For Katherine Barkman, Ballet Manila is in the heart
By Susan A. De Guzman
Katherine Barkman was so thrilled when the plane touched down that she could only think of one thing: She was home, finally.
The American ballerina had just landed in Manila, and she was experiencing the exact feelings she felt whenever she would return to the US from the Philippines where she had been principal ballerina with Ballet Manila for three years.
“It used to be baliktad (the opposite),” Katherine smiles, the Filipino word rolling easily on her tongue, as a few others do during the conversation. “I got that feeling like I was so excited to see my parents. I came back here and it was just like seeing family. Walking into the studio, my heart was just beating so fast. I couldn’t wait to get back to Ballet Manila!”
What makes her return even more special is her participation in the benefit show Tuloy ang Saya-wan. Slated on July 21 at Star Theater, it aims to raise funds for Ballet Manila and Academy One’s respective ballet scholarship programs, the former’s Project Ballet Futures and the latter’s partnership with Tuloy Foundation.
Invited by her mentor, Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, to perform in the fundraiser, Katherine immediately jumped at the opportunity to visit. It has been nearly nine months since she left to begin her stint with The Washington Ballet. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect since she was on a break, having just completed her first season with the DC-based company.
“Even if there was no show, one way or another, I was going to come back,” Katherine candidly admits. “But what an honor for me to come back for this specific gala and help the place that gave me my future in ballet. I wasn’t a ballet scholar but Ballet Manila gave me my future in dance.”
Adding even more dimension to this is the personal connection she has with her former Ballet Manila colleagues Jessa Balote, Rissa May Camaclang and Jamil Montibon who were all Project Ballet Futures scholars. “Getting the chance to work with Jessa, Jamil and Rissa May every day, and to become their friend, showed me how ballet can really change lives,” Katherine notes, underscoring her belief in the cause of Tuloy ang Saya-wan.
Katherine will perform Grand Pas Classique which has become her signature piece, the variation of which won her top honors at the Asian Grand Prix in 2015 and the full pas de deux which scored for her back-to-back silver medals from the US International Ballet Competition and the Varna International Ballet Competition in 2018.
“It never gets easier, ever,” Katherine laughingly describes of the piece which is highlighted by a series of balances executed by the ballerina on pointe. It was in Jackson that she performed the full Grand Pas Classique for the first time and she can still remember how the balances went. On the first passé, there was no shaking, but she came down a little early. Thinking during those seconds, she reminded herself that she didn’t go that whole way to wobble. So for the second one, she stayed on her toes… and stayed, reaping thunderous applause from the audience, which was repeated when she successfully completed the third balance.
“That was the first time I really experienced being fearless onstage,” Katherine recalls of that moment.
“The thing with balancing, you have to be so calm. Because if you’re nervous, you’re going to shake. You really have to be just like… this is my space, this is my shoe, there’s the floor, boom. And even if you’re nervous, you have to find a way to play with the balance because you can’t panic. If you panic, all your muscles grip. It’s about… hovering. You can’t grip a balance. You have to extend out of it, it has to keep growing for you to stay,” the ballerina explains.
Turning philosophical, she adds, “It’s like a metaphor for life. You can’t be balanced and holding on to one thing. Balance is a breath, or something that’s a continuous movement. It’s not a static thing.”
In Jackson, she would go on to perform the number twice more, in two galas, one in which she was already awarded the silver medal in the senior women’s category.
Just a few weeks later, Katherine would perform Grand Pas Classique anew in Varna, Bulgaria as her competition piece in the final round. People were already talking about it as they had already heard of what she had done in Jackson. Since the event was held outdoors, it posed an extra challenge for Katherine when doing the balances – the wind. But thankfully, sail through that she did, winning another silver medal in the process. Similarly, she would perform it there a total of three times.
From then on, it has been a requested number several times when she has performed in galas in Canada and in parts of the US. The last time was just last May in St. Louis where she was asked to dance it yet again, leading the ballerina to joke, “I can dance other things… the next time, it has to be Black Swan!”
But turning serious, Katherine says there is much more to Grand Pas Classique that can be improved on in every performance. “You can always do it better, brighter, more interesting and intricate. Work on the balances, but work on the other things too – the style, the port de bras, the pirouette, how beautiful can you make it. It’s also a lesson on detachment, from a highlight, from an expectation.”
