We speak with Ballet Philippines and PETA about the challenges the performing arts have faced and how they’re engaging audiences today.
It’s been almost two years since we’ve enjoyed live performances of any sort. Other countries, however, are now enjoying live theatre productions due to their rapid response to the COVID pandemic.
Last September, New York City Ballet returned to the stage with Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux. The performance gathers more than 50 dancers on stage to commemorate and celebrate more than a year of enforced separation.
While that was happening in New York, the Philippines saw its highest COVID cases to date in the same month. Although there’s no clear end to the pandemic for us quite yet, our local performing arts industry is thriving through its pivot to digital spaces.
About keeping the arts alive during unprecedented times, we spoke to Kathleen Liechtenstein, president of Ballet Philippines, and Gio Gahol, senior artist-teacher at PETA (Philippine Educational Theatre Association).
The performing art professionals tell Lifestyle Asia about the pandemic’s impact on the industry, the diversified avenues their companies have explored during this time, and what we can expect once live productions finally become a norm once again.
Pivoting to digital
When asked about how the industry has handled the turbulence brought about by the pandemic, Gahol says it was clear that the performing arts would be one of the hardest-hit industries.
“There was definitely a collective effort to keep the industry present. And doing so would mean to generate support for the people who keep the industry alive,” he shares. “To this day, one of the most important [focuses] is to create opportunities for artists to help them survive.”
Keeping audiences engaged and informed while empowering performers motivates the two companies to shift to more utilized digital spaces.
For Ballet Philippines, the dance company set up virtual stage BP OnStream in July 2020 and launched their website.
“The website was designed and conceived to bring ballet and the arts to our audience’s homes, offering a rich line-up of informative, educational, and entertaining subjects. [They’re] to keep patrons well abreast of relevant events and happenings in the Philippine and global art community,” Liechtenstein shares.
Through collaborating with international masters, Ballet Philippines has a “Learning and Training” section on their website that houses their Masterclass series. From principal dancers of New York City Ballet and UK’s The Royal Ballet to Moscow film and theatre directors, these global industry professionals became their patron’s teachers.
Locally, Ballet Philippines taps certified yoga instructor Anna Unson-Price, and lifestyle coach Denel Dion So teach the benefits of bed yoga and how to look inward for wellness.
Price and So are just two of the many other Filipino instructors who teach online about a plethora of topics.
“The thought process [of these avenues] comes from the desire to keep ballet alive—for our dancers, for our audience, for our community—by finding new ways not just to survive, but to thrive,” adds Liechtenstein. “We aim to boost the community’s morale by continuing to forge on, with even more determination during this 52nd Season. “
Similarly, PETA brings their primary assets of arts and performances (Kalinangan Ensemble), education (School of People’s Theater), and theatre for development (Lingap Singing Program and ARTS Zone Project) to online platforms.
“At the onset of the pandemic, of course, PETA has had to cast a wide net while studying how to cater to them,” Gahol shares. “The various webinars, workshops, and performances were offered for free to the general public in an effort to gauge just how much of PETA’s target audience (for performances), market (for workshops), and beneficiaries (for development work) are present online.”
It took months for each team of PETA’s primary assets to gather data and insights to “best deliver” its work in a new digital environment.
Gahol believes that even though this “extraordinarily difficult time,” PETA’s efforts are driven by the idea that the “arts is a transformative force.” And it’s something that Gahol says the company has proven for 54 years now.
The immense amount of work each company delivered to keep our performing arts scene vibrant comes with milestones worth celebrating amid a persisting pandemic.
PETA optimized its business expansion unit, the Theatre Center Program (TCP). It is set to relaunch as PETA Plus as the unit has significantly grown.
“What used to primarily be the unit in charge of maximizing the use of the PETA Theater Center has now become an agency of sorts—offering arts spaces, production management services, and various creative resources,” Gahol says.
PETA Plus has also been collaborating with other organizations to expose PETA’s work to various industries, including aiding positive change in the country. For example, they’ve worked with initiatives We The Youth Vote and iMPACT Leadership released interviews with young celebrities like Janina Vela and Macoy Averilla on what makes a good leader and the importance of voting.
For Ballet Philippines, Liechtenstein is glad to say that now more than ever, #BalletisAlive—the company’s social media hashtag and message to their patrons.
As of early October, BP has conducted 535 company classes, 11,338 attendees, and has showcased 39 original video productions. All this material was produced while maintaining an online K12 Kalusugan exercise break program for students and teachers.
Another achievement Liechtenstein notes are their last two productions, Dystopian Body and Diyosa. The latter explores a form of dance concerned with “a place where the body evolved despite an environment where conditions do not provide the most basic needs of its citizens.”
In Diyosa, the theme is set when Filipino gods, goddesses, and humans live together in harmony. However, the once harmonious relationship breaks humans’ greed and selfishness, and with it, the light that once shone down on the world was lost.
Ballet Philippines is also gearing up for their 2021-2022 school year, where classes will continue to be taught online.
“Having adopted and integrated BP well to survive the lockdowns, closed stage, banned live shows makes us very proud of the dancers and executive staff who have demonstrated such awesome talents and fortitude,” Liechtenstein enthusiastically shares.
Both PETA and Ballet Philippines will continue honing their digital developments even when live shows return. “The pressure of this pivot to digital has certainly allowed the company to grow and learn new ways to operate and present its artistic sensibilities, pedagogy, and advocacies,” Gahol says.
To the same degree, Liechtenstein shares that the pandemic has opened new doors to imagination and creativity, “these new online executions have added new and exciting dynamism to dance and the arts, and we believe these will continue to thrive alongside [Ballet Philippines’] live shows.
Evolution of performance
With almost two years of no in-person shows, Liechtenstein trusts that BP’s dancers have evolved and developed new perspectives. “[They’ve] learned the difference between performing in front of a live audience on stage versus performing in many virtual stages. From the wide expanse of a beach or farm to the confines of a studio—in front of a camera,” she says.
BP’s president also credits their engagement with other branches of art like textile and fashion, architecture, and literary arts to enhancing the company’s broadened view on dance.
On the other hand, Gahol believes that the growth of performers and audiences as a whole depends on their evolution as individuals.
“We have not been live audience members and live performers for so long that it’s very likely that when we finally get to go back, we will need to rebuild that part of who we are,” he says. “We would, by then, be at the point that we’ve held hope for so long. After surviving such a tragic period, we’d finally have it good again. And from there, I guess we’d only want it to get better.