Keep Dance Alive: How 3 Ballet Companies in Manila Persevered and United in the Midst of Challenges - Arts & Culture

“We wanted to bring together the best dance companies in the country under one shared goal of keeping Philippine performance arts alive.”

The pandemic has put the performing arts world to a grinding halt, sidelining many artists and leaving many outlooks bleak. As a response to the crisis, Ballet Philippines immediately sought to pivot with the times.

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During its 51st Season, the company pledged to keep dance alive. They swiftly migrated online, with a grand season launch via Zoom that set the tone for succeeding online events and performances. An enhanced experience of ballet online saw the birth of Ballet Philippines’ On Stream website.

“We had to swiftly pivot and innovate so that we could ensure that we could continue supporting our dancers and the entire community,” recalls Ballet Philippines president Kathleen Liechtenstein.

Expanding this mission beyond the sphere of ballet and its core dancers, Ballet Philippines also taught to extend support to the other dance companies in the country. “We put our heads together and initiated a Guest Artist Program that would support dancers through employment, training and the opportunity to grow as artists,” Liechtenstein continues.

The program’s model opened doors for dancers from Ballet Manila, Philippine Ballet Theatre to seek employment and growth opportunities. Since it was put into effect in 2021, the Guest Artist Program has helped to support remarkable performance artists in the country.

“We wanted to bring together the best dance companies in the country under one shared goal of keeping Philippine performance arts alive,” Liechtenstein says.

Dancers who are invited into the program are trained, employed and compensated by Ballet Philippines. Through these initiatives and the cooperation of these three companies, as Liechtenstein explains, the dance community has banded in a unified effort to survive, pivots and thrive during uncertain times.

“The program has also forged a sense of unity for the three dance companies where there is not a real sense of cooperation and collaboration,” she says.

Find their footing

Ballet Manila founder and artistic director Lisa Macuja recalls how events of 2020 took a toll on the dance world: “The pandemic has been cruel to the performing arts–and for Ballet Manila. It came a few months after our home, Star Theater and Aliw Theater burned down… When we had to close, my team and I went through stages of grief,” she says.

The company found its footing shortly after. Confined in her home, Macuja busied herself with company classes online. The school’s restructuring to fit into the reality of a “new normal” also occupied the company.

“I paid my dancers in full until the end of their contracts despite the fact that there was no work and no income,” Macuja says. “I kept 14 dancers under contract for the next season where they were mainly teachers and demonstrators for our online school.”

Around the same period, Ballet Manila dancers who held foreign passports boarded planes back to their homes. A good number of the company’s apprentices and young performers hung up their pointe shoes and tutus. MAcuja shares that 11 of her dancers stayed on.

“They would sometimes dance, teach in school, and work creatively to put up recitals for our students,” explains the artistic director. “We had to adjust and change, but we survived.”

The company is navigating its way in the new normal. “Personally, my goal is to get my company back to pre-pandemic levels. It’s not going to happen right away but I can always dream,” intimates the world renowned ballerina. The home, the Aliw Theater, had just reopened after it was engulfed in flames where Macuja plans to mount a “scaled down season.”

In the meantime, the Guest Artist Program of Ballet Philippines contributes to the fulfillment of these dreams.

Macuja says that when the concept was presented to her, “I was all for it! I was immediately thinking of my dancers and their wellbeing. If I can’t offer them performances and a chance to grow as artists, then I am glad someone else has.”

For the five Ballet Manila dances selected to take part of the initiative the program meant performances, creative and learning opportunities. But more than that, Macuja emphasizes, “It forged a sense of unity and collaboration in our greatly fractionated dance community.”

The esteemed ballet icon believes it’s high time we realize that it’s never going to be the same. “And realistically, the fact that we have three ballet companies performing to the very limited audiences of Manila is unsustainable,” she says.

“I am hoping that because of the experience of the last two years our dance leaders and community will be able to put egos aside and work together more,” Macuja continues. “Again it’s not for us, but for the dancers and dance students who are dreaming of a professional career in dance here at home. We need to be able to work together. For our mutual benefit and survival.”

Strengthening bonds

For a non-profit organization like Philippine Ballet Theatre (PBT), canceled production, shows, and performances brought about by the pandemic, caused a critical blow to the dance company.

“We are reliant on physical connections, public participation and attendance, live performance, and ticket sales for our survival,” says former PBT president Chacha Camacho.

With the doors of their home, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, indefinitely shut due to COVID-19, sponsorships and ticket sales were put on hold. But as Camacho asserts, “The company exhibited resilience and quickly adapted to the crisis.”

Dancers of the company embraced a mindset for staying open and optimistic. They channeled their creative energies to “recalibrate long-standing norms and reimagine what dance art form might look like.” Digital migration was the first order of business as the Philippine Ballet Theatre set out to pivot to the times.

“Our dancers, artists, and staff persevered via the shift to dancing digitally,” says Camacho.

When the Guest Artist Program was presented to the company, stakeholders of both Ballet Philippines and Philippine Ballet Theatre saw an opportunity to strengthen bonds. A shared goal of successfully navigating a crisis forged the partnership between two of the CCP’s resident dance companies.

“This was developed as a way for the dancers and stakeholders of both companies to share the ideas of connection, and how are all still there for each other–helping everyone get through these difficult times,” Camacho says.

Gradual re-opening of performance venues and the return of in-person events shine a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. As Philippine Ballet Theatre looks forward to returning to the stage and the studios, Camacho says that, “We have to embrace the concept of sharing and collaborating to keep it alive.”

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