Katherine Barkman: Born a princess

Katherine Barkman: Born a princess

Katherine Barkman is excited to dance as Princess Aurora in The Swan, The Fairy and the Princess. “The style, the character, the music, everything about this ballet resonates with me” she enthuses.

By Anjie Blardony Ureta

Single-minded. It’s the first word that comes to mind when you put “ballet” and “Katherine Barkman” together in one sentence. Now on her second season with Ballet Manila, the nineteen-year-old principal ballerina admits she was born ready to dance and couldn’t wait to get on her toes, quite literally.

Katherine will dance her first full-length Don Quixote opposite partner Rudy De Dios in 2017 as part of Ballet Manila’s 21st season.

“I started walking at only eight months old and quickly earned the nickname ‘Buzz’ because I couldn’t sit still,” she recounts. “I twirled and leaped and danced for anyone who would care to watch.”

Although she had never been to the ballet, the precocious tot announced to her bewildered parents that she was going to be a ballerina and could they please find a school for her. Told she was too young for ballet class, she waited patiently and made sure to remind them when she turned three. True story.

Since then, Katherine has chosen ballet over most everything else at every crossroads in her young life. The toughest decision so far was about leaving home – a close-knit, suburban community in Bucks County, PA – to dance professionally in a country she’d never been to and hardly knew anything about.

“My teacher, Nadia Pavlenko, knew Lisa Macuja-Elizalde from their student days at the Vaganova school in St. Petersburg,” she explains. “Her sister, Daria, had also performed with Ballet Manila in the past. Both of them had only good things to say about the company and its leadership. I researched about BM and learned about its advocacy of bringing ‘ballet to the people’ which I found truly inspiring. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do – to dance for as many people in as many places in the world as possible.

Ethereal as Giselle in her performance at the Winners’ Gala at the 6th Asian Grand Prix last August. Photo courtesy of Asian Grand Prix

“Of course, the fact that they also train exclusively in the Russian method is another critical factor because that’s how my own teacher drilled me in the four years we worked together. Above all these, what I truly found remarkable was that Ma’am Lisa herself wrote my teacher and assured her that she would take good care of me if I chose to come to the Philippines. That greatly consoled her, as well as my parents, because I had only turned 18 at the time.”

In Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang, Katherine danced as Prinsesa Singsing.

Her first season with Ballet Manila was a whirlwind of triumph, challenges and breakthroughs happening all at the same time. While she needed time to adjust to the weather, the food, the traffic and the local culture, she landed on her feet when it came to ballet. Within months of joining the company, she was sent to compete at the 2015 Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong and brought home the grand prize, as well as a silver medal in the Pas de Deux Category (with partner Elpidio Magat). This was quickly followed by a succession of principal roles in full-length ballets, excerpts and variations where she was alternatingly Giselle, Juliet, Kitri, Nikiya, Medora, the Sugar Plum Fairy and even former Philippine President Corazon Aquino in the world premiere of Martin Lawrance’s Rebel.

Nadia Pavlenko, Katherine’s Russian coach in the United States, came to the Philippines to watch her debut in Romeo and Juliet in 2015. Photo from Katherine Barkman’s Facebook page

Then of course, there is her all-time favorite role, Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, which she will reprise in Ballet Manila’s upcoming production of The Swan, The Fairy and the Princess, opposite fellow principal Rudy de Dios as Prince Desire.

Way before it was made into an animated movie, the ballet world had already fallen in love with The Sleeping Beauty. Considered one of the most successful – and expensive – productions of its time, the ballet premiered at the Marinsky Theater in 1890. Since then the now familiar tale of a lovely princess who slept for a hundred years has been retold in countless ways, but without losing its faith in the miraculous power of true love’s kiss.   

“My teacher always told me that if there was one role that was completely mine, it was that of Princess Aurora,” says the excited young ballerina. “The style, the character, the music, everything about this ballet resonates with me. I did my first Sleeping Beauty variation at 14 and instantly fell in love the role. The Act 3 variation was also the very first piece that I performed as a professional dancer after joining Ballet Manila last year so it’s really memorable.”

As Nikiya with Romeo Peralta as Solor in La Bayadere

Katherine in British choreographer Martin Lawrance’s Misfit or Maverick

Katherine admits that while she loves experimenting with all kinds of genres, she has a special place in her heart for the so-called “tutu ballets.” Understandably so, as she has been consistently cited for her excellent technique and commanding stage presence – all perfectly suited to pursuing her love for the classics. “The classics make you stronger as a dancer and the standards for judging a good performance are universal. You can’t hide your mistakes in the classics so it’s a lifetime challenge to keep on improving. That’s why I’m really grateful to be part of a company that works very hard to preserve its classical roots.”

A scene from Joy, Ballet Manila’s Christmas presentation in 2015. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Describing herself as an “old soul,” she reveals a deep attraction for the discipline and artistry of the bygone era of ballet. “I would constantly research older generations of dancers like Pavlova, Makarova, Baryshnikov, Nureyev… From them I discovered the deep significance of Dance as an art form. I learned that what separated the good dancers from the great artists were not their pirouettes, jumps or tricks on pointe shoes – it was their soul. For me, mastering technique is a perpetual process. It is our duty as dancers to push our bodies to achieve technical excellence every single day.”

Katherine is the Cat to Elpidio Magat’s Fox in Pinocchio.

“However, equally important to technique is a dancer's ability to speak with the body, to feel movement and translate these feelings to the audience. Being a dancer is one thing but being an artist is entirely different. Each time I perform, I strive to give a piece of myself to the audience and show them my soul in whichever role I am playing. Ballet should make people feel something too great to express with words. I believe that as a ballerina, I have a responsibility to touch the hearts of those who watch me. To give them grace and beauty – and show them that there is still purity in this world.”

Featuring guest artists Mikhail Martynyuk of the Kremlin Ballet, stage actor Miguel Faustmann as Peter Tchaikovsky and the Manila Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Alexander Vikulov, Ballet Manila’s The Swan, The Fairy and the Princess goes onstage at 8 p.m. on October 14 and 15, and at 3 p.m. on October 16 at the Aliw Theater in CCP Complex, Pasay City. Tickets are now available at TicketWorld Manila via www.ticketworld.com.ph or through (632) 891-9999. 

“Ballet should make people feel something too great to express with words,” says Katherine who strives to give a piece of herself to the audience with every performance. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Abigail Oliveiro:  A swan takes flight

Abigail Oliveiro: A swan takes flight

Gerardo Francisco: Principal Dancer

Gerardo Francisco: Principal Dancer