cecile Licad at Samsung Theater lobby after the show. (Photo: Jorge Sarmiento)

The Samsung Theater gathering acknowledged the presence of National Artist for Dance Agnes Locsin, whose Encantada the previous weekend opened to standing ovation in the same theater.

Another reason for celebration was pianist Cecile Licad, who performed three ravishing Chopin Etudes and provided the live accompaniment to a few dance pieces.

ABT Studio Company came with, the program notes said, 12 “rising stars of the ballet world” their ages between 16 and 21, most of them winners of international competitions. Not a few were outstanding graduates of ballet academies around the globe.

Easily the standout was the ballet ensemble dancing to three Scarlatti sonatas in Gemma Bond’s The Go Between.

It was a well-thought-out repertoire, from contemporary to classical and neo-classical.

The Makati program opened with Houston Thomas Knife’s Edge, with music by Johannes Goldbach and lighting by Luke Woods. The music, the subdued but  imaginative lighting and the seamless dancing easily gave an enchanting preview of the breadth and depth of the company’s repertoire.

As the choreographer noted in his note, Knife’s Edge is about the expression and expansion of the classical ballet language. Indeed, the audience witnessed classical ballet technique given new approaches with movements and positions diversified and expanded. The opening number was classical ballet re-examined with various dance possibilities thoroughly explored.

Another revelation was Aleisha Walker’s Do You Care, with danseur Brady Farrar dancing to Nocturnal Waltz by Johannes Bornlof. The piece was a good look at the “controlled chaos and uncertainty of everyone’s emotion” during difficult times. For its emotional depth and poignancy, it deserved the Young Creation Award at the Prix de Lausanne competition in February 2023.

Easily one of the dazzlers was Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux by Sylvie Squires and the Filipino revelation, Vince Pelegrin

Easily one of the dazzlers was Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux by Sylvie Squires and the Filipino revelation, Vince Pelegrin, who has all the makings of a good danseur, with his smooth turns and elevation executed with finesse.

His great moment was in Daniel Ulbricht’s Tatum Pole Boogie with music by Art Tatum (played live by Licad), with the dancer revealing his creative talent as actor. Sharply focused, he was in control of his pliant body. A splash jump ending in a lying position near the piano was exquisite, with the crowd bursting into applause.

Another crowd favorite was the Stella Abrera staging of Concerto Pas de Deux to the music of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, with choreography by Kenneth MacMillan. Kyra Coco and Finnian Carmeci dazzled with good rapport. Duo dancing has never been this engrossing.

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

Acting Artistic Director of ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Stella Abrera with artistic directors of Cebu Ballet Center Nicolas Pacana and Gregory Aaron and ballet students.

It took a while before Cecile Licad fans could see her solo numbers, which was why they came in droves in the first place. (To these hardcore Licad fans, the dancing was just an added attraction.)

Three Chopin etudes from Op.25 treasure trove produced Licad’s dazzling moment. Number 10 in B Minor (“Octave”) was a showcase of control and virtuosity, No. 11 in A Minor (“Winter Wind”) unleashed a torrent of emotion, and No. 12 in C Minor (“Ocean”) was simply Debussy’s La Mer distilled in a piano etude.

The audience rewarded her with rousing applause. After all, this was their first live Licad performance since the pandemic.

Still with Licad on the piano, one never thought of Scarlatti (Sonata in C Major. K. 86, A Major KK 114 and Sonata in D Minor K. 32) as intrinsically danceable. But they proved the skeptics wrong.

One felt how Licad was in perfect harmony with the dancers leaping and floating onstage with grace and precision

The Go Between by Gemma Bond, performed by the ABT Studio Company to Scarlatti, showcased the imagination and versatility of the young performers. The audience witnessed the intricate web of a choreographer’s genius as the ensemble danced to a Scarlatti. One felt how Licad was in perfect harmony with the dancers leaping and floating onstage with grace and precision.

While Scarlatti dazzled, Vainonen’s Flames of Paris (restaged by Sascha Radetsky) and the dancing of Takumi Miyake and Madison Brown drew an uproar from the audience. Brown’s solo variations were smooth and well executed but Miyake’s startling elevation and dazzling turns provided the night’s pure magic. No doubt about it, Miyake was the night’s dancing sensation.

