Snapshots from Israel
For nine days last July, Ballet Manila was in Israel to participate in the Karmiel Dance Festival, the country’s largest dance celebration. The trip was special as it was the first time for a Filipino company to perform a full-length ballet in an international festival. Gerardo Francisco’s “Ibong Adarna” was received enthusiastically by audiences in the two venues that it was performed in – a big morale-booster for the 30-strong delegation headed by Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso.
In this account, principal dancer Abigail “Abi” Oliveiro – who took on the lead role as the Ibong Adarna – details her personal experiences and insights about the company’s time in Israel. She recalls the frenetic behind-the-scenes happenings as the ballet was being staged, seeing the Bible virtually come to life as the group explored the Holy Land’s revered spots, and many other moments shared in an unfamiliar place – all serving as the ties that bind among the dancers.
Let me begin with the time when we were still in Manila. Everyone was excited for the trip that the week before we left for Israel, everyone was doing overtime. Many stayed 45 minutes to an hour to help in the packing, and everyone was just involved. No one had to ask, “What's next?” or “What's happening?” They just went on and helped.
When we got there, our biggest difficulty was getting studio time to rehearse for Ibong Adarna and Iconic (to be performed back at home). It wasn’t the easiest, I admit. I'm not saying that everyone was on edge, but everyone wondered when we were going to rehearse.
I don't know about the boys’ house, but once we got into the girls’ house, which had six different rooms that we all had to share, one dancer after another began to take her mat in the living room, then later on, foam rollers came out. After an hour of stretching, dancers began planking and doing sit-ups together. We were all like, “Guys, we’re so serious!” It wasn’t something that you’d expect to happen after a long plane ride.
‘Adarna’ all over Israel
The day before we performed, we went to the theater to see The Nutcracker. We walked in as a group. Soon, Sir Shaz (BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso) yelled, ‘Oh, it’s Abi! Abi! Abi!’ When I heard his voice, I immediately went to the front to see what was wrong, only to find that he was pointing at the Ibong Adarna poster, with my gigantic face on it!
It was just huge! The sight of it was daunting, and on top of that, Sir Shaz still kept announcing that it was me! I was like, “Stop, Stop!” since everyone was just looking. I wanted to fade into the crowd, but someone suggested that I should take a picture. I insisted that Geri (Ibong Adarna choreographer Gerardo Francisco) be in the photo with me. The poster was him as much as it was me, since it was his work.
Posters of Ibong Adarna or The Mystical Bird were also found in the streets. On the lamp posts, there were circular posters of just my face. I wanted a picture with it as a souvenir, but hesitated because there were even more people around. But then I decided, “Whatever! It’s fine. I’ll have my picture taken.” I mean, when am I ever on the sides of the streets? And of all places, it’s in Israel?
Prepping the stage
We were scheduled to perform the day after we arrived. So, what was really hard was our time in the theater hours prior to our first performance. We were in the theater for the entire day, because that’s when we saw the props for the first time, saw the stage for the first time, worked the lighting and blocking for the first time.
Since the set was built there, we had to make adjustments. For example, we adjusted Sir Shaz’s bed [where he, as the sick king, would lie down] since it was too high. It was difficult to climb on it, so we substituted the bed with a high throne chair.
When we were in Aliw [Theater, where Ibong Adarna was first staged], we had people helping us with the set changes. In Israel, the boys had to do it. They really did a hard job! That day, we spent a lot of time figuring out who will push what, where this will be brought and when to do it. Sunshine (Domine, BM stage manager) made a list of where to put things and when, and since we didn’t get to rehearse that before, the boys were really nervous.
Yes, there were mistakes [in the set changes during the show], but nothing that people noticed, because everyone, including the girls, helped out in moving things if these were forgotten on stage. It was really hard, but everyone was in good spirits.
The show always goes on
The backstage didn’t have the biggest of areas. It was literally just a corridor with little dressing rooms, which made it difficult to change. And since our cast was much smaller, the dancers included in the opening would have to enter the stage again immediately, after the [scenes with] mimes happened in between.
