THE STORY OF BALLET PHILIPPINES
(from the Philippine Star By Michele T. Logarta)
Quezon City, May 29, 2000 - The story of Ballet Philippines -- and all its satellite organizations, including the CCP Dance School, the CCP Summer Dance Workshop, Ballet Philippines II, the Outreach Program and the group that runs it, the BP Foundation Inc. -- is actually the story of Alice Reyes, because it all began with a bright idea she had 30 years ago. It is also the story of her two sisters, Denisa and Edna, both dancers and choreographers, who helped her through a great part of those 30 years, to realize that idea and to bring BP to the pinnacle it now occupies as the Philippine's premier dance company.
And if one must go further back, it is also the story of their parents, Ricardo Reyes, otherwise known as "Mr. Philippine Folk Dance," for his skill in popularizing and promoting Philippine folk dances, and Adoracion Garcia-Reyes, one of the country's top voice teachers and choral directors, because it was their parents who encouraged and pushed them to study and above all, excel in dance and music. One sister, Cecille, is a pianist, another sister and their only brother are also in artistic professions.
A graduate of Maryknoll College (with a degree in Foreign Service in the days when ballet was "banned" to colegialas), but determined to pursue a career in dance, Alice went on to become a scholar of the Music Promotion Foundation of the Philippines and a grantee of the John D. Rockefeller III Fund. She left for the US to train in modern dance under Hanya Holm and eventually to complete her Master of Arts degree in Dance at Sarah Lawrence College. She had an offer to teach at Mt. Holyoke College and a marriage proposal, but her parents asked her to visit them first before doing anything else.
This was in 1969, and what Alive found excited her dancer's passion. She arrived in time to catch the opening of the newly built Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the performance of Dularawan, a dramatic pageant based on Philippine history, which had three directors and five choreographers. There was also a full-length ballet called Mir-i-nisa. "It was an eye-opener, "exclaims Alice." Everybody who was anybody in dance was in it. Why, the country was full of talented artists! Since I was a scholar of the Music Promotion Foundation, I wanted to share what I had learned in the US. Whatever it was, I felt I had to do something."
With the courage of her convictions, she dropped all other plans and decided to teach Filipinos, instead of Americans. Her first move was to propose to then CCP president and artistic director Lucrecia Kasilag to stage a dance concert, in collaboration with Eddie Elejar, a prominent dancer-teacher. The budget she asked for was a mere P12,000. Ms. Kasilag agreed, and so in February 1970, Alice presented the first modern dance concert at the CCP, to resounding raves. The concert also later toured the provinces, thus making it the first of what would become CCP's Outreach Program.
Alice continues the story: "One day I saw this big empty room in the CCP basement. I had heard there was going to be a music workshop in the summer. So I quietly talked to Eddie and said, 'Why don't we organize a dance workshop? You can teach ballet and I can teach modern dance and then we'll see what happens. We went to Ms. Kasilag, and our plan fitted nicely into the CCP's plans, so we started the first CCP Summer Dance Workshop."
Encouraged by the success of the first two projects and of the series of dance concerts that followed, Alice found herself seriously considering setting up a dance company. When Bancom Development Corp. committed its support, the Alice Reyes Dance Company was born. This was the kernel that would blossom into the CCP Dance Company, later renamed to the Ballet Philippines Company.
The artistic director of BP for its first 20 years, Alice had Edna as associate artistic director in her later years, and when she retired, passed on the mantle, so to speak, to sister Denisa, who held the position for a couple of years. Coming together in a rare interview after BP's recent 30th anniversary concert, the three sisters recall the heady days when BP was but a young company in the making and struggling through untold difficulties. Of course, the story begins with Alice, the eldest.
"I wanted a group where everyone could come together and do whatever they did best -- dance, choreograph, design. I wanted everyone to come in. I also thought it was time to form a professional dance company that would provide artists with regular full-time jobs. It would also give them opportunity to perform on a regular basis. We thought of ourselves as a professional entity, you see. The dancers would have to come regularly and rehearse, no matter what. Yes, you can say that we were the first in this country to put up the idea of a professional dance career in a professional dance company," says Alice.
One would not blame her for a great feeling of satisfaction that today BP is credited with the development of professionalism in dance. It is also described as one of the few companies in the world that has pioneered in the synthesis, training and presentation of diverse forms of dance, such as classical, contemporary, modern, avant-garde, neo-ethnic. BP has also earned a reputation as one of the best dance companies in Asia, one with "a strong foundation in technique, flexibility of style and an exciting sense of theater." Its repertoire of over 300 dances boasts of Filipino works that have successfully integrated Western technique into Filipino movement, themes, design and inspiration, resulting in a distinctly Filipino dance form.
Alice herself has choreographed over 40 ballets, many of which are Filipino in theme, and she danced the lead role in several of them. She is considered the company's major and signature choreographer. Her Amada, inspired by Nick Joaquin's "Summer Solstice" is considered a classic today.
