Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Spectacle of Sorts, Ballet Manila's Cinderella

When I write, the words often come quite fluidly as I rely on only one voice and influence, my own. However, I watched Ballet Manila's Cinderella with my ballerina bunhead daughter and she was adamant that I heard her blow by blow critique of this show. As her booming voice so eloquently articulated her opinion about each aspect of the show like an adult, I had to step back and digest it. After all, she was the primary target market for this show. And so I must thank my daughter for providing another perspective that gave me that extra push to dig deeper and understand more the purpose of every artistic choice that was made.

A Spectacle of Sorts

Ballet Manila has invested much into breathing life into Ms. Lisa Macuja's vision of Cinderella. With well publicized collaborations with Mio Infante for sets, Michael Miguel for costumes and Roy del Valle for music arrangement, I am certain it was a costly investment. While there are several variations in film, in theatre and in books, most ballet Cinderella stagings rely heavily on the original libretto made to serve the music of Sergei Prokofiev done by Nicolai Volkov. I came in with the highest of expectations after all this is our beloved Prima Ballerina's first major solo choreographic conquest. Much like Gelsey Kirkland's Nutcracker, the transition of a Prima Ballerina to a choreographer leaves the audience excited to see a  legend's point of view. But is the show really a reconstruction? What I am definite about is that it is quite a departure from the ballet references. Ms. Macuja's version does away with the season fairies and instead follows the storytelling flow of the Walt Disney animated film. Retaining only the dance master scene from the original ballet libretto, she remains consistent with the Disney inspired  staging from usage of animal friends in the opening to the final wedding scene.

The familiarity of the story line made it possible for the ballet to instantly connect to the audience eliciting cheers and laughter from children and the young at heart. For most, gone was the loyalty to the classic ballet. Except for a handful, nobody missed it. In fact my very own daughter said "They have the correct story Mom". (This of course is her response after having seen seen a couple of stagings of the traditional ballet in the past.)

To start of they had a delightful stage fit for the ballet, a beautiful fireplace, a house that gave a natural vignette frame to the dancers and who could forget the globe dome royal palace. Adding to the magic was the well thought of lighting by Jaime Villanueva that was critical in threading together the scenes. They kept the glitter and the frills coming with tried and tested theatrical exhibitions such as illuminated white cloth incorporated in the choreography, black light choreography and confetti showers. To cap it off, they did the audience interaction during the finding of Cinderella. All of which brought joy to the audience. It is quite similar to Children's theatre and Children's ballets staged by different professional companies here and abroad (eg. Repertory Philippines, Hongkong Ballet's Children's Ballets). Ballet Manila's Cinderella is simply a Children's Ballet. It promised to be light and humorous and it was. It promised to show magic and it did. I  believe it caters to a particular audience. I use the words Children's ballet not to degrade the show in any way. I use it because it is an accepted genre that has developed through time. Its specific goals are clear to allow adults and children to have common space to enjoy art. It is a means to inspire children to integrate art into their lives. Seeing the effect on my very own daughter, I would say that the show was victorious. My daughter said to me babbling "Mom I want to watch this again next weekend! Why can't we go backstage like the other shows? When are we staging Cinderella again in Hampton Court Ballet?" and then it progressed to something deeper in the car ride home. "Mom I really want to dance the Cinderella part one day, I think I could be her (Katherine Barkman) maybe not your friend Ms. Lisa Macuja but I could be her." As an artist and as a mom, it was a beautiful moment to see your child loving ballet so gently, so fervently. I had to at that time dismiss my analysis of what I just saw and remain content with the healing and loving effect of the arts on people. A dream is a wish that heart makes, and now my daughter's dreams have been fueled on. This is why I have much gratitude for the arts.

(See link

Artistic Choices

After digesting what had just happened in the theatre, I looked through the pictures and decided on which parts I loved and which parts I thought dimmed the light a bit in the sparkling ballet.

