Wednesday, September 27, 2017



Nothing ordinary about October. In fact, it's going to be a lively one for the dance world. Our three major ballet companies will offer three very distinct programs. I'm quite happy to see artistic diversity as it gives audiences an option to see all three companies even if they are  just days apart. It allows each company to refine their respective brand imagery. Truly all three companies have unique qualities that make them all worthy of a full house. 

Philippine Ballet Theatre offers Merry Widow as it's second offering for the season. It is a story about former lovers who are given a chance to reignite their lost love. The opportunity comes  when a party reunites a rich widow named Hana Glawari with her first love  Count Danilo  to her first heartbreak. The story is told with light humor and ostentatious dramatics.  Similar to who PBT really is, it promises to show sophisticated refinement. I reckon a sense of ownership to this flamboyant ballet.  PBT is actually  the only company in the Philippines who has performed this ballet. It was last seen in 2001 when the Company staged Julie Boromeo's grandiose  version. This time around based on Franz Lehar's Operetta, PBT's Artistic Director will present his own version. Having seen snippets of their rehearsal it gives me the impression that their new show will be  everything but simple. Interesting partnering, colorful unisons and  strong story telling, that is what I foresee. Their show opens on Sept 30 and closes on October 1. Don't miss Kim Abrogena and Veronica Atienza as Hana Glawari and guest artist Martin Buczco  as Count Danilo (Berlin Staatsopera). 

Ballet Manila sticks to what it does best. As a second installment to their season Flights of Fantasy, the Company will be staging the ultimate white ballet "Swan Lake" which opens on October 7, 2017 and closes on October 15, 2017.  The company takes on the challenge of preserving the tradition and history of the ballet  by restaging a show that is close to its original form.  Artistic Director Lisa Macuja herself devoted time and effort in mentoring her new breed of Swan Queens and it will be interesting to see if they will conquer the technical and artistic requirements of the ballet.  The role of Odette/Odile will be played by Katherine Barkman, Abigail Oliveiro and Joan Sia while Joseph Phillips, Elpidio Magat, Romeo Peralta, Rudy de Dios and Mark Sumaylo will be taking on the role of Prince Siegfried.  This dramatic story ballet glorifies the art form with its physical demands.  The promise 32 fouetttes, drilled corp de ballet and the majestic music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky should  be enough to draw in audiences. Swan Lake simply can't be missed. It's a ballet that should be watched not once but numerous times in one's lifetime. 

October-Ballet-Fest ends with Ballet Philippines' "The Exemplars. Amada and other Dances". The most contemporary of the three companies, BP will present a  mixed bill that will show pieces from their collection of oldies but goodies. Most will be modern ballets.  Some of the works that will be presented were created as early as the seventies.  "Amada" will make a comeback with no less than international ballerina Candice Adea. This piece is particularly special because  it is  serendipitous collaboration of artists who now hold the highest honors in art.  The story was based on  National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin's "Summer Solstice" The music used is by National Artist for Music Lucrecia Kasilag. Finally the choreography was crafted by National Artist for Dance  Alice Reyes. Indeed watching this can be called eye opening education. Also included in the  mixed bill is "Valse Fantasy" created by Muneca Alonte, "Ang Sultan" by Gener Caringal, "Songs of a Wayfarer" by Norman Walker and "Concertino" by Pauline Koners. Their mixed bill is pretty much establishing that Ballet Philippines. They open on October 20, 2017 and closes October 22, 2017. 

All three companies will have their award winning dancers taking the lead. All three companies are also making use of guest artists. This makes October-ballet-fest a tad more interesting. The best of the best are ready to be seen. Now will this healthy competition help fill up the theaters?! I surely hope so because each Company can provide  a different experience. Something new from Philippine Ballet Theater, something classic  from Ballet Manila and something revisited from Ballet Philippines. Take your pick people. See you everyone at least three times this October.

Ballerinas in Rehearsals 
Photos by Justin Bella Alonte 

Candice Adea rehearsing Amada 

Denise Parungao of Ballet Philippines 

Philippine Ballet's first  full stage rehearsal
Kim Abrogena with Martin Buczco 

 Ballet Manila Swans
Photo by Alfren Salgado 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

BALLET MANILA TAKES FLIGHT WITH IBONG ADARNA (originally published in Theaterfansmanila)

Abigail Oliveiro as Ibong Adarna
with edits including additional photographs from my collection 

Ballet Manila started this year with a very specific vision for the company. They resolved to move forward with a refreshed take on the classics, and create new ballets that will continue to tell stories that need to be remembered by the Filipino audiences.

As Ballet Manila boldly stated during their press con in the beginning of the year, they want to expand their wings with this season aptly called “Flights of Fantasy”. Taking it quite literally, their line up includes the contrast of avian nature in the classic Swan Lake and their recently concluded ballet, Ibong Adarna. However, more than the obvious reference to bird wings, I believe that through their first production, they also gave other things wings to fly. They are giving Philippine literature a chance to reconnect with audiences. It was also a rebirth of a dancer.