"We started out doing both classical ballet and modern dance. Filipinos like the classics, so these drew in the audiences. As for modern dance, perhaps because I trained under Hanya Holm, not Martha Graham, I had more artistic freedom to create. Then we started transposing Filipino themes into dance. There was criticism at the time that BP was doing both classical ballet and modern, but that is how the world's great companies have been doing it. It's just like in voice, you can't keep singing Italian songs forever. But you know, "she says, gesturing to sister Denisa, across the table, "I think Denisa is more Filipino than I am!"
Today, one of the country's leading choreographer Denisa replies: "I started using Filipino themes, but I never really thought of them as Filipino, but only as themes."
Denisa started studying ballet as a child. She says that all she ever wanted to become was a social worker. But somehow, an environment peopled by dancers and musicians won out. She joined BP first as a company dancer. Then in 1975, she left for the US to undertake a dance scholarship at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Lee, Massachusetts. She also went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in Dance from the State University of New York. She joined a small modern dance company called Akasawalker and then became soloist for a New York-based repertory company called 5 by 2 Plus. Her most gratifying experience, Denisa jokes, were the lecture demonstrations in small towns across the US, where she, a Filipina, found herself explaining American dance to American audiences.
Eventually, Denisa returned to Manila to work with BP, this time as a choreographer. Her first number, Muybridge/Frames, to music by Philip Glass, is still remembered for its stunning, almost photographic modernity. Her other works include Ifugao (which she was invited to present at the New York Annual Clark Center Young Choreographers Series in 1978), For the Gods, Made in the Philippines, Te Deum, Love Lies Bleeding, and others. Her work, described by Dance Magazine USA, is characterized by their uniqueness, stunning shapes and indelible images.
Denisa is currently a freelance choreographer. She has also been invited back by BP as guest choreographers.
Asked to describe her style, she replies, "Let's just say it's evolving. Nowadays, there are no longer any borders between the classical and modern styles. "
Of late, she has been conducting workshops in the ASEAN region and is choreographing a show in Samar. All these excite her tremendously.
"There's so much going on in ASEAN, and we're all part of a whole. I am also going to the provinces. There's nothing like it. They're just so enthusiastic out there, she says," She is currently working on choreographies for the coming 31st season of BP, and, as management has decided, is involved in reviving many of the older works of the company. "I think that's very good," she comments. "So many of our young audiences don't now how wide and how interesting BP's older repertoire is."
Youngest sister Edna Vida -- who is married to Nonoy Froilan, for many years BP's incomparable lead danseur and now retired to teaching and creating film documentaries -- is also a noted choreographer. Her first choreographic attempt, Pagsamba, is one of the company's most performed pieces and has gained her accolades here and abroad. Her other works include Vision of Fire, Gardenias, The Little Tailor, Isaiah, Mutya ng Pasig, Ensalada, and the very popular full-length productions of A Midsummer's Night Dream, Peter Pan and Nutcracker Suite.
Edna, however, is best remembered in her dancing shoes, performing in most of the company's repertoire .She is most famous for her performance in the title role of Firebird, where she starred with husband Nonoy. Firebird, first danced by the legendary Nijinsky to Stravinsky's music, was choreographed for BP by Denisa.
Edna recalls the experience: "Up to now, I don't know why everybody remembers me for Firebird. I remember, though that Denisa wasn't too happy with how I was dancing during rehearsals, so she announced, without telling me beforehand, that Cecile Sicangco, who was alternate, would dance on opening night, not me. My Mom cried pleading with Denisa not to humiliate her sister, begging me to do better. But Denisa stuck to her decision."
Denisa picks up the story, laughing, "Well, you know what she did on the second night when she got to perform. She got her revenge by dancing so terrifically!"
Working with two other sisters in the same company and profession indeed presented a unique situation for each of them. Behind the scenes, Edna was besides associate artistic director to Alice, also principal of the CCP Dance School.
Today, Denisa comments: "There never was any real competition. We were all in it together. Alice and Edna did a very fine job of promoting ballet and modern dance in our country."
Edna, who also writes for the Philippine STAR and is no longer connected officially with BP, teaches at Philippine Women's University and plays mother to daughter Mica. She looks back to her years with BP: "I found fulfillment with the company, that is why I had no regrets about leaving it when Nonoy and I did. We gave everything we could give to the company. Walang bitin. I felt free to move on, and so did Nonoy. Denisa, I think because she is single and has no children, is more attached..."
Alice, who, of course, is always mentioned in BP programs as founder and artistic emeritus, lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, Chris and Sarah, and makes periodic trips to the Philippines. A reunion, in fact, for all who ever danced and worked for BP is being joyfully planned for sometime in August.
"I feel that I've got this mission to pursue regarding Philippine dance, not just for BP but for the Philippines," Denisa tries to explain.
"But we're optimistic," chimes in Edna. "As long as BP continues producing works that are worth seeing, as long as it continues to remain open to new trends, to explore possibilities and cross over boundaries, and as long as it never loses that pioneering spirit, it will continue to exist as one of the best."
Alice adds the final word, "Our job is to dance, so that's what we should all be doing, no matter what goes on. Dance!"
She couldn't have said it any better.
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