Dances with wordsTeam Fort Bonifacio High School
Mary Bernadette dela Cruz
Divine Grace Ellana
Jude Lorenz Francisco
Irene G. Aquino (coach)
Whenever we hear the word “ballet,” instantly the name Lisa Macuja comes to mind.
We chose Lisa Macuja-Elizalde as our dream interviewee owing to her success as an international artist, particularly in classical ballet. Also, we like it that ballet is not what kids of our generation usually talk about. It is, as they say, “the road less taken.”
The prima ballerina managed to sit down with us for this project despite her hectic schedule.
She said she was busy preparing for her retirement in 2014. Her retirement doesn’t really mean she will be cut off from ballet. She said she would just ease herself out of major roles.
We took the “retirement” information for granted until we saw her on the morning of the interview, walking from her glass house inside a huge, beautiful garden to where we were. What retirement was she talking about? We felt like asking her: “Have you found the fountain of youth?”
Here we share what interested us the most from our dream interview.
FBHS: Who brought you into ballet?
Macuja-Elizalde: It was my mom (Susan Pacheco-Macuja). She studied ballet when she was 13 years old and she really wanted to get into it seriously, but ballet was banned by the Papal Nuncio. It was considered indecent and a sin for girls to get into. So, when she had me, I was the second child and the first daughter, she enrolled me in ballet class. I was Grade 2 at St. Theresa’s College, Quezon City …
What made me like ballet was I was good at it (laughs) … I got inspired when I was 14 by a performance by Yoko Morishita, the prima ballerina of Japan. I saw that she was an Asian petite prima ballerina dancing “Swan Lake,” one of the most romantic European classic ballets of all time. I thought that I would try to go for my dream, which was to become a classical ballerina.
How were you able to get the scholarship to Russia?
That one was a stroke of luck, and the best decision that I ever made in my life (laughs)! My dad (Cesar Macuja) was undersecretary of trade and industry at that time and he was not very much in favor of his eldest daughter going into a ballet career. He wanted me to become an accountant like all the accountants in my family. My dad handled a trade delegation from Moscow and at that time, I had already auditioned and got a place in a ballet school in London. I have also been accepted into the summer program of San Francisco Ballet School and in other places.
At that time, I had made a deal with my parents that after graduating from high school, I would devote two years just to train and dance ballet. If I did not succeed after two years, I would go back to college.
And then, this trade delegation came and my dad mentioned that his daughter was into ballet and so the head of the trade delegation at that time said, “Well, if she wants to continue her ballet education, why not put her into the best ballet school in the world?” He meant the Leningrad Choreographic School in Russia named after Agrippina Vaganova. … Leningrad is now St. Petersburg.
What challenges did you encounter as a young ballet scholar in Russia ?
(Sighs ) First, being cut off from the lifestyle and family that you have been used to all your life.
You have to remember that this was 1982, so it was still the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and it was still communist. … Stores did not always have the stocks that you needed. For example, chicken was delivered on a certain day, and there would be a long line for chicken. If butter was delivered that day, there’d be a long line for the butter. You know, it was a completely different kind of life. Plus I had no friends, I had no family.
I did not know the language, the culture or the kind of environment that I would be getting into. I felt completely and utterly lost except for the ballet. … But the ballet training was also harder. I had to start almost from scratch. I had to catch the Vaganova (Russian classical ballet) method, which is a different kind of training in classical ballet. Before that, I had trained in the English way of dancing.
That first year in Russia was the most difficult year of my life.
What are the pains and gains of being a ballerina?
Anybody who works with their body and pushes their body to its physical limits will always be living with pain. … I’ve had my share of injuries.
… There’s also the mental and emotional stress that you get when you are a live performer. Live performance is different because you get one chance to do what you have to practice most of your life to do. You have to put off some of your dreams. You have to make the right choices.
The gains are obviously in the feeling that you get and the sense of accomplishment and success that you get after each and every performance. And of course, it’s not just the satisfaction of being able to perform and practice with heart and passion. There’s also some monetary gain, you know. If you get good enough that people are willing to buy tickets to watch you dance, then fantastic! You’re able to make a living out of something that you don’t really consider a job.
Why did you put up your own ballet company?
I was fired (laughs). So I had two options: Go abroad and continue my dance career abroad or stay and put up my own company. I put up my own company and 12 members of my former ballet company came with me. I was fortunate to already have a reputation and a name as a dancer. When I put up my own company, which is Ballet Manila, there was an audience that came to our shows.
It was very difficult because we were starting from scratch. We didn’t even have a studio. We didn’t have a theater of our own. … I was doing marketing, sponsor hunting, teaching, dancing—I was wearing so many hats. But, you know, Ballet Manila, even before I became Mrs. Fred Elizalde, had extremely productive years. We went to Russia, we went to New York, we performed all over the archipelago, in Isulan, Marbel, all these little towns, from Abra to Zamboanga (laughs).
We would take the Super Ferry. We’d dance on top of soft drink crates (laughs). … But it was really fun and we got a lot of support. And then came Fred and things became a lot easier after we had a benefactor. We’re able to put up really high-caliber production. We’re not a touring company anymore, we have a home.
How did you convince children from poor families to be in ballet?
Well, it’s really something that they won’t even think of because, you know, these kids don’t even get to eat three times a day so what more pa dance ballet? Project Ballet Futures basically got its name four years ago but it has been an ongoing program of mine. It started as the Lisa Macuja Ballet Scholarships for male dancers way back in 1994 or 1993. In fact, even before Ballet Manila has begun, I had started teaching ballet at the porch of my house in Quezon City.
We have been giving ballet scholarships in Ballet Manila School for a long time but Project Ballet Futures—with food, equipment, training, transportation, all of that—became a formal program four years ago.
How do you advise your students to inspire them?
Basically, because I have the opportunity, I try to teach my students as much as I can, and give them opportunities to dance as much as I can.
Now, for the general population, I have three pieces of advice.
First, always decide as early as possible if you want to become a professional dancer. It’s something that you have to start training every day when you’re very young.
Second, you have to find the best school, teacher or mentor who will be able to teach you and give you a good foundation of classical ballet technique. Normally, these teachers are supposed to have had at least five or six years of professional ballet experience, as a company mentor or a soloist for a ballet company.
Third, once you have decided, you have to commit your time and your energy. You work hard, really work hard. And it has to be regular disciplined work. Not every day for two months and then you’ll stop; it has to be a continuous process. In order for that pirouette to get faster, or that jump to get higher, you’ll go through a lot of physical pain and discomfort and sweat. Don’t be afraid of sweat.
How would you like to be remembered?
Well, first of all, I think my name is often misspelled so, please, it is Lisa with an “s”.
Seriously, I’d like to be remembered as a prima ballerina of the Philippines who may have been Russian-trained but devoted most of her life being an international ballet artist based in the Philippines, representing her country in this very Western but universal art form and excelling in it. And I want to be remembered for my legacy, which is Ballet Manila.