Gerardo Francisco, currently Principal Dancer and resident choreographer of the Company was given the daunting task of retelling Ibong Adarna independently taking charge of pretty much everything. Such a big opportunity to create with freedom is a rare one. Thankfully, the ballet’s first weekend of shows are perfect examples of defining moments born out of saying yes to opportunities. Francisco’s first flight was light and easy.

Ibong Adarna is a colorful story about a King who falls ill because of a premonition of betrayal. With Healers unable to help him improve his health, the queen was told of the mythical bird who could bring peace, tranquility and healing to those who have heard her melodies. She quickly sends out her sons Don Pedro, Don Diego, and Don Juan one at time in pursuit of the bird. After a series of tests on bravery, kindness, and sincerity, the true hero is revealed.

Ibong Adarna Reimagined

Gerardo Francisco’s staging of the ballet was quite different as he did not directly copy from a particular ethnic or rural community. Instead, he opted to create his own wonderland and used reimagined elements to paint the picture of the Filipino myth.  His assigned movements and characterization was easily relatable. Makisig, malakas, and matapang men filled the stage reflecting the Filipino archetype of warriors. His women, in contrast, were purposefully graceful but equally strong in stride. Noticeably, he has given a contemporary feel to folk dance.

Sets and costumes made by Make It Happen Workshop had an earthy feel with the use of natural materials such as bamboo, walis, banig, and pattern accents. Even the Ibong Adarna did not look like the usual rainbow-hued bird with long tail feathers. Instead, she was dressed completely in gold– keeping colors restricted to her make up. Supporting his vision is the all-original musical composition of Diwa De Leon, whose music was a good fit. Generally, the old elements were revamped keeping only the essential ideas intact.


Picturesque Movement

The power of this ballet lies in its choreography. Francisco successfully weaved  patterns, created levels, and crafted sequences that were visually exciting. He has a penchant for rhythmical, electrically-charged dances which all typically require precision and presence of mind to be executed well. This is consistent in all the sections throughout the ballet. The ballet’s best moments were the wonderfully-shaped laudable unisons and ensemble work.

Within minutes of the show, it was quickly established that the ensemble would not take a back seat in this production. The opening number of boys and girls was energetic and polished. The first unison introduced the capacity of the dancers. Both the soloists and the crowd had their moment to shine. The amazon women also collectively displayed a powerful tour de force delivered with a singular breath. 

Slow Pace 
Storytelling transitions were often dealt with the curtains falling down unnecessarily to show the characters doing simple steps or even just running around. It was heavily anticlimactic to see it done over and over again.  Having Don Juan (played by Rudy De Dios) literally run from stage left to the second floor, and then to the stage via the audience entrance was quite disturbing.

There were also a few scenes or characters included to add humor that muddled the story. The sudden emergence of monkeys and fireflies that were pretty much Disney formula were underdeveloped.

Katherine Barkman as Queen Alitaptap

Magic of Storytelling
Noteworthy was the performance of the lead characters. Mark Sumaylo as Don Pedro with his princely swagger delivered wonderfully executed leaps. He stayed suspended in the air creating lines that were wonderfully picturesque. Romeo Peralta who played Don Diego had just the right touch of arrogance. His bastardly approach nicely differentiated him from the two brothers. Ever so consistent, Ballet Manila’s Principal dancer, Rudy De Dios as Don Juan, displayed refined technique and artistry.  This allowed him to navigate the story and command the audience to root for him.

Mark Sumaylo as Don Pedro

Romeo Peralta as Don Diego

Rudy de Dios as Don Juan
The Flight
Of course, no one can forget the two ladies who performed as Ibong Adarna. Abigail Oliveiro gracefully ascended from the skies. Striking a lovely contrast with the earthy grounded humans, she had the gracefulness of a swan and the passion of a firebird. With her elongated, sustained lines she convinced me that she was indeed a mythical bird that could make miracles with her movements. The role was shared by Gia Macuja Atchison who lent her melodious pitch perfect voice to accentuate the power of Ibong Adarna. In perfect harmony she likewise performed with the same tempered  grace and poise. Embraced with just a gentle spotlight, she still managed to capture the full attention of the audience. Her presence was always enough.

Abigail Oliveiro as Ibong Adarna

Gia Macuja Atchison as Ibong Adarna

Overall, the Ibong Adarna took flight and soared high without hesitation. Francisco’s first effort at a ballet was rich in flavor and abundant in talent. Led by Gerardo Francisco, Ballet Manila was rewarded with thunderous appreciative applause. It is beginnings like this that affirm that singular opportunities seized fervently can amount to more.

