We sit down with the lovely Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and the dancers behind the American Stars Gala – a one-time performance that brings together some of the greatest artists in today’s ballet landscape. Read on what they have to say about the gala performance, a day in a dancer’s life, and how young people should perceive ballet in today’s digital lifestyle.

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Philippine Tatler: Tell us what makes tomorrow evening’s performance special for Filipino audiences? 

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde: Tommorow evening, it’s called American Stars Gala because it features dancers from the Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, and our resident American guest artists in Ballet Manila. We have a line-up of classical pas de deux, at the same time, we are backed up by a full ballet company. We will be featuring two premieres by choreographer, George Birkadze – the adagio to the coda of the second act of Swan Lake and the Philippine premiere of Stanton Welch’s choreography of Madame Butterfly. There will be a lot of pieces that got our dancers awards from the recently concluded Jackson International Ballet Competition. So, It’s a really exciting evening; one Ballet highlight after another.

PT: What’s a typical day for a dancer, specially these days you are preparing for a performance?

Hannah Bettes: We’ve just been in and out of studios for rehearsals – so more of an atypical day, really, since we are busy rehearsing on-stage and off.

PT: Have you had a chance to walk around the city? 

Hannah Bettes: We haven’t had tons of time yet, however – 

Lia Cirio: We’ll have time off on Sunday before we leave, so we will try to visit a beach, hopefully.

PT: What would you consider to be key essentials for a ballet performer? 

Junxiong Zhao: I think it is musicality, flexibility, and coordination.

Lia Cirio: I believe it’s a drive – to work hard, to want this career – because it’s difficult. A soul – to project different roles and project the feeling of the piece.

Katherine Barkman: A typical day would be composed of a class, followed by rehearsals for whatever you’re going to perform. The things that are important to me as a dancer would be dedication – you have to be really dedicated to be a dancer because you have to go through the same things every single day. Passion – which follows the former, you really have to love what you do. And lastly, is a sense of selflessness. It’s important you realise the responsibility that you have to share your art on stage. It’s bigger than just yourself.

PT: What made you fall in love with ballet in the first place?

Jared Matthews: I personally didn’t like ballet. I started as a tap dancer, so I wanted to go that route. I was very influenced by Gene Kelly and for me, that was the thing to do – more Broadway and show tunes. But I was told to do ballet to make my tap better.

So when I started doing ballet, and saw the film Turning Point (1977) and watched [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, then I realised what a male ballet dancer can be. That was when I changed my trajectory. Even to this day I still love tap. Whenever I see a tap number, it inspires me to be a better ballet dancer.

Yuriko Kajiya: When I started, just like Jared, I didn’t like ballet very much. I’m from Japan and at age 10, I moved to China and joined a Shanghai dance school – I still didn’t like ballet at that point. It took my around three years to like it.

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Above Jarred Matthews
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Above Yuriko Kajiya

As a child, I think I liked that fact that after practice you get a reward from your teacher, based on how much you improved. That made me want to practice more, and by doing that, I just started to draw into dancing. So since then, I just loved it.

PT: For the young audiences of today – who are often engrossed in digital media/ entertainment – do you have any tips as to how a young person would enjoy ballet or how you would encourage them to watch a ballet performance?

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde: First of all, what a young person engaging in social media should know about ballet is that… right now, with all this Instagram and Youtube videos, ballet is just about doing multiple pirouettes or doing a beautiful pose underneath a tree. That’s what young people think ballet is all about, but it’s not, it’s an art form.

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You train your body from a very young age in order to create the lines, to dance and move to the music, to make it easy and light. Young people shouldn’t be confused about what ballet is. They should go to a performance as opposed to simply watching videos online. A lot of dances today are from competitions and people forget that these are variations from a story ballet.

Again, it is an art form, a storytelling on-stage. It is movement to music, it is the epitome of all the performing and visual arts in one stage.

You get the work of visual artists, choreography, composers, musicians, lighting designers, you get the vision of the artistic director, and you get all these individual magical performances from dancers who bring in their own years of experience and training into one performance.

George Birkadze: If I may add something… if you think about the ballet, you go to Europe, all ballet companies are royal. In England, you have the Royal Ballet of Flanders. If you go to Russia, it is always royal – it’s a top art. Before people didn’t have DVD or internet, so that [ballet] was the entertainment – to see stories – it was the Hollywood, the movies. My point is that art changed a little bit, but the concept of the story and the magic of the performance is very royal and high level. That’s why kings want to watch it, and we are still trying to conserve that.

You have to think that a ballet is an antique form. People go to museums… they can also go here and see how the ballet has progressed. You can see the same composition performed differently across time, it is truly entertaining. So, it’s not just something as simple as a dance. The value of a [ballet] dancer it not just technique, he has to be an artist, an actor. It’s not just coordination – interpretation is important – it’s how you live your role on stage. That should be interesting for young audiences to see in life [and not simply, on screen].

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The American Stars Gala is directed by Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and George Birkadze. The performance features Boston Ballet’s Lia Cirio and Junxiong Zhao, Houston Ballet’s Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews, and guest artists, Joseph Philips and Katherine Barkman.

To know more about the performances by Ballet Manila, you can visit: balletmanila.com.ph or follow them on Instragram: @balletmanilaClick here to know more about the Boston Ballet and the Houston Ballet

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