Susan Macuja: Ballet Manila’s mom for all seasons

Susan Macuja: Ballet Manila’s mom for all seasons

Susan Macuja enrolled daughter Lisa (seen here as a toddler) in ballet, never knowing it would become the latter’s lasting passion.

By Michele T. Logarta

Motherhood is the hardest job in the world, says Mrs. Susan Macuja, mother of the Philippines’ most famous ballerina, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.

“I have tried resigning from being a mother many times,” she says with a laugh. “I just want to be a wife. But of course, you can’t resign from being a mother. It’s very hard, especially when you have independent-minded and very driven children.” 

Mrs. Macuja, known as “Tita Sue” to everyone, is wife to Cesar Macuja and mother to three other children, namely, Julio, Gia and the late Jerry.

The Macujas celebrated Lisa’s triumphant debut as Kitri in Don Quixote with the Kirov Ballet in 1986 in this backstage meet-up: (from left) Julio Macuja, Gabriela Komleva, Susan Macuja, Cesar Macuja (behind Lisa) and Tatiana Alexandrovna.

As mother to a gifted ballerina, she was witness to Lisa’s journey to fame and success. 

“We never push our children. We give them options,” she says about her husband Cesar’s and her approach to parenting. In any situation, she recounts that Mr. Macuja would present several options to their children and ask them to choose from those options. “Once they decide, and even if we don’t agree with their decision, we support them – because foremost in our hearts and minds is the happiness of our children. If they’re happy, we are happy.”

She remembers the time Lisa had already been accepted at the Royal Ballet in London and the San Francisco Ballet when the opportunity for a scholarship to the Leningrad Choreographic Institute came. Lisa ultimately chose to go to Russia. 

“Oh it was very, very difficult to let her go,” Mrs. Macuja recalls. “That was one of the hardest times of our lives because we didn’t know what Russia was. We only knew it was communist. But because we knew she wanted it, then the parting was not that difficult,” she explains. But the tears flowed at the airport when they said their goodbyes. Lisa left in October of 1982; she had just turned 18 years old days before her departure. The family agreed that Mrs. Macuja would visit for Christmas and then Lisa would come back June of the next year for vacation. 

Mother and daughter show their fine ballet form while exploring Moscow.

In the beginning, life in Russia was not easy for Lisa. Mrs. Macuja remembers those days when an overseas phone call to Leningrad would take the whole day to go through. Telephone operators in Manila, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow and Leningrad would all work together just to connect mother to daughter. “Nangagawit na ako (I would already get tired). I’d make the call at 8 a.m. and I’d get to talk to her at 4 p.m. Those were the days when direct dialing did not exist.”

It took a while before Lisa finally settled in but in between Mrs. Macuja remembers her daughter’s tears of homesickness and frustration. 

“It broke our hearts to see her cry.” 

After two months, Lisa said she wanted come home for Christmas instead of her mother making the trip to Russia.  A few days before her return to Russia, Lisa began to cry and said she didn’t want to go back. Mrs. Macuja says, “Hindi ito nakita ni Tito Ces... sabi ko why?” (Tito Ces didn’t see this. I asked her why?) And she said everything was hard... even buying food, she didn’t know the language, the technique was different and difficult and she kept getting injuries. She didn’t want to go back.”

The Macujas visit Lisa and a classmate in their dorm in St. Petersburg.

In the end, mother and daughter struck a deal. Lisa would stick it out for a year and then come home if she really didn’t want to stay any longer. “It was hard for me to see her crying, but I had to be strong.”

After a few months, Lisa became a happier girl. She was learning to speak Russian, and she was finally dancing, Mrs. Macuja relates. 

The crowning moment of Lisa’s Russian sojourn was one that the family shared.

Recalls Mrs. Macuja: “We saw her perform in the full-length ballet Don Quixote in the Kirov. We were there and the 20-minute standing ovation that she got, that I can never forget… seeing her, when all the Russians were around her, praising her and doting on her. You see that kind of attention they gave my daughter... that had a great impact on me as a mom and on my son and husband. We said, ‘Okay, this is it! This is going to be her life.’”

No had one had an inkling of what the future would hold, she says. 

While Cesar and Susan Macuja are not in this picture, they were there to witness the birth of Ballet Manila in 1994 in their Quezon City home.

After her Russian stint as the first foreign soloist of the Kirov Ballet, Lisa returned to the Philippines in 1986. She wanted to be a world-class ballerina based in her own country. She became the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ first artist-in-residence and later joined the Philippine Ballet Theater.