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

ABT Studio Company artistic director Sascha Radetsky  (Photo: Melanie Motus)

His interpretation going beyond virtuosity, Brown manifested a sense of character with every move, that perfect timing as he landed on the floor overwhelming the audience.

One had never seen such adulation for a young Japanese dancer in a long time. Indeed, Miyake’s Philippine debut recalled the enchanting Manila engagements of his compatriot, Japan’s prima ballerina Yoko Morishita.

Flames of Paris as ending would have brought the house down. But the audience settled down with Scarlatti, which became a heaven-sent finale. The dancers earned several curtain calls and nearly non-stop cheering.

The group flew to Cebu City the next day and performed at the Ayala Center Cebu Terraces. During Cebu rehearsals, Licad posed with Ballet Center Cebu artistic directors Gregory Aaron and Nicolas Pacana.

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

Cebu Ballet Center’s Gregory Aaron and Nicolas Pacana with Cecile Licad. (Contributed photo)

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

ABT Studio Company dancers in Cebu City. (Photo: Steps Dance Studio)

‘Takumi Miyake was the best of them all dancing Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux’

Pacana, a former soloist of Boston Ballet, told after the Cebu performance: “The ABT Studio dancers looked great. Definitely, Takumi Miyake was the best of them all dancing Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux.”

After Manila and Cebu, the toast of the balletomanes became undoubtedly the young Japanese—his conserved strength and nobility, and great coordination, a sheer miracle of weight and balance. Even more admirable was his competence as a partner, which brought out the best from his ballerina.

He started learning dance at age three and began training with his home country’s Kondo Ballet under the direction of his mother, Kurumi Mukai. Takumi’s talent surfaced when he was eight, in the Kondo Ballet production of Peter and the Wolf.  Since 2013, Takumi has been winning gold medals in ballet competitions in Japan. Foreign audiences saw a great talent when he won the 2016 Junior Classical and Contemporary Divisions of the Youth America Grand Prix. He was named international scholar of the Royal Ballet School in London. He graduated from The Royal Ballet School Upper School in July 2022, and was easily accepted by the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company.

As for Licad, this was not the first time she accepted the role of “accompanist.” (The right term would be collaborating artist.) Performing with dancers indeed requires perfect collaboration.

In 2012, I convinced Lisa Macuja Elizalde to do The Dying Swan with Licad performing the live music

In 2012, I convinced Lisa Macuja Elizalde to do The Dying Swan with Licad performing the live music.  I was obsessed with The Dying Swan after watching Russia’s Maya Plisetskaya do it in 1982 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

The last time Cecile Licad accompanied a dancer was in 2012, when Lisa Macuja Elizalde did ‘Dying Swan’ with cellist Wilfredo Pasamba (Photo from Pablo Tariman)

Clearly one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, Plisetskaya reprised her acclaimed role before a captivated Filipino audience. The applause wouldn’t stop, so she encored the less-than-five-minute piece. Its applause never ending, I wrote in Times Journal how the CCP performance became a case of a swan “dying twice” just to heed the overwhelming demand.

Many years later, I told Macuja The Dying Swan would be a jewel in her concert, with the added presence of Lea Salonga and Licad. Knowing that the piece has been associated with a Russian dance legend, initially she said no.

“Think about it,” I reiterated.

Two weeks before opening night, Macuja called me to say she was doing The Dying Swan.

“Great!” I yelled on the phone.

Macuja said that The Dying Swan came at the right time in her career: “The idea of doing it later in my dancing life was first mentioned by Natalia Raldugina, my guest ballet mistress from St. Petersburg. She was the one who suggested I create my version of The Dying Swan for concerts. But I hesitated. Then you suggested it to be performed in The Legends & the Classics and I thought it was brilliant! Really correct timing and opportunity to combine forces with distinguished artists like (cellist) Pasamba and Licad.”

The piece became part of her Swan song series, even as she had to remind herself that The Dying Swan was a choreographic masterpiece that only few ballerinas touched.

In my interview with her, Macuja explained: “You have to be convincing. It is impossible to be convincing at dying when you are very young and haven’t experienced life.”

She added she was attracted to the piece because of the very sad music of Camille Saint-Saens and the choreographic miniature where the whole story was told in three minutes.

