Osias Barroso: Meet the force behind Ballet Manila

Osias Barroso: Meet the force behind Ballet Manila

Osias Barroso is among this year's recipients of The Oustanding Thomasian Alumni Award (TOTAL) given by his alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas, where he graduated with a degree in A.B. Communication Arts.

By Susan A. De Guzman

Photos by G-nie Arambulo, Ocs Alvarez, Jimmy Villanueva, Gerardo Francisco, Jojo Mamangun and Susan A. De Guzman

The year was 1996. It was Ballet Manila’s first anniversary concert. Principal danseur Osias Barroso was nursing a 40-degree fever. But like the trooper that he was, it never occurred to him to forego the night’s performance. The show just had to go on.

And so, on to the stage he went. He leapt with gusto, lifted his partner Lisa Macuja effortlessly and danced his way through the program of Russian rarities along with the ten other BM pioneers – as if he weren’t burning up inside and out and feeling weak. The roaring applause given the company at the show's end made all the effort worth it.

This stunning portrait of Osias “Shaz” Barroso, taken by G-nie Arambulo, shows the dancing form that entranced Filipino ballet audiences for years. Today, as Ballet Manila's co-artistic director and rehearsal master, he is a mentor to a new generation of dancers.

To this day, when Lisa recalls that night, she shakes her head and says, “I really don’t know how he did it. And he danced very, very well.”

Dogged persistence and sheer tenacity are traits that people who know Osias Barroso – or simply Shaz to many of them – especially his colleagues in Ballet Manila, have come to associate with him. 

“Shaz and I have spent most of our professional lives together. This includes sixteen years of dancing together. Eighteen years of Ballet Manila. Dancing several world premieres and classical ballet premieres together. Conceptualizing and choreographing and leading together. Without him, I don’t think there would be a Ballet Manila – or a Lisa Macuja,” declares the prima ballerina.

For Lisa, the recent accolade that Shaz received from his alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas, is certainly well-deserved. Ballet Manila's co-artistic director was among this year’s recipients of the school’s The Oustanding Thomasian Alumni Award (TOTAL), cited for his achievements in the performing arts.

As someone who has worked with him on many levels, Lisa only has glowing words for Shaz. “As a danseur, he is musical and artistic. He’s a wonderful, intuitive partner and a fearless artist. As a choreographer, again, he’s extremely musical. A fast worker who can choreograph in minutes! Creative and open to work with as a teacher and as a coach. As a co-artistic director, he loves the artistic side. We actually complement each other because I can often take over the administrative and management side and keep on dancing while he takes care of all the classes and rehearsals and the other dancers.”

Grateful for the TOTAL citation from UST, Shaz dedicates his award to all male ballet dancers in the country, saying that few ballet dancers – especially male ones – get recognized. Photo by Jojo Mamangun

Having been mentored by Shaz, company pioneer and character soloist Eileen Lopez values the inputs that she learned from him since the early days of Ballet Manila. “Shaz is one heck of a teacher. He made sure that we would stick to the Vaganova style and that BM would always keep the original choreography of the classics. He has helped Lisa a lot in teaching and disciplining the dancers.”

Lessons learned from both Shaz and Liza, Eileen says, help her a lot now that she is a rehearsal mistress and a teacher at the Ballet Manila School in dealing with dancers and students. “They taught me that every individual is different and it’s just a matter of how you approach each one for them to be able to understand and execute what you're trying to teach them.

“You can't expect everyone to be as turned out or as musical or as coordinated as you want them to be. May slow learners, meron ding mabilis ang pick-up. May mga gifted na walang dating, pero meron din namang not blessed with the ideal ballerina body but can do a lot more. Iba-iba eh. You just have to be patient with them and try not to give up as long as they don't.”

Eduardo Espejo, another BM pioneer who is now with Barcelona, Spain’s Ballet David Campos, similarly recalls pointers that Shaz would impart to the dancers. “He would always tell us to listen to the music and to have clean executions. During my dancing days with BM, when I was about to make my debut in Giselle – of course, sobrang kaba! – Shaz was always there to coach me.”

Shaz was hailed as a “ballerina's prince” for his extraordinary skill in partnering. He and Lisa Macuja danced as partners for 16 years.

Christopher Mohnani, who was also part of the fledgling company from its inception, describes Shaz as a tough yet supportive mentor. “Shaz, as a teacher, was always strict and demanding of your full focus and hard work. There was no room for complacency and you are always asked to go beyond 'I can not' all the time.”

