World-class ballet companies today require a level of versatility of their dancers unheard-of in previous generations. Not only must you be able to glide, sylphlike, on pointe, you must also be able to twist yourself into a McGregor pretzel, a Graham spiral, and leap like a Taylor stag. But these troupes were all founded as ballet companies. It’s a rare company that starts out in pure experimental modern-dance mode then layers on the Cinderellas and Swan Lakes without skipping a beat. Ballet Philippines, which was born in 1969 as the Alice Reyes Dance Company, is one such rarity. And it has, for the most part, grown its own dancers. 

An Asian pioneer

Alice Reyes as SIta in <i>Rama Hari</i> © Rudy Vidad
Alice Reyes as SIta in Rama Hari
© Rudy Vidad
Alice Reyes toured with the renowned Bayanihan Philippine folk dance troupe before studying under legendary American choreographers including Hanya Holm, Bessie Schoenberg, Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, and Merce Cunningham. She brought back to the Philippines a passion for telling indigenous stories in the modern idiom, igniting a new form of cultural expression in collaboration with local composers, artists and writers. A modern dance pioneer in Asia, she inspired a new generation of dance-makers who have established their own outposts of the avant-garde both locally and abroad.

Two of Reyes’ most famous works, Amada and Itim Asu, cast new light on historic struggles for the rights of women and against colonial oppression. Itim Asu (Onyx Wolf) recounts the aftermath of the assassination of an 18th century Spanish governor-general, who was known for his uncommonly liberal views. Rumor had it that he was snuffed out by a band of Dominican priests. A fantasy was later spun about his mestiza (mixed-race) widow, who turned into a wolf in the dead of night to take revenge on the priests. Reyes’ gripping dance interpretation of this dark tale, with its layers of subtle political messaging, emerged, remarkably, during the era of martial law in the Philippines, when Ferdinand Marcos reigned as dictator and his profligate wife, Imelda, promoted the arts in the grand new cultural center that housed Reyes’ troupe – apparently oblivious to the subversive nature of the concoctions brewing within.

Reyes’ genius bubbled up not just in dramatic reinterpretations of historic pieces of Filipiniana. Rama Hari, inspired by the Indian epic of The Ramayana, Carmen, Carmina Burana, Cinderella, and other familiar tales received enchanting make-overs.

Folk dance influences are ever-present in Reyes’ work; yet Reyes from the start insisted that her dancers be classical ballet-trained.

Richardson Yadao and Denise Parungao in <i>Cinderella</i> © Chris Yuhico
Richardson Yadao and Denise Parungao in Cinderella
© Chris Yuhico
 They got their Graham technique from her and their ballet from Eddie Elejar, who passed on the wisdom of Olga Preobrajenska (of the Russian Imperial Ballet) and Dame Marie Rambert, among others under whom he trained. Over the decades, Reyes attracted international stars including Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Cynthia Gregory, Fernando Bujones, Ivan Nagy, Julio Bocca, Yoko Morishita and Natalia Makarova to guest with the company. 

Programming for today’s audiences

Richardson Yadao and Carissa Adea in <i>Giselle</i> © Victor Ursabia
Richardson Yadao and Carissa Adea in Giselle
© Victor Ursabia
The challenges of supporting a company that can do justice to the classics and also fund risky new work, with frequent new music commissions, in an economy that has been crippled by corruption since the Marcos era, are mind-boggling. Yet this season’s programming, under artistic director Paul Morales, is as diverse and ambitious as ever. 

It gave us a Firebird transported to the Philippines of pre-Hispanic times, costumed by artist Mark Higgins, whose imagination refracted the lustre of the Majapahit Empire, India, China and the Silk Road into intricate, zany designs for porcelain princesses and gold monster princes. The season also yielded edgy, mostly abstract new work by Hong Kong-based choreographer Carlo Pacis, Dwight Rodrigazo and Spanish dancer-choreographer David Campos. The latter’s riff on a ballet blanc borrowed from flamenco traditions as well as tribal Asian dances, set, unusually, to the music of Czech avant-garde singer and violinist, Iva Bittová. Other highlights of the season included the twin bill of Crisostomo Ibarra and Simoun, inspired by the novels of national hero Jose Rizal. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo – Rizal’s barbed critiques of the Spanish administrators and clerics, and the mestizo class of Filipinos who were complicit in the oppression of their own countrymen – fueled a grassroots uprising in the late 19th century. It proved to be the first nationwide revolutionary movement against a colonial power in Asia. 

Ballet Philippines in <i>Rock Supremo</i> © Jojo Mamangun
Ballet Philippines in Rock Supremo
© Jojo Mamangun

Ballet Philippines’ 47th season will close with Swan Lake, staged by Nonoy Froilan, who was the company’s danseur noble for many years. This production will hew closely to the Petipa-Ivanov conventions – though we are intrigued to hear that the evil Von Rothbart will shape-shift in the course of the evening. Froilan had previously set Giselle on the company, in 2013, for which American Ballet Theatre star Stella Abrera returned to the country of her birth, along with James Whiteside, to guest. On gala night, a tropical cyclone hit Manila and flooded many parts of the city, stranding the orchestra, but that didn’t deter the splendid Wilis of Ballet Philippines from waging their thrilling campaign of vengeance. That same season also saw the birth of Rock Supremo, which wove the music of 11 different rock bands into award-winning playwright Nick Pichay’s portrait of populist revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. Song lyrics, spoken lines, and the choreographic collaboration of Alden Lugnasin, Dwight Rodrigazo and Paul Morales, against a multimedia backdrop, alluded to contemporary graft-ridden politics as well as to the betrayal of Bonifacio by his own rebel comrades. This piece of dance theatre sidestepped the common stereotyping of the most famous figures in that murky period of Philippine history, and urged modern youth to weave their own histories (“Humabi kayo ng sarili ninyong kasaysayan.”)

The company looks forward as much as it looks back.

Denise Parungao in <i>Opera</i> © Jojo Mamangun
Denise Parungao in Opera
© Jojo Mamangun
 Opera, last season’s visually arresting collaboration between sculptor Gabriel Barredo, French choreographer Redha and librettists Yvette Tan and Erwin Romulo contemplated themes of mortality and sex. To a pulsating score by Malek Lopez, dancers grappled amid a landscape of surreal anatomical sculptures. 

Steadfast in the face of adversity 

That Ballet Philippines manages to engineer these elaborate collaborations season after season with the barest of financial resources is nothing short of miraculous. Behind the scenes, the situation may seem dire, but the artists display near-superhuman commitment. Despite its status as the nation’s flagship classical and contemporary company, only 30% of its funding comes from government. This has severely constricted the company’s ability to tour. In recent years it traveled to six cities on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, to Seoul and Jakarta. And, for the first time in its history, it visited five cities in the Middle East, home to hundreds of thousands of Filipino migrant workers. This pales in comparison to the decades through the 1990’s during which the company toured the world extensively.

Manila prides itself on having three professional ballet companies – an economically unsustainable proposition for most world capital cities, let alone one with the failing infrastructure and governance challenges of Manila. Yet in this time of profound instability and civil unrest, the country – and its diaspora – need more than ever to see its struggles and its hopes reflected in its performing arts as Ballet Philippines so valiantly continues to do.  

 

Ballet Philippines in Rehearsal: Firebird and Other works:

 

Ballet Philippines' *Opera*