“The attack is very different from Swan Lake,” she said. “I think it is just hard to be weak and still dance at the same time. It is hard to portray physical weakness when you are doing something so athletic like dancing on your toes. Also, you hardly go off pointe during the entire piece. That can be painful.”

On the day ABT Studio Company dancers were to perform in Davao, they experienced what Filipino travelers go through all the time: delayed flights. The dancers, booked on Philippine Airlines, waited at the Cebu airport for four hours—only to be advised they had to take another flight, Cebu Pacific. The Davao concert had to be moved an hour later because of the delayed flights.

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

Dancers transferring plane from PAL to Cebu Pacific after waiting for four hours.. (From the post of Cecile Licad

Licad posted on FB: “We just have to be patient when things like this happen, even in the most well-prepared itinerary.” She quipped on FB in the spirit of fun and acceptance: “Welcome to the Philippines.”

The venue in Cebu was open-air, with no airconditioning. One could imagine what the dancers went through

The pianist thanked Steps Dance Studio founder Sofia Zobel Elizalde for sharing these gems of dance talent with the public for free in Cebu and Davao. The Cebu venue was open-air, with no airconditioning. One could imagine what the dancers went through doing turns, variations and jumps at a temperature close to 80 degrees C.

A big treat in Cebu was former ABT principal dancer Stella Abrera doing master classes for promising Cebuana ballerinas.

In Davao City’s Ayala Abreeza Mall, the excitement was not only for the dancers but also for the return visit of Licad, whose most recent performance in the city was in 2002.

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company

Curtain call in Davao City Abreeza Mall. (Photo: Ayala abreeza mall)

Due to delayed flights, concert was moved from 6 to 7p.m.

The dancers expectedly were not in good shape after four hours of waiting in the Cebu airport. The pianist was kidding me on FB: “Pablo, you may have to dance Flames of Paris in Davao because we are still here in Cebu airport and there is no plane in sight.”

Then, a sudden change of program, when it was whittled down from an hour and a half to 45 minutes. The first minor disappointment was that Miyake could not do Flames of Paris. The Davao repertoire opened with Sylvie Squires and Brady Farrar. Petipa’s Raymonda Suite was put in the program with Kyra Coco and Finnian Carmeci.

We learned that for the dancers’ added experience, there was a repertoire rotation, and mainly because, given the strenuous variations in Makati and Cebu, Miyake needed a good rest.

His dazzler in Davao was Pelegrin in Tatum Pole Boogie. The dancer and the pianist became perfect partners, tightly synchronized from beginning to end. The Davao audience gave tumultuous approval. As in Manila, Gemma Bond’s The Go Between with live Scarlatti sonatas by Licad closed the evening.

The curtain calls were endless. When one of the dancers walked to Licad to lead her to the curtain call, the audiences rose to give her and the dancers a rousing ovation. Instead of a bouquet, she got a beautiful necklace of black and gold beads. Her three Chopin etudes were so powerful they almost drowned out the noise of shrieking children in the mall hallways.

It was a night to remember. The curtain call was special as it was choreographed to the coda music of an etude by Czerny.

The next day, the pianist and the dancers were given a special treat on the Pearl Farm island resort. Licad enjoyed a culinary feast that included blue marlin kilawin and our popular delicacy balut, which she consumed without hesitation.

Cecile Licad on a speedboat to Pearl Farm after Davao engagement. (From the post of Cecile Licad.)

It was a weekend of superb music and dance for Manila, Cebu and Davao audiences. Yes, they danced well in alarming summer temperature.

“It’s wonderful to see time and again how the arts can bring many people together for a common cause. I am optimistic to meet our goal for the Filipino youth to pursue their love for the arts,” said Sofia Zobel Elizalde, STEPS Dance Studio founder, who flew all the way to Davao for the concluding tour.

Elizalde was Clara in the Nutcracker Suite many years back. Now she has found a new life nurturing a new generation of young talents.

Cecile Licad at post-concert meet-and-greet session at Samsung Theater with the author and Licad fan Jorge Sarmiento (Photo from Pablo Tariman)

The second Philippine visit of the ABT Studio Company was co-presented by Patek Philippe and BPI Private Wealth. The event was organized by Ayala Foundation, Steps Dance Studio, and Ayala Malls for the benefit of Ayala Foundation’s CENTEX education program. 

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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