While the audience loved the music, it pained me a bit to have too many versions incorporated into one show. I love all the music separately but together, its seemed a bit disconnected. In my ears, Prokofiev's music is very distinct and punctuated with intricate winds and strings while the Disney music and Rodgers and Hammerstein's music tend to be very melodic and calm. Often it seemed the scenes were from different ballets.

The choreography was enjoyable especially because the Company relished every moment on stage. However the repetitive usage of the same theatrical techniques was a bit of an overkill. The white cloth made magical by the light in Act 1 was picturesque. When it appeared again in Act 2, it was still beautiful but no longer as stirring. And it continued to diminish in value as the dancers used the cloth for a good five to ten minutes staging the pas de deux. And of course it appeared again in the wedding. After awhile you start noticing who was holding what part of the cloth as if they were part of the dance.

I did not understand the need for the dancers wearing the light. Were they the fairy entourage, a part of the carriage, magic sparkles or an excuse to use Pinocchio's technology? 

The costume transformation of Cinderella was not flawless at all because everyone could see that her costume went from slip to fat before she transformed into that gorgeous vision of ocean blue. Visible also was how she did the  transformation.

The stars of this ballet savored every moment on stage which made me enjoy their individual performances. Katherine Barkman embodied kindness. She appeared as an effervescent beauty in that royal ballroom extending her body beautifully in each arabesque. Rudy De Dios was quite handsome in his velvet blue number waking up the audience with his smooth and princely charm. Stepsisters Jasmine Pia Dames and Crysdavince Violet were simply adorable as they played the stepsisters with flair and very good technique. Jonathan Janolo is a seasoned comedian and was often the pun of all jokes. His drag queen titas of manila version was quite a hit. Ms. Lisa Macuja's involvement gave the audience something to look forward too. You could hear her adoring fans gasp every time she would appear. Her appearance was magic itself.

At the end of the day, this show delivers what Ms. Lisa Macuja promised. The ballet was "bright and cheerful" and the audiences left with a "light and joyful spirit". I am certain that this is her stepping stone to bigger and brighter self choreographed productions. This ballet is not a classic yet but could given time be a well loved holiday tradition.

Remaining show dates are:
December 3 8:00 p.m.
December 4 3:00 p.m.
Tickets available at all Ticketworld outlets, online at, or call 891 9999.

Friday, November 18, 2016

LATE POST PBT's "The Nutracker" in Photos (Two Casts)

Clara/ Sugarplum : Lobreza Pimentel and Regine Magbitang
Nutcracker Prince: Peter San Juan and Ian Ocampo 

Veronica Atienza as Dewdrop

Mark Pineda and Gladys Baybayan

Maika Samson as Chinese 
Crimson Guirjem and Joni Galeste as Arabian 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Much Ado About Something: Chinese National Ballet's Raise the Red Lantern

Touchdown of “Raise the Red Lantern” by the Chinese National Ballet in Manila comes with controversy and a lot of excited hush talking. The arrival of the Chinese National Ballet delegation in the Philippines comes a few days after a major Chinese show was mysteriously cancelled at the CCP. It also comes days after President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the Philippines is realigning with the ideological flow of the Chinese. These political declarations have prompted people to speculate whether the sudden approval of a three year old project has something to do with repainting of political colors. Is this show a mere statement or is it really a product of years of determined exchanges between the Chinese Embassy, the Cultural Center of the Philippines and of course the National Commission for Culture and Arts? I am inclined to believe the latter. Felipe de Leon Jr., chairman of the National Commission for Culture and Arts, said the largest number of cultural exchanges handled by his office has always been with China and that political issues have never deterred cultural exchanges. The Cultural Center's Artistic Director, Chris B. Millado, said they consider the 100-member ballet troupe's show in Manila and a reciprocal performance in China next year by Ballet Philippines as a "handshake not only between partners, it's a handshake between audiences, it's a handshake between cultures”. Let us leave it at that for now.