Mrs. Macuja remembers the time Lisa made the decision to leave PBT to strike out on her own. With 11 other dancers, Lisa made the bold break. That was the beginning of Ballet Manila.

“I was very worried actually, knowing that it was a big responsibility that we have to share with her. She could not do it alone. She was counting on us and that scared me. I was always looking to my husband and I became hopeful. Lisa always looked to her father all this time when it comes to these things and to me when it has to do with emotion and the heart.”

Mrs. Macuja (crouching, leftmost) acts as chaperone as Ballet Manila participates in a dance festival in Aberdeen, Scotland in 2004.  

Plain grit carried them through the early days of Ballet Manila, Mrs. Macuja says.  “We did not want to disappoint Lisa and the rest of the kids who just wanted to dance.  They were all looking at us, even their parents. All decisions were made by us, mostly by my husband, Lisa and Tito Eric (Cruz, BM’s first artistic director).”

Looking back to those uncertain times, Mrs. Macuja turns pensive and says, “I think mabait ang Diyos eh (I think God is good). He gives you all these opportunities and it’s a matter of whether you will you take it or not. It’s important to pray. You are guided when you pray. Decisions that you make are not just yours. I prayed for the success of BM, for the dancers, for the parents. That was my job – to pray!”  

This year, BM is turning 22.

Through the group’s struggles and triumphs, Mrs. Macuja has also become the mother of all the dancers and the staff. She is pleased with the company’s accomplishments and, like a true mom, takes pleasure in seeing her “children” do well.

Cesar and Susan Macuja are treated to a surprise 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 2012, with the whole family gathering to mark the milestone.

She beams as she recalls a full-circle moment in 2016 when the company sent four dancers to the Dance Open International Ballet Festival in St. Petersburg where Lisa herself had studied all those years ago. They not only took master classes under the most skilled teachers, but also got to perform in a show featuring young dancers like themselves.

The Macujas (second and fifth from left) join the Ballet Manila delegation to the 2015 Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition in Hong Kong.

“I am so proud of them, specially seeing their pictures with Lisa’s mentor, TA (Tatiana Alexandrovna). Gosh, they’re so lucky! I’m so happy for them! I hope it doesn’t go to their heads. Huwag sana lumaki ang ulo nila kasi ako ang unang magpapaliit (I hope they don’t get big-headed, otherwise I will make it small for them),” Mrs. Macuja laughs.

Though said in jest, there can be no doubt that she means what she says. “I am known to be derecho magsalita, a straight talker. Wala akong palabok- palabok (No beating around the bush). I say what is in my mind and sometimes that gets me into trouble,” she admits.

Then, as now, the Macujas stand by their daughter Lisa – this time as Ballet Manila competed in the 2015 AGP. With them is Lisa’s best friend, writer Angela Ureta.

She is a great listener though. Dancers and everyone else have come to her at one time or another to talk about their problems – family, money and love. “I just make them talk and I listen.”

She has chaperoned the dancers on trips outside Manila and abroad. “We have rules and regulations. Sometimes, I will confront them and scold them. They probably don’t even take me seriously but I don’t care as long as I say what I need to say and I do my job.”

Mrs. Macuja (fourth from left) was with the BM group that went to Vietnam in 2016 and performed at the Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Mihn (above) and in Can Tho City.

Mrs. Macuja, who is treasurer of Ballet Manila, is at the BM office every day of the work week. When there are shows on weekends, she is always present too. “We – Tito Ces and I – love being around dancers. We don’t want to miss anything. If the run of a show is seven shows, we’d be there seven times. I watch everybody and I give my comments to Lisa and Shaz (Osias Barroso, BM co-artistic director).”

On the future of Ballet Manila, Mrs. Macuja says: “We have the best dancers, the best corps de ballet. We already have a name outside the country. They have to listen to everything that is being told to them. If they don’t, the style will disappear. Discipline is what we are known for. Eventually, they will be the ones to teach. As Lisa says, ‘Nobody said it’s going to be easy. Every day, you dance with pain. You cannot stop that. You cannot help it.’ The dancers are the hope of BM and they must continue the legacy that we have already built.”

Lisa Macuja posted this vacation photo on Instagram to greet her mom on Mother’s Day in 2016, saying “I love you very, very much! Thank you for the unconditional love you show me every single day!”

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