Run: August 26-27, 2017 and Septemer 2-3, 2017
Aliw Theater 
Ballet Manila 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Keeping up with Traditions, A Review of West Side Story in Manila

Photo from Concertus Manila Production's FB Page

A month ago, Concertus Productions brought the ever so iconic dance musical "West Side Story" to the swanky Solaire Theatre. With this production following the enormous success of "Newsies" by Nineworks Theatrical there was quite a pumped up anticipation leading to the show. That plus the fact that it is particularly famous because of its exquisite choreography, I was really waiting impatiently for opening weekend. I watched this production twice, the first being their opening weekend and the second nearing its closing date. However, I decided to post this blog entry late because I didn't want to appear negative towards the show most people were raving about. If there is anything I would not want to do ever, it is to antagonize artists or discourage people from watching theater. I am after all a theater fan, theater geek, advocate of the arts etc. In the end it wasn't as if there was nothing to be enjoyed. There will always be something to love in live theater.

Photo by Johann Persson
The original staging was directed and choreographed by the modern man of  theater during the fifties, Mr. Jerome Robbins. The book was written by Arthur Laurents and the music was created by Leonard Bernstein. West Side story was a musical that was regarded as a bold irreverent message that challenged the inhumane norm of discrimination and hate of that time. Mirroring Shakespeare's tragedy they told the love story of Tony (an American) and Maria (a Puertorican) who were caught in the middle of a power struggle in a mixed neighborhood in New York City. It was a strike on inter-racial warfare. A nod to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it tells the story of the rivalry of the Jets and Sharks that led  to  blood on the streets.

The Real Tragedy 

The real tragedy in this production is the dancing. While most will rave about the cast performance, I found it quite disappointing. It's not about technique as it is about performance value. Jerome Robbins is a choreographer who made a name for integrating movement to the story and his characters. He developed characters by assigning them stylized movement that is carried throughout as a defining mark. From an emotion comes a snap and then a step and then a leap with not much fuss or preparation. Every movement should be emerging naturally in stride in their pedestrian actions. In his productions dancing becomes as natural as walking. With his vocabulary largely based on ballet, this actually means that his cast must be able to do every thing with so much ease. For Robbins, movement is not just an accent or a decorative display, it is storytelling. This was not the case in the Manila showing. Generally, the steps were just steps. 

I remember reading somewhere that synchronization of the respective groups were critical because it reflected the allegiance of the two groups to each other. Both groups were supposed to be distinctly solid but UNIQUE units. With that in mind I found the differentiation between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks weak. The Jets were casual and playful and the Sharks were smooth and suave as actors but in their unison dancing they all looked the same to me.

The choreographed fight scenes lacked tenacity and looked more like a pas de deux (dance of two) of sorts. Everything was calculated and nothing looked like a struggle. In the staging of "America" the beautiful senoritas danced musically but not with abandon. In dance, flavor is everything.It was again a very clean but lackluster performance of an epic dance. I waited for the legs to kick with power and length and  for the jumps to fly.

I could not relate the dance performances to the organic approach typically found in Robbins theatrical pieces.

The Lack of Anguish

The racial under currents were not really evident making it seem like petty fights in the playground. This diminishes the mounting of the deaths in the story. In this musical, so many characters die. But it seems like deaths can easily be digested nowadays. The lack of anguish in all the death scenes were very disturbing. At one point Maria played by Jenna Burns squeaked "Killer! Killer!" to her loved one Tony who just killed her brother. Hitting his chest she proceeded with a tantrum-like thread of words. In the scene where she defends herself to Anita she doesn't breakdown on the floor she gracefully and carefully slid from the bed to the floor fidgeting as if they were talking about a high school break up. Yes there was sadness but there was no torment. When Tony played by Kevin Hack died, he tried to sing "Somewhere" in an almost comical way that the scene lost its momentum. Collectively this was not quite the tragedy I was expecting.

Joyful Peformances 

While I missed the turmoil, I was delighted with the comedy. Memorable to me was the energetic "Officer Krupke" where the sharks made excuses for their bad behavior. All the characters contributed to a highly enjoyable roast of juvenile delinquency. Every joke was lovingly answered with joyful laughter. In the same manner "I Feel Pretty" number was cute as can be.

One of the biggest scenes in the musical is the all white ballet. This ballet ended beautifully with everyone singing like angels. A full cast singing "Somewhere" gave me goosebumps. The serenity of the scene and the soft quality of the voices  gave me  the healing touch theater gives the heart.

One of the highlights would have to be the staging of "Tonight". It was a recreation of the balcony scene in the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The music was soothing to the soul. It ended beautifully with the sets moving apart almost signalling their inevitable separation. The three dimensional movement definitely allowed me to zoom in on the scene much like an emphasized movie ending.