It’s no wonder that “Raise the Red Lantern” has become an internationally acclaimed Chinese ballet. Librettist and Director Zhang Yiou, has paved the way for renowned artists to create an admirable collaboration. Their presentation last October 27, 2016, was well received by the audience made up of primarily of the who’s who in the dance world. The bold contributions of the stage designer (Zeng Li), the costume designer (Jerome Kaplan), the lighting designer (Zhang Yimou) and of course the choreographers (Xin Peng Wang and Wang Yuan Yuan) and the talent of the dancers all have made the show a strong portfolio of Chinese art.  Not only did they show a good grasp of technique in theatrics, they also were able to manage to create cultural highlights. Brilliantly infused into the libretto was Chinese opera, martial arts, traditional folk dance, music and even social games. All done with flair but never compromising the story telling. Too much flavor sometimes ruins the soup but it in this case, it was a hearty spoonful of goodness. I respect their ability to temper their offering. 

The ballet exposes the inequality of genders in a feudalistic environment. The story is not merely about love and jealousy but rather a closer look at the human battle for control. In Chinese culture, the lighted red lanterns symbolize the Master’s strength and control. The ballet opens establishing this with beautiful red lanterns emerging from the darkness. Soon enough it was a legion of lanterns carried ever so gently and carefully by the ballerinas until the stage was filled with rows of dramatic luminosity. Perfectly on time with the music, the lanterns lit up one by one by the dancers revealing themselves in the process. This seamless introduction created the impression that the show was not just about ballet but a soothing and layered story telling visual and it was.

Portraits of a Woman
The characterization  in the story did not rely solely on the dancers. It was supported by dedicated color palettes, props and specific movements.  The energy of the dancers were consistently a good match to Quigang Chen’s complex music. Despite this comfort, the dancers delivered very strong portrayals. In hindsight their performance (over and beyond the lead characters) seemed more than just roles but also a representation of who the Chinese really are as a people.Take the good with the bad. 
I was pleasantly surprised that technique was a requisite but artistry and storytelling  came first in this production. The dutiful first wife, was elegantly performed by the effortlessly long  Li Jie . Lu Na gave a satisfying performance as the second wife. She was artistic, flamboyant, dangerously ambitious and ultimately selfish. The clarity and depth of her emotions was astounding. I particularly like how she developed her character subtly. Because she put layers in her performance, I wept with her in her final moments. The lead ballerina is played by Principal Dancer Zhang Jian who  portrayed a woman imprisoned by duty. She feverishly depicted her undying love for her lover. Her lyricism accentuated her grief. The range of movement of the three ballerinas was wonderfully grandiose. Their technique as expected was precise.

Counterpoint in Choreography
Dramaturgy was far from lazy. Memorable to me were the organic use of props and sets in the choreography. In the first act when the first wife and the first concubine were introduced, fun and playful dancing by the ensemble excited the audience. With their contrasting steps each group mounted a choreographic counterpoint. The men of the company were also very impressive in their display of precise  athleticism.

When the second concubine rejects the Master of the house, they indulge in a shadow play and unexpectedly, the ballerina leaps and destroys the paper wall followed by the Master destroying another paper wall. It brought a sense of reality in the story. It had me placing them running away from each other in rich hallways.

In the second act, the distraught and disappointed first concubine was dealing with her failures and she decides to destroy the red lanterns in her master’s abode. She ends up on the floor  broken with her signature scarves from her minions embracing her like a coat of shame. 

In the last part, when judgement was being served to the concubines and the actor, men enter and slap a huge slab of red wood unto a pristine white wall creating not only noise but red marks depicting blood. At first the men trickled in until there were many hitting the wall and creating a painting of pain. It was almost too real.

And who can forget that gorgeous snow. have never seen snow glisten and fill the space like liquid water. It was poetic.

Best foot forward
In the end the production seized to be a ballet performance. It was a rich cultural experience. It was a good introduction to this new partnership. That being said, “Raise the Red Lantern” being the first installation of the agreement sets the level of expectation for the Filipino artists. But I have no doubt that Ballet Philippines’ “Encantada” will likewise leave them breathless in awe.


 Photos Courtesy of Justin Bella Alonte 

Taken during the Technical Dress Rehearsal. 
Disclaimer Artists were not not in full make up and were not wearing their complete costumes at this time.