The swan turners: How Eileen Lopez and Jonathan Janolo are restaging a beloved classic
By Jv Ramos
With Ballet Manila’s numerous engagements – from local concerts and corporate gigs to dance festivals in Vietnam and Russia – leading up to its Swan Lake show dates, it’s easy to picture Jonathan Janolo and Eileen Lopez fidgeting around, wondering how they would be able to put together all the elements of this ever-demanding ballet classic. But such is not the case!
When we caught up with the ballet master and ballet mistress, the only thing causing the latter’s heart to beat rapidly was the long descent she had to take due to a broken elevator.
“We’re done with Act I to III,” Eileen reports, in a relaxed but not overly confident tone. “It’s easier if it (the production) has already been done by the company, rather than a new ballet. At least, kapag nagawa na, kabisado mo na. Tapos, kilala mo na sila [dancers], alam mo na kung ano ang nagagawa nila (When the production has already been staged by the company, you know the steps by heart. Also, since you know the dancers, you already know what they can do).”
“That’s true,” confirms Jonathan, who for his part admits that he went through a “panic attack” upon seeing Ballet Manila’s very booked calendar. At the time of the interview, he was also set to leave for Vietnam to lead BM’s participation in an international dance festival. “What we did was to try and combine everything before Vietnam. We did Act I, II and III; and to my surprise, kaunti na lang ang gagawin (there’s very little to still work on). We just have to do some polishing. The dancers still have it!”
Giving herself a well-deserved pat in the back after Jonathan’s compliments, Eileen shares that to be able to pass down and maintain the quality of Swan Lake, she constantly reviews the company’s previous productions of it. Here, it should be mentioned that the masterpiece is a Ballet Manila staple, with the upcoming production its eleventh time to stage it in the company’s 22 seasons.
Aside from staging full-length productions, the company also includes excerpts from this classical ballet in their recitals, festivals and other events. “Yes, there are many materials, many videos, but I always go back to the original,” expresses Eileen. “I always go back to all the corrections, all the directions given to the company by Tatiana.”
She is referring to Tatiana Udalenkova, Lisa’s mentor from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, with whom she was able to take master classes and undergo mentoring for past Swan Lake shows. Asked if she keeps some sort of ballet mistress’ journal filled with advice from Tatiana, Eileen laughs and assures, “Hindi ko naman ito nasulat, pero natatandaan ko (Though I have not written down her directions, I remember). It’s in ‘storage.’”
“With our jobs kasi, hindi siya by the books lang. (Being a ballet master and mistress requires you to go beyond the books),” explains Jonathan. “It [passing down of the choreography] requires experience. You need to have witnessed it, you need to have been part of it. You need to have experienced it as a dancer.”
Both of them are extremely grateful to have also been trained by BM’s “elders,” now artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and co-artistic director Osias Barroso from whom Jonathan inherited the real-life role of ballet master.
What’s interesting about Jonathan and Eileen is not only were they dancers in previous company productions of Swan Lake, but their experiences there could also be referred to as rare opportunities and career-defining moments.
Jonathan as Prince Siegfried, for example, was partnered with the Swan Queen of all swan queens, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde herself. “Ma’am Lisa was at the top of her game, and then, there was I – I was just a scholar at that time.” The thought of being on a well-lit stage, with a perfect corps de ballet and a prima ballerina dancing opposite him was knee-weakening.
“I had to really battle my inner monsters and demons. I had to remind myself that kahit ayoko ko nang gawin ito, ako at ako pa rin ang gagawa nito (even if I wanted to quit, I knew that I and only I would dance the part),” reveals Jonathan.
“It was a big fulfilment when I accomplished it,” he asserts. “Feeling ko na naka-quota na ako sa career ko. (I felt that I had made the most out of my career).”
As for Eileen, though she never played the dual role of Odette/Odile, she went through her own kind of grand transformation through Swan Lake. “I remember being tired as hell,” she starts. “And, that’s because sobrang metikulosa si Tatiana (Tatiana is very meticulous). Whenever one girl made a mistake or when she didn’t like the way something looked, she’d say, ‘From the top!’ and we would begin rehearsing from the start.”
There was even a time when Eileen and three other ballerinas had to dance the parts of the Spanish girls and the Mazurkas in Act III. “Tatiana was frustrated with the way the original Mazurkas looked, so she asked us to dance that, too. We were very tired. Our legs felt like jelly. Lawit-dila na kami, pero sige pa rin. (Even if our tongues were hanging out due to the exhaustion, she still kept rehearsing us).”
In spite of their draining practices, Eileen never felt like running away from the perfectionist Tatiana. She, in fact, would stay in the studio and watch the Russian mentor the other girls. “I remember that I loved watching her. Back then, even if it wasn’t my rehearsal, I would stay and watch her rehearse the other dancers in the studio. Pinapanood ko kung paano siya magturo. ‘Yung akala mong naka-turnout na, may i-tu-turnout pa pala. (I admired the way she taught. What you would think is already a perfect turnout could still be enhanced in her eyes).”
“Kaya siguro madali sa akin i-restage (Maybe that’s why Swan Lake is easy for me to restage),” the ballet mistress states. “Sobra siyang makulit until you get it right. (Tatiana hounded us to repeat it until we got everything right.) So I remember all of it.”
While the weeks leading to the staging of Swan Lake seem to be what’s well-remembered by the cast, our two subjects underline that the “swan-turning” happens years before that. “Hindi siya biglaan (The preparation is not abrupt,)” Jonathan stresses. “We have trained for this for many years. Hindi lang namin biglang sinasabak ang dancers (We don’t just rush our dancers into these roles).”
Eileen explains that because everyone is trained in the Vaganova technique, she just has to work on how they’ll appear as swans. “When I correct their posture, it doesn’t mean that their posture is poor. It means that I’m teaching them the posture of a swan.”
“And most of the time, it’s just a matter of timing,” adds Jonathan. “You just need to tell them when to put their hands up; but you don’t need to teach them how to do it because they already know.”
What challenges do these two face then? The ballet mistress puts forward that though they dance as one on stage, they are still composed of individuals. “Some dancers can easily adopt the correct swan posture, while ang iba kailangan mo talaga tutukan para maging kamukha ng iba (there are others whom you need to rehearse longer so that they can blend in with the other swans).”
On top of that, there’s also the psyche of the dancers. The two share that the dancers not only see them as instructors, but also as second parents or friends. Jonathan says, “They confide in us… They each have their own share of problems – about the pressures of ballet, balancing school, family problems, boyfriends, etc.”
“Right now, perhaps that’s my only worry,” he continues, knowing very well that ballet is also about battling one’s inner monsters and demons. “Ang worry ko ay kung may mga sumuko dahil sa dami ng pangyayari (My only worry is if some might give up because so many things are happening).”
The thought of someone quitting, however, seems far-fetched as Jonathan and Eileen exude a sense of confidence that no doubt rubs off on the dancers. Jonathan’s charisma and optimism make one feel that any task can be done while Eileen’s detail-oriented eye – a legacy from the exacting Tatiana Udalenkova – pushes the dancers to do better than they did the previous day. Plus, having gone through the taxing Swan Lake journey themselves, they know exactly how to guard and lead the bevy of swans to perfection.