Martin Lawrance hits a high note in new choreography `Aria’

Martin Lawrance hits a high note in new choreography `Aria’

Work in progress: Aria takes shape and will be seen in its final form in Ballet & Ballads. Video by Giselle P. Kasilag

By Jv Ramos

Due to their physical features, well-mannered ways and irresistible accent, British nationals tend to stand out in Manila. While Ballet Manila’s guest choreographer Martin Lawrance shares such qualities, what makes this fun-loving Brit distinctive is his exemplary ability to blend in with Filipinos.

Physically speaking, Martin has become accustomed to wearing clothes for the tropics, which include the ensemble of a cotton shirt, denim pants and rubber thong slippers. If we speak of food, this choreographer has not only included adobo, sinigang and nilaga in his diet; he has also learned how to cook these Filipino dishes and hopes to learn more. When it comes to language, despite acknowledging that Filipinos are very fluent in English, he makes an effort to learn conversational Tagalog words and phrases, and is already able to seamlessly weave these into his dialogues with locals.

Since he has worked with Ballet Manila, Martin Lawrance says he has had a nice dialogue with the dancers in developing Aria. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

How is this possible? Martin reveals that it doesn’t just have to do with his collaborations with Filipinos due to his job as a choreographer. It also has to do with the strong fondness he has developed for the Filipino culture.

“I really love the Philippines, you know. I really feel at home here,” stresses Martin before he resumes raving about his usual hangout places in the Metro, the activities that make him relax, and the Filipino films that he’s recently seen and loves.

His strong fondness for the Philippines, as expected, has penetrated his choreography work. In this interview, Martin reveals that he has thought of creating dances inspired by some Eraserheads songs. Moreover, there are times when he would visualize a cast of Filipino ballet dancers in his head as he listens to music.

He has done so with Aria, a 27-minute piece, which he choreographed especially for BM’s upcoming Ballet and Ballads, the production that concludes the company’s very fruitful 22nd performance season. As the title reveals, this work of Martin’s makes use of expressive melodies from operas which he claims would surely showcase the artistry of BM dancers and the superb singing of Filipino classical performers.

Having always wanted to come up with a piece that uses arias, Martin felt both excitement and pressure when BM’s artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde agreed with his music of choice. He repeats the questions that plagued him at the beginning: “How can I make it different (from his previously choreographed works for BM: Misfit or Maverick, Amid Shadows or even the full-length Rebel)? How can I make it special? How can I challenge myself choreographically? How can I challenge the dancers?”

Martin talks to dancers Rudy De Dios and Jasmine Pia Dames during rehearsals for Aria last November. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

And what came out of his many moments of brainstorming are the following: (1) Collecting six arias, namely Giuseppe Verdi’s Sempre Libera from La Traviata and Bella figlia dell’amore  from Rigoletto, Georges Bizet’s Je crois entendre encor and Au fond du temple saint from The Pearl Fishers, and Giacomo Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly, and Questo amor, vergogna mia  from Edgar and coming up with a choreography “true to the beautiful arias and also shows the way I listen to music.”(2) Casting 12 dancers in which six of them (or three couples) will be the focus of the piece. (3) Coming up with an elaborate set that is integral to the choreography.

“So, I’ve decided that this time, I’m using a sofa, a table, armchairs and other chairs, so I can make the set different,” informs Martin with much enthusiasm.“I want to introduce somebody’s space and individual spaces. This piece, which is a collection of arias, starts with everybody and ends with everybody. Nothing bad is going to happen here, but there’s that air of… what did they do?”

Careful not too give much away, this soft-spoken choreographer chooses to let us in on one of the couple’s stories. With a tone of mystery in his voice, he goes, “For example, with (soloists) Tiffany (Chiang-Janolo) and Romeo Peralta, the audience will know that something has happened. You’ll ask, did she have an affair? Did he have an affair? There’s that feeling of tension and even the feeling of abandonment.”

“It (Aria) is evocative, sinister,” describes Martin. “It’s ballet; it’s theater. It will be fascinating.”

Fashion designer Jeffrey Rogador, with BM costumes assistant Emma Palada, conducts a final fitting with the dancers. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Considering how ambitious Aria is, Martin notes that he couldn’t have done it if there was no familiarity that existed between him and the BM dancers. “I’m very fortunate to have worked with them before. They know me and the way I work. There’s a really nice dialogue between us.”

This “nice dialogue” extends to designer Jeffrey Rogador, who created the much-praised urban-chic yet very symbolic costumes in Rebel. Martin found Jeffrey’s style to be very embracing of his choreography and vice versa; and so the two have been collaborating since BM first brought them together.

Jeffrey, in fact, was commissioned by Martin to design costumes outside the country, namely for the group he’s part of, the Richard Alston Dance Company. So far, Jeffrey has worked on Martin’s 2016 piece titled Tangent, and on Cut and Run, which is set to premiere on February 2.

“I know his style and Jeffrey knows mine,” Martin points out. “He adds that urban touch to my work.”

The costumes will bring an added dimension to the intense piece that is Aria. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag.

With nothing but praises to say about the Filipino designer, it’s no surprise that Jeffrey is again responsible for the costumes in Aria. According to Martin, what Jeffrey created for his latest choreography for BM is very classical and captures the personalities of the characters. Our subject notes that it’s one of the components of Aria that he can’t wait for the audience to see. 

Here, it must be noted that while Martin is very particular about the music to be used, the way the costumes and set look and how the lighting should be for his dances, one thing that’s never set in stone are the steps. “I never plan this (the steps) until I’m in the studio. I’m not the one who’s dancing it; they are the ones dancing it,” he points out. It (my process) can be very collaborative.”

It follows too that the steps they’ve decided upon could change. Martin shares that after his work at the studio, he reviews rehearsal videos, takes note of steps that don’t work, and addresses the changes the following day. “Videos, especially with the technology nowadays, really help,” he expresses. “It’s made the choreographer’s life so much easier.”

Aside from making it easier to teach, distribute and review dances, today’s videos have also made it possible for him to work on two new pieces without sacrificing quality. When this interview as held late last year, Martin was set to leave for London in a few days to work on another new choreography, which he says is very different from Aria. “Thanks to videos and BM’s ballet masters, the dancers will be ready.” he says, as his eyes twinkled. “Aria will be ready.”

Scheduled to come back early February, just a few days before the latest edition of Ballet and Ballads opens, Martin trusts that the company will carry out his vision well. “Oo, oo,” he assures, “it’s going be very exciting!”

Martin Lawrance makes use of expressive melodies from operas to tell different stories involving couples in Aria, his latest choreography for Ballet Manila. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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