Katherine Barkman’s brave new world
By Jv Ramos
The advice "Remember why you started" is often associated with stories of individuals who have gone through that phase of giving up on their dreams. For Katherine Barkman, the New Jersey-born, Pennsylvania-raised ballerina who began her professional career with Ballet Manila, however, these four words only mean furthering her growth by actualizing a dream she had even as a little girl.
"I was reading some journals from when I was a kid," shares Katherine, who has always had that habit of jotting down personal reflections and aspirations about her dance journey. "And, I realized that I never wrote down that I wanted to be a principal dancer in one place. I always said that I want to travel the world and I want to dance."
As a child, traveling around the world had more to do with playful curiosity; but at present, Katherine views it as a necessity for her to enrich her craft. Moreover, it will allow her to share her own dance journey with more audiences, something she's always been passionate about.
Upon realizing that performing in different companies all over the world was the next step she needed to take, she brought up the matter with Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde who had personally invited Katherine to join the company in 2015 when she was just 18.
"I would feel guilty every time I would leave BM for guestings," expresses Katherine, looking back at the time when she traveled to the US last December 2017 to dance The Nutcracker in different cities with BM guest artist Joseph Phillips. "BM is my home – it's where I'm supposed to be. So, even if I'm given permission to guest elsewhere, I would feel guilty. It's not fair to the company if I'm gone for long periods."
However, this ballerina says she also felt that BM was still where she belonged, stressing that nothing else can compare to what the company has been giving her. "Ma'am Lisa has given me a wonderful home here – with the training, the performances, and a lot of love. I’m with people who want me to grow as an artist and as a person."
So, what came out of her talk with the company's artistic director then? Katherine reveals that the prima ballerina – who herself danced around the world before establishing her own ballet company in 1995 – easily understood her situation and presented her with a unique opportunity.
Starting June 2018, Katherine thus became a resident guest principal of Ballet Manila, transitioning from her principal dancer status in the last three years.
"This means that my in-between times – when I'm not dancing in BM's regular shows – will be for travelling or doing guest performances," simplifies Katherine. "It just really made more sense if I were a resident guest principal at this point."
Katherine admits she initially had apprehensions about her big step, but decided to focus on what could be the positive outcome. "Many things could go wrong in being a resident guest principal, but there are also many things that could go right," she smiles. "What if this works? What if I wind up really enjoying this year? What if I allow myself to really explore a bit and to try this new and different position while still having the backing and support of BM? It may not always go my way. It may be less stable. But at the end of the day, this is my dream and I am filled with gratitude that I have the opportunity to try it."
She underscores, "I have to keep moving. And, I have to keep moving in the direction of my heart – to explore, to travel, to network, to take class and perform in other countries."
And she has been doing all those within just two months of making her major career move, already traveling to the US, Russia and Bulgaria. What's more is, she specifically flew to her home country and Bulgaria to participate in two prestigious ballet events with Macuja-Elizalde as her coach – the USA International Ballet Competition last June and the Varna International Ballet Competition which just wrapped up.
The best news of all is that she emerged from the two competitions winning back-to-back silver medals!
A month before she flew to Jackson, Mississippi for the USA IBC, Katherine was giddy about being chosen as one of just a little over a hundred dancers by organizers to participate in the event. But she wasn’t obsessed over what the outcome would be, but rather hopeful about the experience she would gain.
"At the end of the day, someone's going to medal. Medal or no medal – that doesn't really matter to me!” she said then. “What excites me is that I get to go, meet new people, and of course, perform. What really matters is that I bring my best self there.”
Switching to a more light-hearted tone, she rhapsodized at the time, "I’m going to bring all my joy, all my excitement, all my child-like ‘I’m a ballerina!' [I'm going to think] that I'm in my tutu and that everyone's there for my wedding!’ I think that’s the best way to go. When you do that, you don’t lose. You know that you were totally present and that you didn’t miss a moment."
After the whirlwind of the past two months, Katherine offers this reflection: “I didn’t go into these competitions trying to compete or be better than anyone. The biggest takeaway was the growth that occurred on a personal level for me. The medals were a surprise and icing on the cake.”
The Jackson competition was sort of a homecoming for Katherine, having already competed there four years before as a junior dancer. Now participating as a senior, she says it had its challenges but she enjoyed a lot of support that sustained her. “My whole family was there. My coach was there. The audience knew me. The jury knew me. It was very organized and predictable. The level of competitors was very high. And I was blessed for the recognition I received.”
In comparison, she describes Varna as a different ballgame altogether. “Varna was new and wild. It was my first real break into the European dance scene. Competing against Russians, Ukranians, dancers from esteemed companies like Paris Opera, Dutch National, and Hungarian National Ballet. Not to mention Varna is the first ballet competition in the world! It’s a historical and prestigious stage for any dancer.”
Katherine says she was much more nervous in Varna and the unusual weather conditions practically turned the competition into what she describes as a “survival of the fittest.” (Varna stands out for its use of an open-air stage, and unexpected rain this year pushed back rehearsal and performance schedules.)
“My rehearsals took place at 3 to 4 a.m. Rain, damp backstage areas, flooding. One night, I performed at 4 a.m. with no sleep!” a still disbelieving Katherine recalls. “In Jackson, I leapt out of the nest. In Varna, I tested the strength of my wings by battling all the elements trying to make me fail. Mentally, emotionally, physically. I had no one except Joseph, who has been a supportive and consistent friend and partner. Winning in Varna was a huge, huge honor.”
For this ballerina, the medals she has won symbolize a new beginning which she is embracing whole-heartedly. “Through both competitions, no matter what I faced, I left fear in the backseat and took charge of my destiny. This was my last time competing and the closing of a door but the opening of a much bigger, brighter and more daring chapter. I am filled with excitement, inspiration, humility, and gratitude. It is a key to unlocking a new level and a new door of my journey – to delight, inspire and uplift the audience through my dancing.”
Katherine is thrilled to have a busy slate ahead of her in the coming months, giving her a chance to precisely do just that. From Varna, she will be in Manila briefly for the launch of Ballet Manila’s 23rd performance season dubbed Tour De Force. She then flies to Vancouver to appear in the Goh Ballet Global Dance Challenge Gala on August 15. Then it’s back to the Philippines for the Ballet Manila season-opener Iconic 2.0 on September 8 and 9. On October 19 and 20, she will debut as Medora in Le Corsaire with Ballet Manila. In December, she also has several confirmed performances of The Nutcracker across the US with Joseph Phillips, who will also be her partner in the foregoing shows.
Katherine is particularly looking forward to dancing her first full-length Le Corsaire. In the pirate epic, Medora is sold by a slave trader to Pasha, is rescued by the pirate Conrad who falls for her and whom she falls for, is once again kidnapped and sold to Pasha but in the end is saved by Conrad anew.
"I would have to admit, I'm not big on Medora," comments the ballerina, who carefully studies all the roles she plays. "I mean, doesn’t she get kidnapped twice? That’s the thing for me! Look, you get kidnapped once, then poor thing! But twice? Then maybe you have to work on your street skills. You have to be more aware."
Born with a sense of humor, this ballerina nevertheless says about the pirate tale: "It’s a fun ballet, so I’m excited to dance and add it to my repertoire. I love and want to dance all the classics! Le Corsaire is a must!"
It looks like the girl who once envisioned herself dancing and traveling the world is fulfilling her dream. As the next phase of her career unfolds, she couldn’t be any happier. “It was really scary to make the decision, but fate happens. Life happens, you know. The fact that this is even an option is amazing, so I have to take it."