How Ballet Manila is spreading the Vaganova dance method beyond the Philippines
By Susan A. De Guzman
If the journey of the Vaganova ballet method were to be charted from its beginnings in Russia, it would show an unlikely destination in the Philippines that then branches out to other points in the Asia-Pacific region.
That’s because since she learned the method in St. Petersburg in the 1980s, Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde has been espousing it, even teaching it to her perennial partner (and now BM co-artistic director) Osias Barroso in their old company.
When they co-founded Ballet Manila in 1995, it only seemed logical that it would be steeped in the Vaganova tradition. This was further developed and strengthened by master classes conducted by Lisa’s Russian mentor Tatiana Alexandrovna and her husband, People’s Artist of Russia Serguei Vikulov, in succeeding years.
The Vaganova is a ballet technique and training system devised by Russian dancer and pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) after whom the Leningrad Choreographic Institute – where Macuja-Elizalde studied from 1982 to 1984 – is now named. It was based on the teachings of Marius Petita (1818-1910), said to be one of the most influential ballet masters and choreographers in ballet history with such classics as The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, La Bayadere and Le Corsaire to his name.
Nowadays, it’s Ballet Manila’s artistic directors who are the knowledge keepers and teachers, teaching the Vaganova not just in the Philippines but helping to spread it in other countries. Just in January, Barroso went to Mumbai, India and Taipei, Taiwan and Macuja-Elizalde to Canberra, Australia precisely for the purpose of teaching ballet classes the Russian way.
For Barroso, the trip to Mumbai is an annual visit resulting from BM’s thriving partnership with Rhythmus Happy Feet, a dance school co-founded by Swara Patel and Deepika Ravindran. The tie-up first began in 2015 when Barroso was invited by the school partners to conduct an assessment of its ballet students, resulting in scholarships to BM’s summer intensive being given to select girls. Barroso also gave classes and a one-on-one teacher’s course to Ravindran.
Since then, the partnership has steadily grown. Apart from the annual classes conducted by Barroso and the scholarship awarded to students, Ravindran has also come to the Philippines to take further studies with Ballet Manila. Former BM dancer Czarina Villegas was also sent to Mumbai in 2017 for six months to teach ballet in Rhythmus Happy Feet’s four studios found in Juhu, Powai, Khar and Wadala. In December of that year, Rhythmus Happy Feet welcomed then BM soloists (now principal dancers) Joan Emery Sia and Elpidio Magat to star in the lead roles of The Nutcracker for the school recital.
The invitation for Macuja-Elizalde to teach in Canberra resulted from connections made at the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong in August 2018 where she taught classes and was a member of the competition jury. That was where she got to talking to Zara Bartley, head of the National Capital Ballet School that she co-owns and teaches in together with her husband Daniel Convery. Previous to that, Bartley had seen her teach onstage in Sydney during the Asian Grand Prix Regionals in April.
In Canberra, Macuja-Elizalde taught Ballet Technique, Pointe, Conditioning and Variation classes and gave private classes to some female students. At the end of the workshop, students were chosen to receive scholarships to the BM summer intensive in April.
Meanwhile, it was Barroso’s second visit to Taiwan, particularly to teach at the Zhongli Youth Ballet run by John Chang and Maggie Chien. They had met at the Asian Grand Prix in 2017.
Barroso said that he aimed to make it more fun and engaging for the students to learn ballet, especially for the younger ones. At the end of one class, for instance, he asked them to create a circle and then do a variety of movements which they enjoyed.
One of Barroso’s most memorable experiences was teaching a 10-year-old boy who, he would later learn, has Asperger’s Syndrome. “I did not know that he has Asperger’s. Nakakaiyak kasi he responded so well in my class. It was so touching, he even gave me a card to thank me. His parents were also tearful and were so grateful.”
Barroso said he would tell the students in Taiwan repeatedly, “The road to ballet is long, but always persist, and you can be better.”
For him, the two-week experience turned out to be soul-satisfying. “What I’ve learned from those kids is priceless! Nakakataba ng puso (It was heartening) that they appreciate what you can do for their students in such a short period of time. Nakakaiyak lalo na noong showcase (It was so touching specially during the showcase).” Though still needing more polish, he noted the students’ potential to improve with continued training.
“Napagod ako pero nanaig pa rin ‘yung pagka-guro ko (I was so exhausted, but the teacher in me won out),” enthuses Barroso, who says he realized on this trip the value of mentorship. “It’s surreal that everything we learned from TA and SV (Tatiana and Serguei), Lisa and I are already the ones teaching now. It made me find myself even more.”
Now, he is encouraged all the more to continue the crucial work of keeping the Vaganova ballet tradition alive, and of passing it on in its purest form to younger batches of dancers – not just in other schools abroad, but more so with Ballet Manila.
Macuja-Elizalde feels fulfilled in what she and her erstwhile partner have been accomplishing through the company they established in 1995, and in what they are able to also share in other countries. “I am just very grateful and at the same time very proud of Ballet Manila. Being recognized by these teachers and faculty, being invited to teach, it is simply a blessing and opportunity for any former dancer like myself and Osias – to be able to pass down our art form to the next generation of dancers in many places around the globe.”
She adds that the exposure of BM in international competitions and their teaching stints have opened doors for the company. In May, they are set to have a workshop in Kuala Lumpur, to be followed in September by BM performances. In July, a group of ballet students from Taiwan are considering taking a two-week intensive with BM at its studios in Pasay. In August, a group of BM talents is likely to be featured in a show in Taiwan. And sometime this year, a former BM dancer is expected to teach in Mumbai in continuation of the partnership with Rhythmus Happy Feet.
The good showing of Ballet Manila at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi last June attracted even more attention for the company and its dancers and the kind of training they are immersed in.
Katherine Barkman, principal dancer with BM for three years, won the silver in the competition’s senior category while then company artist and now soloist Nicole Barroso received a Jury Encouragement Award. Nicole Barroso together with Joshua Enciso were also the first Filipino dancers to have been invited to compete in the junior category of what is dubbed as the “Olympics of Ballet”. (Barkman and Barroso received offers from US-based companies, with the former eventually choosing to sign up with The Washington Ballet.)
At the USA-IBC, Pointe magazine even live-streamed a class conducted by Macuja-Elizalde with Barkman, Barroso, Enciso and Joseph Phillips, who was Barkman’s non-competing partner. In real time, ballet observers commented on how good it was, with one teacher saying that she would teach the same routine in her class and another one noting how difficult it seemed to be. Told later on about this online exchange, Osias Barroso laughingly reacted, “They should see our actual classes in BM!”
To this day, Barroso has kept many of his notes from the classes he took under Russian mentors Tatiana Alexandrovna and Serguei Vikulov which he describes as among the most intense and difficult but also the most excellent ones he’s undergone. At the BM studios, he always advises the dancers that it’s the disciplined daily practice and series of exercises as prescribed in the Vaganova method that would build up their strength and stamina and ultimately help ensure longer careers.
“Back to the barre” is indeed a constant reminder the dancers get from Barroso and Macuja-Elizalde, even after a performance night of standing ovations or a victory in a competition.
“Ballet is truly a ‘passed down’ art form. That’s why the standards of teaching classical ballet have to be upheld so that these same standards nurture the next generations,” Macuja-Elizalde emphasizes