Lisa Macuja steps into her choreographer’s shoes once more

Lisa Macuja steps into her choreographer’s shoes once more

The prima ballerina-turned-choreographer with the lead couples alternating in the roles of Snow White and her Prince (from left): Heewon Cho and Romeo Peralta, Katherine Barkman and Joseph Phillips and Joan Emery Sia and Elpidio Magat. Photo by G-nie Arambulo

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde was still wrapping up work last year on Cinderella, her first full-length ballet, when the idea for her next choreography struck her. That early, she already knew she wanted to create her own version of Snow White.

“In fact, I labeled the initial notes for my libretto as ‘The Next One’ in my files,” she laughingly admits. “Why Snow White? Because it just seemed to be the most likely fairy tale that could be translated into a ballet next to Cinderella. I also like creating happy ballets that would really entice our younger generations to come to the theater.”

The seven dwarfs provide laugh-out-loud moments in Snow White. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Moreover, having many male dancers in Ballet Manila, Lisa knew she wouldn’t have a hard time finding her seven dwarfs. “I understand now what choreographers say when they are inspired by the dancers they work with. In working with my company, Snow White is a really good fit for the dancers I have at this particular time.”

The main challenge that Snow White posed for her was ensuring it would be distinct from Cinderella. “I am not going to deny that some parts may be similar,” she says. “I am still using the classical steps and style. I believe in sticking to what you know. I know my classical ballets very well. I have a wealth of classical ballet steps in my dancer’s vocabulary.”

The creation period fires her up, although it can also lead to many sleepless nights. Lisa enthuses, “I love the entire process – from the initial idea and putting together your creative team and writing down the libretto to the brainstorming, listening to and editing your music and then going into the studio and working with the cast. I just love it!”

Lisa, who learned to knit as a ballet student in Russia, shares she ends up knitting a lot when she’s in her choreographer’s mode. “Because I knit while I listen to the music. I don’t know… but the knitting jogs my brain into action.”

She always carries a notebook with her so that she can jot down ideas that pop up. “Even if I don’t do all of them, at least it’s written down for reference. When I have created a bit for one scene, I usually stop and let everything percolate for another day or two before continuing that scene again.”

While she recalls watching the Disney animation repeatedly in her childhood and seeing the Ballet Philippines production many years ago, she purposely didn’t look at any version of Snow White while imagining her own. But she says elements of other films would inspire her in tweaking some of the characters.

For instance, the idea to expand the role of the Evil Queen came about because of the portrayal of Cate Blanchett as the stepmother in Cinderella and of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. “I saw how cool and effective it was to build up the ‘evil stepmom’ role,” she notes.

There are two sets of dancers in the Magic Mirror scene, one in front and one behind, with The Evil Queen seeing her dark persona for the first time. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Thus, Snow White actually starts with a scene that Lisa dubs as “The Queen’s Facial.” “So the audience already knows that the character of the Queen is central to the storytelling. She is in front of the Magic Mirror and basically sees her extremely dark side for the first time in the mirror. There is a cast in front of and behind the mirror.”

She has also added characters that would help the story flow naturally. The Huntsman tasked by the Queen to kill Snow White has a family in the Ballet Manila version. He and his wife are like parents to the princess, as she becomes a playmate to his son. There is also a deer family whom the Prince spares from being hunted and later plays a key role in reuniting him with Snow White.

Choosing music also proved to be quite a challenge for the choreographer. Unlike in Cinderella where there was a ready score in Prokofiev, in Snow White no music was available except for the popular Disney melodies. Though she used some well-known tunes from the animated movie and nursery rhymes, she had to look for a composer whose music would also work well to weave the show together. “When I listened to Massenet Ballet Suites, I knew I found it! I started listening to all of Massenet’s work. And then chose which to use for what scene.”

As Snow White began to take shape, Lisa says there were good days and bad days in the studio. “When nothing is happening, I tend to just dismiss everyone and reschedule the rehearsal instead of waiting for it to happen. I find that there are easy parts and difficult parts to do in a ballet. Usually, for me, the group dances are the hardest to do.”

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde (second from left, with co-artistic director Osias Barroso beside her) gives pointers to the dancers during Snow White rehearsals at Aliw Theater. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Lisa says the dancers are crucial in moving the process along. “All the dancers I work with help a lot. I love how sometimes they make their own stories or comment or even do some moves during rehearsals that I end up using. I love the different plays of personalities I work with in the dancers. When I first started Cinderella, I was very insecure. Now with Snow White, I know what I want more. But if I ever get stumped, I will ask for help and that’s normally from my co-artistic director Osias Barroso. Right now, Shaz has helped clean and rehearse, but the choreography is all mine.”

Similar to Cinderella, she wants the audience to be happy and engaged all throughout the ballet. She injects humor into the show, assuring some laugh-out-loud scenes with the seven dwarfs, as well as excitement in the forest scene as Snow White flees and encounters trees, the deer family, bunnies and birds. Magic also happens onstage as a professional magician takes on the role of the Wizard of the Mirror.

But it is the choreography, of course, that is at the core of this story ballet – the third in Ballet Manila’s current performance season that has the theme “Flights of Fantasy.” As Lisa assures, “The audience can look forward to an hour and a half of pure storytelling through dance. Dancing will certainly be the highest quality one can already expect from the Philippines’ youngest but strongest ballet company!”

Lisa’s hope is that productions like Snow White will help build ballet viewership. “When I am choreographing, I am normally just thinking about my two-year-old budding balletomane in the audience that will be watching the ballet and hopefully asking his or her parents to bring them again to the ballet in the future. And then hopefully, when these kids grow up and have families of their own, they too will bring their kids to the ballet.”

Like before, with her current production still in progress, Lisa is already setting her sights on her next choreography. And yes, it will be another fairy tale – most likely, Hansel and Gretel, she reveals.

“If you think about it, the classical ballets are all fairy tales, or at least stories, that have come to life and been put in dance form. From Giselle to Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker – these ballets all tell a story. That’s why I am fascinated with story ballets and fairy tale ballets. When you combine music, dance steps, lights, mime, sets and costumes and tell a story without saying a single word, it’s really magical! Why change something that has worked for audiences in the past three to four centuries?” the prima ballerina-turned-choreographer muses.

Bitten by the choreography bug, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde has come up with her second full-length production in Snow White. Photo by G-nie Arambulo

Snow White state of mind: Joan Emery Sia and Elpidio Magat

Snow White state of mind: Joan Emery Sia and Elpidio Magat

Snow White state of mind: Heewon Cho and Romeo Peralta

Snow White state of mind: Heewon Cho and Romeo Peralta