Ali is back: Gerardo Francisco on the joys and challenges of dancing the classics
By Jv Ramos
Getting lost at sea, rescuing damsels in distress and fighting over buried treasure may be what comes to mind when the pirate ballet Le Corsaire is mentioned. Beyond the misadventures, romance and betrayal, however, is the story of unwavering devotion which comes from the most unlikely character – a slave named Ali, who through thick and thin, sticks with his master Conrad and his lady Medora.
“Ever since I first tried it, nagustuhan ko na siya (I really enjoyed dancing the role),” claims principal dancer Gerardo "Geri" Francisco, who ever since joining Ballet Manila in 2003, has always played Ali in every restaging of Le Corsaire.
“Actually, nasayaw ko na rin siya bago ako pumasok dito (I already danced the role even before I entered the company),” informs the danseur, showing absolutely no sign that he’s gotten tired of the role. “Noong nag-compete ako sa Asia Pacific [Ballet Competition in 2003], Ali variation ang una kong sinayaw. Iyon ata ang dahilan kung bakit na-cast ako bilang Ali noong 2004 dito. Kasi nga alam nila na nagawa ko na dati ... Pero siyempre iba naman kapag sinayaw mo nang buo kaysa variation lang.” (When I competed, the Ali variation was the first thing I danced. That’s probably also the reason I got cast for the role in BM’s Le Corsaire in 2004. They knew I had danced it before… But, of course, it’s different to dance one variation as compared to the full-length production.)
Asked to expound on what makes Ali so enjoyable to dance, Geri first points out that adventure ballets are more his thing rather than those that are centered on royalty. “Ako kasi, ayaw ko ang masyadong princely. Feeling ko, di talaga bagay sa akin (I dislike roles that are too princely. I really feel that these don’t suit me),” he chortles.
While it’s the deviation from the usual prim and proper ballet movements that lured this dancer to the role in the beginning, it’s the fact that he has many commonalities with Ali that Geri delights in reprising the part. “Mayroon siyang character na mabait sa mga mabait. Pero kapag kalaban ka, lalabanan ka niya talaga (Ali has this trait that he’s good to you if you’re good to him. But if you’re an enemy, he’s prepared to take you down),” explains Geri.
“Nakaka-relate ako doon kasi palaban din ako. Gaya ni Ali, marami rin akong napagdaanan na challenges bago ko narating kung saan ako ngayon. Di ba sa kuwento, na-shipwreck si Ali at napadpad sa bagong lugar kung saan wala silang kilala? Parang ganyan ang buhay ko nang pumunta ako dito. Wala akong kilala at ang laki pa ng disadvantage ko. Wala akong height, eh more on classical ballet dito.” (I’m can relate to this because I, too, am a fighter. Like Ali, I’ve gone through so many challenges before getting to where I am now. Isn’t it that in the story, Ali is shipwrecked and ends up in a strange place where they don’t know anyone? That’s how my life was like when I got here. I didn’t know anyone and I had a huge disadvantage. I didn’t have the height, which matters in classical ballet.)
Geri finds portraying Ali delightful as he’s been able to add substance to the slave figure over the years. “Dati kasi, by-the-book ako. Lalong-lalo na noong first time ko nag-Ali. Ngayon, mas napag-aralan ko na 'yung character at may sarili na akong interpretasyon kung paano ko i-portray si Ali. Dati, akala ko na kung ano ang itinuturo ni Sir Shaz [Osias Barroso, Ballet Manila artistic director], iyon lang ang susundin. Okay naman iyon. Pero, for me, you have to express it in your own way. Ngayon, nadadala ko ang maturity ko sa character.” (Before, I used to approach it by the book. Especially when I performed Ali for the first time. Now, I’ve really studied the character and developed my own interpretation. Before, I used to think that whatever was taught by Sir Shaz, you’ll have to stick with that. Which is okay. But for me, as a dancer, you have to express it in your own way. Now, I’m able to approach the character with more maturity.)
As for the physical demands of dancing Ali, the principal notes that he has yet to see how dancing it in full would affect his body today. Still awaiting the arrival of guest principal dancer Katherine Barkman at the time of the interview, he had yet to fully rehearse the Ali variation with Medora, one of the highlights in Le Corsaire.
But even then, Geri says he has been preparing his body by doing extra workouts and extra strengthening. Knowing that classical ballets are physically more demanding, he says a dancer always has to be in his best shape whenever tackling such roles.
“Wala akong naging problema nang nag-Basilio [in Don Quixote] ako (I didn’t encounter any physical problem when I did Basilio],” comments Geri, looking back at his recent classical roles. “Noong time na nag-Basilio ako, sobrang in-shape ako, so kaya kong gawin ang lahat. Pero nang nag-Swan Lake, doon ko naramdaman na nahihirapan ang katawan ko. Na-out of shape kasi ako sa Ibong Adarna. Hindi kasi ako masyadong sumayaw dahil nga choreography ang focus ko.” (When I did Basilio, I was in my best shape, so I was able to execute every movement well. But when we were doing Swan Lake, that was the time when I felt that my body was struggling. I was out of shape since the production before that was Ibong Adarna. During that time, I wasn’t doing much dancing since my focus was choreography work.)