Each dancer had their own tiny spot in that corridor. When they exited, they’d run to these spots and the others who weren’t part of the next scene would help each other. It didn’t matter who – girl, boy, senior or junior – they would help each other undo, redo and check costumes. It was so quick! I was so amazed by the readiness of everyone, and it was like this for the entire show.
In the first act, during my first blackout, I had difficulties in getting off the stage. I didn’t expect it to be so dark, so I wasn’t able to count the number of steps on the stairs I performed on. I panicked when the music for the next scene turned on, so I jumped. I fell on my side and couldn’t stand. And, since my “armor” was huge, I couldn’t get up on my own. When I said, “I need help,” Romeo (Peralta, BM principal dancer who played Prince Diego) – despite having to enter the stage in the scene – rushed to help me seconds before performing his part!
Everyone in the company was ready to deliver their part, and the same time help each other deliver their part. I wouldn’t say this took me by surprise, since everyone in the company is nice and helpful, but to witness all of it was really endearing. I was so proud of them. And all this happened in just the first day. I was just like, “Whoa! Look at us!”
The audience was fantastic! They got the show; they really did. They began clapping in the family scene [when the brothers and the father reconciled] until the curtain came down. That was a good four minutes! And their clapping wasn’t random – it was the unified kind and they never broke their rhythm. We were like, “That’s weird, but we like it!”
Although Ibong Adarna is a Filipino tale, its theme is universal. So, there were no apprehensions; the audience understood the story. In fact, one of the Jewish families pointed out that Israel has a similar tale involving brothers, a sick parent and a flower instead of a bird [for a cure]. Again, it’s the youngest brother who triumphs in the story.
They were impressed by the ballet. Although contemporary, they knew that the technique was classical. They mentioned that they didn’t know [a group from] the Philippines could dance like that or have such a high standard. They found Geri’s choreography to be very engaging.
Back at the girls’ quarters
After our first performance, everyone was obviously tired, but everyone still helped in the packing before heading back to the houses.
In the girls’ house, Joan (Emery Sia, BM principal dancer) and I were literally the titas [aunts] or lolas [grandmothers] of the group. I say lolas because we hardly left our room. It wasn’t because we were anti-social; it’s because we were sleeping most of the time!
Anyway, that night after our first performance, we heard a lot of chatter in the living room. This surprised us because it was so late. When we checked out what was happening, we found the suitcases [of costumes] open and the girls with their sewing kits out. They were fixing broken costumes and some of it were not even theirs!
The sight of them sewing, fixing and counting the costumes really surprised us, especially since they all looked so happy helping each other. Joan and I initially thought we would have to mother the girls, but we didn’t have to do that even once. The girls knew their responsibilities. We didn’t have to say anything to them.
All we could say that night and in the following days was, “Good job, guys!”
The girls all worked hard until midnight, even if we had a free day the next day.
The Karmiel Dance Festival
While still in Manila, I googled the festival, and let me tell you, Google Translate does not do its job! I researched on ballet in Israel, the companies that were going to be part of the festival, the arts and culture there, but didn’t get that much because I don’t read Hebrew. Because I didn’t get much information, I imagined the festival to be contained in a theater, with shows being performed one after the other. But no! There were posters on the streets, roads were closed off, heaps of people in the festival. It was big!
Since it was our free day, we were able to explore more of the festival. This was when we were able to go around and buy souvenirs. And, maybe because we’re Asians, meaning we looked different from everyone else, there were people who would approach us and ask, “Are you from the Philippines? Were you part of the show last night?” They consisted of children, grandmas, mothers, fathers, basically people of all ages – and they all loved the show!