The Cast

Individually, each cast member had their fair share of shining moments. Anita played by Keely Beirne was sassy and memorable. Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Bernardo was perfect for the part, smooth and dangerous. Kevin Hack as Tony serenaded the audience convincingly. He was very endearing.  Jenna Burns was wonderfully charming and comical.

Keeping up with Traditions

After having conversed with theater and non theater friends about the production I realized that what bothered me was not the lack of talent or technique but the weak tribute to the material. I  have a natural preference to keep a good balance of tradition, intention and artistic freedom. It was my familiarity of the material that held me back from having an unadulterated appreciation of the musical. I watched it a second time with an open mind and I found beautiful moments in this musical. In the end despite everything, it was still a night of enjoyable theater. I do hope I get to see more stagings of this dance musical in the future.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Luis Cabrera's Baptism of Fire

Photo from Hong Kong Ballet Page 

Hong Kong Ballet has always been part of my travel considerations. If my memory serves me right, I've seen at least one show from each season for the last five or more  years.   Through the years they have created so  many beautiful memories of art but nothing compares to days  you get to sit in that audience and see Filipinos shine. There is a robust flurry of Adrenalin that occupies me when our  very own Filipinos take on that massive Hong Kong Cultural Center Theater. In the past, I silently cheered for Carlos Pacis who was a refreshing  bravura danseur  who colored that stage passionately.  I  thoroughly enjoyed the journey of one of our laureled ballerinas Candice Adea as Soloist of  Hong Kong Ballet. My heart was overjoyed to see her at her very best. I've had the pleasure of witnessing former BP dancer   Luis Cabrera's first season with Hong Kong Ballet and was impressed that he stood out nicely with his schooled modern technique and unique earthy style.Thankfully, destiny would ensure that there always be a Filipino to watch out for.  Former Ballet Philippines artist Gary Corpus recently joined the company and I have no doubt that his stay will be just as fruitful. In my point of view, the  Company seems to have  been very good to our Kababayans, providing them with good experience, artistic opportunities  and priceless mentorship from international stars. But  this year is  is a game changer. Not only do we currently have two Filipinos with the Company, we  have something new to celebrate. 

Luis Cabrera
Photo by Conrad Dy Liacco from Hong Kong Ballet Page 

Hong Kong Ballet has an annual choreographer's showcase pretty much structured like Neo Filipino, Bagong Sayaw or Koryolab of CCP. It is an annual effort to encourage their dancers to evolve as dancers and at the same time explore choreography. Historically, it has been the launchpad for choreographers in Hong Kong since the 1980's. The Company accepts applications from their dancers, screens their initial concepts and ideas and picks the most promising ones to mount in the show.  In July of this year, I was ecstatic to see in the press release that our very own  Luis Cabrera was accepted into the program.The selected choreographers were  mentored in the aspects of mounting choreography, music, lighting, costume design and production design. Joining the Company's new artistic director Septime Webre in the panel of mentors  is Yuri Ng of  YatPo Singers and Anna Chan Head of Dance of Peforming Arts of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. This is apart from the company's very own talent pool who are  very much involved in making the choreographers' vision a reality. Needless to say it is a very good opportunity  for Cabrera to make a mark for himself as a Choreographer. This opportunity however does come without a challenge. It is very much like a baptism of fire as it is actually his first attempt to create work showcasing commissioned work with  professional dancers. Even with his extensive schooling from Philippine High School of the Arts, Ballet Philippines and Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, I reckon the word easy still  would not be appropriate for developing  his international debut.  

According to Cabrera, his first step was to find inspiration. As he explained, he was initially drawn to the  movie "Schindler's List" . His piece is in no way a representation of the movie but touches on the recurrent issue of  death and puncturing feeling of loss. With the piercing quality of the music he explored  how loss and fear  can put you at a crossroad. Will the struggle hold you back or push you forward?Will the pain complete you or break you? In this piece he attempts to translate the abstract concept of loss in movement. His piece will be performed by  Principal Dancer Ll Jiabo, Soloist LIU Miao Miao, Coryphee Shunsuki Arimizu,  artists Forrest Oliveros, Henry Seldon and Liang Yonglin. His piece debuts at the Choreographer's Showcase on September 15  and runs until the 17th at the Studio Theater of  the Hong kong Cultural Center. 

Luis Cabrera
Photo By Tim Wong
From Hong Kong Ballet FB Page
While his status in the Company is already enough for  the Philippines to be proud of him, it is equally stirring to see an international company recognize his potential as a creator of dance. Truly this one in a lifetime chance is one that brings pride to the Philippines. May his baptism of fire be from a radiant  candle  that can  illuminate his path. May its flickers of light be just the right amount to temper his skill and his passion so that he can move forward gloriously.   I wish him luck and encourage others to send a prayer or two to the heavens above for a flawless staging of his vision. His success after all is our success too. Cheers to a Filipino pride. Cheers to Philippine dance.