This kind of disciplined training, Chris says, served him well when he moved to the Nashville Ballet where he would become its principal danseur for ten seasons. “When I started working in the US, almost everybody was unanimous in saying that my work ethic was my most rewarding attribute. I am not content with passable work bur rather, I always made sure that in everything I did – whether it is just rehearsals in the studio or performing in front of thousands of people – I would always give my 100 percent all the time.”

These are the same qualities, he says, that he now tries vey hard to instill in his own dancers and students as artistic director of Dance Theater of Tennessee, a professional dance organization he founded which echoes the Ballet Manila mission of “ballet for the people.”

Shaz in Sari't Bahag, one of the staples in the Ballet Manila repertoire during its early years. With him are (from left) Pamela Asprer, Ianne Damian and Lisa Macuja. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Chris contends that Shaz is exacting of his dancers and his students. “I remember one time we were rehearsing our competition pieces and we would do just our entrance walk again and again. We had not even started our actual variations! We were asked to make sure that as soon as we entered, the audience would already know who we were and what character or dance we were to perform. Then after the nth time of doing it, I was almost passed out and on all fours, but Shaz would still ask me to try it one more time, find my second wind and just go beyond 'I can not.'”

“Looking back,” Chris continues, “it is that same feeling that you try to recreate when you are doing a full-length ballet and you are in the middle of your coda, after two acts already, a full adagio, a variation and you still have to do multiple turns – you let your technique do the work for you, go through 'I can't' and finish strong. It works!”

Lisa and Shaz have spent most of their professional lives together. But more than dance partners, they consider each other as best friends.

Even among the younger batches of dancers now, Shaz remains as rigorous and as meticulous. Susan Macuja, Ballet Manila Foundation treasurer and Lisa’s mom, whose office perch affords her a great view of the BM studio, notes, “He has instilled discipline in all dancers from scholars to company members. He and Lisa have been role models to the company and that is the reason why everybody works very hard in BM. He is the best coach and rehearsal master ever because he has danced all the classics with Lisa. Nobody can surpass him as rehearsal master. Siya ang taga-linis ng lahat ng numbers down to the details. He sees every little mistake done by each dancer even if it is corps work and makes sure to correct these.”

For her, Shaz’s value to the company is immeasurable. “He is a big, big asset. Without him, pilay ang BM. Without Shaz, maloloka ang anak ko!” Susan Macuja says with a laugh.

Lisa describes Shaz as “a wonderful, intuitive partner and a fearless artist.”

Gerardo Francisco, BM junior principal dancer and resident choreographer, says he was inspired by Shaz's classes and by the way he teaches. “I can still remember that he was bringing a blue book to every class, full of notes from different classes with different teachers. He is always taking down notes and logging it in his blue book. He always comes to class prepared by creating his classes ahead of time. I admit, I adopted this trait from him, and until now, I still do the same practice – listen-observe-write-apply.”

Geri confirms that Shaz is a disciplinarian. “Even before, when he was still a dancer, you could see the self-discipline in him. He would never stop practicing until he was already satisfied. He often works alone for him to be able to concentrate.”

Shaz lifts Lisa's daughter and his inaanak, Missy, as a toddler in the BM studio. Today, Missy Macuja Elizalde is a company member who looks to Shaz as a mentor.

Then, as now, Shaz apparently holds his students and dancers to that same high standard. As Geri relates, “He will always remind you that in every dance, you have to give your best. That a dance can't be felt from the heart if the dancer does not show sincerity in his or her movement. You need to let your audience believe that it is real. You need to have the passion and dedication to dance your piece well. And this is how I see Shaz. He pushes everyone to be better dancers than they were before.”

Shaz is so passionate about his multiple roles in BM that he sometimes has to be reminded that he needs to relax, too. Lisa is the one that worries the most when  Shaz gets too stressed. “He cares so much that sometimes it becomes dangerous for him to be in such a state.He is meticulous, patient and caring, a very, very dedicated and hard worker. He can sometimes spend eight hours straight in the ballet studio without a break! I often have to tell him to take it easy. ”

Asked what she would consider as Osias Barroso's most significant contribution to Philippine dance, Lisa readily replies and gives her most enduring partner on stage and off a heartfelt tribute: “Ballet Manila and all the dancers and shows that are in its history. Shaz is the force behind Ballet Manila. People think it's me. But he is.”

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