[At one point] I got recognized as the Ibong Adarna, which was a big surprise because I had a helmet on and my face was covered with make-up in the show. There was this family just staring at me. I told Mark (Sumaylo, BM soloist), “I think they know us from last night.” He said, “I don’t think so.” But then, they came up to us and asked, “Were you the bird from last night?” When I said yes, her daughter was so excited. She kept saying, “It’s the bird! It’s the bird!” Mark captured that special moment.
We, the dancers from the festival, were given 40 shekels for food. But since I brought some food from Manila, I decided to use the money to buy myself a souvenir. I wanted something that would remind me of my time in Israel. In the market, I found this ring. And, for some weird reason, it was cheaper than the food! The food was priced at 25 shekels and this ring was only 20. I chose to buy it because it has a star, which is a reminder of the time I was a “star” in Israel.
From Karmiel to Kibbutz Be'eri
Kibbutz there means community, so if you attach it to another word, you’re referring to the community of that place. Kibbutz Be’eri is my favorite part of the tour.
Kibbutz Be'eri was where we performed, but where we stayed was in Gvulot Tour. The set-up for us was so cool! We had a place with little cabins for two to three dancers each, so this time around, everyone had their own space. Outside each cabin though was a little patio with tables and chairs. It was like a resort. It had a community feeling, but still provided us with our own spaces. The best part of the place was that it didn’t have wifi! So, during our free time, we would enjoy the outdoors and chitchat. I found that to be glorious; everyone got to bond!
I have two favorite memories from this place. One happened after our performance in Kibbutz Be'eri. The people from the theater insisted that we take home the food that was served, and so we did. When we got back, Joan and I decided to hang outside our cabin with the two big bowls of salad from the theater. We told everyone that if they wanted food, they could get from the bowls.
Soon, the other dancers came to the area near our cabin, and they had with them their own snacks to share with the rest. We all stayed and talked until 1 or 2 in the morning. That’s how long it took for us to unwind. It was really fun to relax with everyone after the shows. Until today, I miss that place. I would always say, “Guys, I miss our kibbutz!”
My second favorite memory was when all the girls gathered in our cabin. Joan and I, being new principals of the company, decided that we should step up as leaders, so we organized a meeting with the girls.
The girls had been doing so well, so Joan and I wanted to just talk to them about how good they were doing. We also talked about other things that concern the company, like how to handle yourself in the studio, the new dancers, and that we were always there to help each other.
At one point, Mark knocked to ask for the charger, and he got shocked to see 13 dancers in such a small room!
Exploring the Holy Land
Having clashes and cliques in the company was something that Joan and I had anticipated. But that didn’t happen. We bonded as one group. Boy, girl, young or old, everyone just bonded together, which I have never seen before.
This happened also in the days when we didn’t have shows. People didn’t separate from the group. We did all the tours together, shopped together, walked together. And, we were tired together.
During the tour, we were all enthusiastic about listening to and following the tour guide, but when it came to the third hour, we all just wanted to rest. The heat in Israel was intense, so by the third hour, we all just wanted to go back to the bus.
Seeing the sites was like walking through the Bible. I’m not a super religious person despite being raised Catholic, but I was in awe of the places we visited. They had a different effect on you. I’m not sure how to explain it. But when you’re there, you can’t deny that the things in the Bible happened, because the places are right in front of you. I became emotional, which I didn’t expect, especially when we visited the site where the miracle of the loaves and the fish happened.
During the tour, I actually messaged my parents, saying that they would really enjoy it in Israel since they really are the religious ones.
BM, a strong kibbutz
Israel really set the tone for this season. The bond that we had in Israel continued on. We really feel that we are all in this journey together.
During the BM press conference for the season last August, someone asked if there were concerns about having new dancers in the company. Though it was Ma’am Lise (BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde) who was asked, I felt that I had to say something because I saw and felt our strong bond as a company.
So I shared with the press that everyone thinks that going on an international tour is hard, but with BM, it was never hard. I have no concerns about the company going into the 23rd season. Everyone is being good to each other, everyone is helping out one another.
Looking back at Israel, the feeling I have is love and pride. I couldn’t have asked for a better tour.