Memories of Jackson

Memories of Jackson

It will be a full-circle moment for Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde when she arrives in Jackson, Mississippi this week for the 11th USA International Ballet Competition.

Twenty-eight years ago, she was there as a competitor in the fourth edition of the event that draws the best of the best among ballet dancers from across the globe.

Today, she returns as a mentor to Ballet Manila company artists Nicole Barroso and Joshua Enciso – the first Filipino contenders to be chosen to participate in the prestigious competition’s junior division – and who are being coached by BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso.

Lisa is also serving as coach to Katherine Barkman who will perform with non-competing partner Joseph Phillips in the senior division. Both are resident guest artists for BM’s next season, with Katherine just completing a three-year stint as a principal ballerina of the company.

As the team gears up for the competition, which will run from June 10 to 23, the Ballet Manila Archives mines its collection for memorabilia and photographs documenting Lisa’s unforgettable Jackson experience. Here’s a selection:

Lisa poses in front of the competition venue where flags of participating countries were displayed throughout the event held from June 17 to July 1, 1990. Known as the “Olympics of Ballet”, the USA IBC – similar to the sports showcase – is held every four years and, for its opening ceremonies, features a lighting of the flame and a parade of nations.

Just before she left the Philippines, Lisa had been announced as the endorser of Whisper. As a send-off to Lisa, the brand came out with newspaper ads wishing her well as she represented the country in the international competition. Whisper’s nationwide promotional campaign later that year would contribute to the ballerina’s pop appeal.

Lisa’s photo (top right) appears in the USA IBC souvenir program as one of the accepted competitors. Back then, participants were selected based on their credentials including their background in training, their current affiliation, the roles they have danced and the awards they have won. At the time, Lisa was a principal dancer of Philippine Ballet Theater and was a silver prize honoree at the First Japan Ballet Competition. Nowadays, competitors are screened through video submissions.

Lisa’s ID labeled her as Competitor 3040. While the chosen participants are there to vie for medals, most dancers are said to be excited just to be given a chance to undergo “the Jackson experience”. Jackson is among four cities (the other three being: Moscow, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; and Varna, Bulgaria) that host the International Ballet Competition which has produced gold medalists such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov.

The local newspaper in Jackson, The Clarion-Ledger, features a report on the arrival of competing ballerinas and danseurs. The front-page photo shows Lisa (third from left) and fellow participants as they attend the official opening ceremonies at Belhaven College. In 1990, IBC is said to have welcomed 112 competitors from 32 countries.

Aside from coach Steve Villaruz (rightmost), Lisa came with her mom Susan Macuja (leftmost) and her non-competing partner, premiere danseur Nonoy Froilan. The two-week IBC is a chance for young dancers to meet their counterparts in other countries and interact with ballet teachers and legends. Among the jury members in 1990 was Japanese ballerina Yoko Morishita whom Lisa considers as her inspiration.

For their contemporary piece, Lisa and Nonoy danced Oriental Fantasy which had its world premiere in Jackson. The piece was choreographed by their coach Basilio Esteban “Steve” Villaruz, using the last movement of National Artist for Music Lucrecia Kasilag’s violin concerto with Carmencita Lozada and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. The couple’s costumes were made by Arturo Cruz.

Apart from taking part in the competition itself, delegates also attend socials hosted by organizers. For Lisa, being in Jackson also meant having a reunion with Sergei Vikulov (seen here between her and Nonoy Froilan), who became like a second father to her in Russia. His wife, Tatiana Udalenkova, was Lisa’s mentor at the Leningrad Choreographic Institute. Sergei, who is a People’s Artist of Russia, was among the esteemed personalities that conducted classes for students and teachers as part of the International Dance School in the USA IBC.

Coach Steve Villaruz wrote about the Jackson experience in The Manila Chronicle. In this story, he shares details on how Lisa and Nonoy rehearsed and competed, noting how they danced the Act 2 pas de deux from Giselle and moving on to Round 2 to perform Oriental Fantasy. But since the couple didn’t make it to Round 3, Steve also relates their disappointment about not getting to show their strongest pieces – the Don Quixote pas de deux and the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. He notes, however, that competing in Jackson resulted in Lisa being invited to perform in Cuba, Japan and the USSR.

This centerspread story in the Christian Science Monitor features Lisa prominently and reports: “During the first night of Round 1, the audience roared for Lisa Macuja from the Philippines after she performed a pas de deux from Giselle. A series of masterfully controlled arabesques drew gasps and cheers from a crowd already transfixed by her soulful portrayal.” The publication also quotes Lisa as saying: “I want the Philippine flag to be seen, to show the world that my country is not just all fighting… and coup attempts.”

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