When told that he would be dancing Ali anew, Geri says he had some apprehensions. “Actually, nakausap ko na si Ma’am Lise [Lisa Macuja-Elizlade, Ballet Manila artistic director] tungkol diyan. Na kung contemporary, sure akong masasayaw ko nang buo. Pero kung classical, may chance na mahihirapan akong buoin.” (Actually, I’ve discussed this matter already with Ma’am Lise. That if the production were contemporary, I’m sure that I’d be able to dance it in full. But if it’s classical, there’s a chance that my body will struggle).”
Despite this self-assessment, however, Geri still looks forward to his time on stage during classical productions. “Ang gusto ko ay isayaw lang nang isayaw. Hindi pumapasok sa isip ko na hindi na pwede.” (What I want is to keep dancing the classics. Not being able to do it doesn’t really enter my mind.)
Much like Ali, instead of being eaten up by fears and uncertainties, Geri just embraces every challenge – something he has tried to do since the beginning. “Noong una, ayaw kong lumipat sa BM. Puro classical kasi ang ginagawa dito, at sa contemporary [dance] talaga ako magaling (At first, I didn’t want to move to BM. Because the company focuses on classical ballet, and contemporary dance is my forte),” he shares. “Pero naisip ko rin na pag lumipat ako, mag-i-improve talaga ako. At iyon nga ang nangyari. Kung gusto mo talaga gumaling sa classics at sa pagsayaw, magaling talaga ang training dito.” (But then, it also occurred to me that if moved here, I will really improve. And that’s exactly what happened. If you really want to improve in the classics and dancing in general, the training here is excellent.)
Due to his can-do attitude and devotion to what he does, not only has Geri transformed himself into a versatile dancer and achieved the highest rank in the company. He has also become a prolific choreographer who has won a number of awards for his work. Even more impressive is the fact that he hasn’t set any ceiling to his dance journey.
Should the time come that his body can’t do the classics anymore, Geri will definitely not sulk as he’ll simply spend his remaining professional years executing contemporary dances. “Babalik lang ako sa first love ko, ang contemporary. Pero baka nga malungkot ako kung dumating nga ang araw na hindi na ako makakapag-classics. Pero sa ngayon, hindi talaga pumapasok ang lungkot, dahil alam ko, kaya ko pa sayawin lahat.” (I’ll simply go back to my first love, dancing contemporary. But yes, maybe I’ll be sad when the time comes that I can’t dance the classics anymore. As of now, however, I don’t feel any sadness because I know that I can still dance everything.)
“Feel ko, hanggang 50 pa ako (I have a feeling that I’ll dance until I’m 50),” he jokes, when asked if he, like many danseurs in their thirties, has set a retirement age. “Ang promise ko sa sarili ko ay sasayaw ako hanggang kaya ng katawan ko. Ayaw kong bigyan ng [age] limit ang pagsasayaw ko. Mararamdaman ko naman kung di na puwede.” (But that really is my promise to myself. I want to dance until my body can no longer do so. I don’t want to give an age limit to my dancing.)
Asked if there are still classical milestones he’d like to accomplish, Geri replies that he’d like to experience being Don Jose in Carmen. “At gusto ko rin maka-choreograph ng isang classical na piece, parang iyong Ecole ni Sir Shaz. Hindi ko pa nagagawa iyon.” (And I would also like to choreograph a classical piece, something like Ecole by Sir Shaz. I haven’t done that yet.)
If Conrad, the protagonist in Le Corsaire, has Ali and other loyal supporters to help him end up victorious, Geri brings up that his accomplishments wouldn’t be possible if it were not for his loving wife, Jed. Strongly believing in her partner’s talent, she has always challenged Geri to be open to new pursuits.
“Siya ang nag-push sa akin na lumipat sa BM. Siya ang mas may tiwala sa akin. Mas may tiwala pa siya kaysa sa akin. Siya rin ang nagsabi sa akin na di pa ko nakaka-choreograph ng classical piece, so i-cha-challenge ko uli ang sarili ko. Tama, I married right.” (She was the one who pushed me to transfer to BM. She’s actually the one who really believes in me. She believes in me more than I believe in myself. She’s also the one who pointed out that I haven’t choreographed a classical piece yet, and so I’ll challenge myself to do just that. I really married right.)
Other than pushing himself more, this danseur-choreographer seeks to challenge the next generation of dancers by himself instilling unwavering devotion to his craft. “Dapat seryosohin nila talaga ito at bigyan ng love (They have to take ballet seriously and love what they’re doing),” he advises. “Ang motivation ng mga dancers dapat ay sumayaw at ma-appreciate ito ng mga tao. Kung pera lang kasi ang motivation, hindi ka talaga makakasayaw nang mabuti.” (The motivation of dancers should be to dance and to have it appreciated by the audience. If money is the only motivation, one can never really dance well.)