The ballerina says rehearsals for Grand Pas Classique with her BM partner, principal dancer Elpidio Magat, have been going on quite well. They’ve worked together several times before and he was actually her first-ever partner in Ballet Manila when she first came here in 2015. They also won a silver medal together in the pas de deux category of the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong, and last partnered each other in Swan Lake in 2017.
“It’s cool to see how we’ve both grown in our own right. If before, it was so scary, now it’s going to be great and joyful,” Katherine enthuses.
Apart from the full slate of performances with The Washington Ballet, she is glad to also have had the chance to try teaching in the past months. At first, she was hesitant and quite nervous about accepting the invitations that came her way to conduct ballet classes.
“What qualifies me for this? I’m only 22. I’m also still trying to learn to dance. What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good at it? Am I even ready to teach?” Katherine says of her apprehensions. But turning to “Ma’am Lisa” for advice, she was reminded how Lisa herself had taken up teaching quite early and while she was also still dancing.
“She assured me teaching actually helps you as a dancer because it makes you think differently. It gets you out of your head and you’re actually seeing another person’s body and figuring out how to articulate what you think might help that person do better. It’s such an interesting thought process, because you’re not absorbing something from a teacher.”
Katherine is glad she took on the challenge even as she acknowledges how hard teaching can be. Foremost in her mind is accepting the responsibility for a group of young people and what they would learn from her and being conscious of what they would need as dancers.
Handling a class with as many as 20 students, Katherine tries to balance teaching broad concepts while also making it as individualized as possible to suit each child’s needs. “I love seeing a kid get it and sparking a different confidence in them. All you can hand them, as Ma’am Lisa would say it, is a backpack of tools. Here’s some confidence, some turnout, some grit and resilience… you give them things you’ve picked up and hope it helps them. At the end of the day, your teaching’s not just about ballet but about inspiring young people to live prolific, beautiful, creative lives in a world that’s telling you to just not do that.”
For Katherine herself, resilience is one of the tools she learned from her Philippine experience. As much as she can, she tries not to let her anything faze her, and it serves her well particularly when she is on tour. “So much can happen when you’re on your own – missing luggage, missed flights… When all this stuff happens, that’s when my Philippine training kicks in. Sometimes, I’m like, is it really me? Some days, when I’m complaining, I stop and think, You’ve been through worse. There’s no stress in the Philippines. Dressing room, no dressing room; toilet, no toilet, I’m good. I just make it work.”
Resourcefulness and practicality are traits she apparently also imbibed here and continues to fall back on. While The Washington Ballet may have better resources that allows her to use more supplies in her work, she doesn’t see it as a license to be wasteful. Instead, she finds herself making the most use of her gear, for example, her ballet slippers, which she sews and tapes even if new pairs are readily available. Yes, she has become Pinoy that way.
A few days before Tuloy ang Saya-wan, Katherine has been immersing in the little things she relished when she lived here. The day after she got back, for instance, she took a pedicab from the studio to Harrison Plaza so she could have a P200 massage from the masseur of choice of many BM dancers. It was an indulgence she thoroughly enjoyed, especially since a massage in the US costs nothing less than $100! While at the mall, she also made sure to grab a drink of lemonade from a familiar stand. Another treat has been getting to eat a local brand of peanut butter which had become her gooey favorite.
Asked what she has missed most about the Philippines, Katherine instantly replies: “The warmth. And not just the climate. There’s something so special about coming back to Manila because it was my home – my first home away from home – at 18 and a vulnerable time in my life. BM was the place that loved me when nothing was perfect and nothing was big yet; it was just that place where I was nurtured and loved.”
Even as she has re-adjusted to life back in the US and loves that her family is just a three-hour drive away, her thoughts often drift back to her years in Manila. Social media has allowed her to stay connected with the friends she made here and particularly with the mentor who will always be close to her heart – and who, Katherine says, she hears in her head every single day. This remains the one person whom she can consult at a moment’s notice and whose advice she hangs on to as she continues to grow in dance.
“I have this whole group of mentors from every part of the world which is so beautiful,” says Katherine. “But Ma’am Lisa’s so close because she believed in me when no one else did. And that’s why. And now, you know, I never feel pressured to make her proud or whatever, but there’s always that… she saw me before everybody else did. She believed in me and I hope I can return that favor by just continuing with my path. Because she gave me so much.”