View from the Wing
THE INCOMPARABLE SWANS IN MANILA’S BALLET SCENE
By Pablo A. Tariman
When the curtain rises for the last weekend run of Swan Lake March 4 and 5 at the CCP, Filipino balletomanes will once again call to mind the earlier exposure to dance of Filipino audiences to visiting Russian artists.
Swan Lake was first seen at Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877.
The late dance chronicler Ronnie Alejandro (who used to dance and choreograph) wrote that one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, Anna Pavlova, also danced at the original Manila Grand Opera House in 1922, some two years before she announced her retirement.
One outstanding Filipino figure in dance also in awe of Russian artists is Maniya Barredo, who had a triumphant reign as prima ballerina of Atlanta Ballet in the United States.
While Maniya was in awe of Russian artists, she was herself an object of generous praises coming from them. Performing in Cuba for the first time in a dance festival that featured the world’s best dancers, Maniya not only attracted the Cubans but the Russian dancers present in the festival.
Dancing Romeo and Juliet in the first part of the program in one theatre, she created a sensation forcing Russian teachers and choreographers Natalia Dudinskaya and Konstantin Sergeyev to leave the theatre where Gelshey Kirkland was dancing Giselle and proceeded to where the Filipino was dancing Juliet.
Two great Russian dancers identified with Swan Lake are two great prima ballerina assolutas — Natalia Makarova who danced at the CCP in 1979 and Maya Plisetskaya who did her signature Dying Swan also at the CCP in 1982.
I recently watched a video of Makarova before her retirement. She said her dance life wasn’t all about flowers and applause. It was also about disasters on the ballet stage.
She started at the corps de ballet, was asked to fill in for a sick member and ended up doing a funny version of a parrot dance she never rehearsed. “I was called to the office of the director and I thought my dance career was over. He said I was being promoted from corps de ballet member to soloist.”
Her first Odette (Swan Lake) was marred by a creaking elevator at the Bolshoi Theater while audiences were being given an illusion of a swan swimming through the lake. “The Russian elevators then were not as good as they were today where you just push a button and you are up or down anywhere quickly without noise. My swan pose became a trembling one when the elevator floor started making strange noises and the music that I heard was not anything from Swan Lake.”
In 1982 some three years after performing in Manila, Makarova was injured in an accident during a performance at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
She was hurt when a pipe that was part of the scenery fell and hit her as she was dancing in a revival of “On Your Toes,” the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical. She was struck by the pipe during the second act, at the beginning of the “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” ballet sequence. The rest of the performances were cancelled.
When I interviewed her in 1979 on the CCP main theater stage, she started with an apology, “Excuse me but I speak poor English.”
Beside her was her dancing partner – the then 21-year-old Patrick Bissell – a well-proportioned hunk of a man who was also a favorite partner of other great ballerinas like Leslie Browne, Cynthia Gregory, Gelsey Kirkland, Jolina Menendez and Martine van Hamel.
Amidst the eerie Giselle graveyard props, Makarova talked about her true love which was dancing, her fate after the defection from Russia and how she managed between dancing and motherhood.
After her dramatic defection in 1970, she changed a lot according to her.
“Life is like that and it’s true to me. Careers, images, traditions change – and so have I. I didn’t have a hard time trying to get a job. When I defected, it was just timely because at that time, a dance company was in need of a new name and they found me.”
Does she live her role to do well in the dance medium?
“That’s not necessary. Suppose you play the role of a madwoman, do you have to be like that in real life? I’ve lived through some of my roles. To concentrate on one role, I listen to the music the night before the performance. There is nothing like music. It stimulates me, it gives me joy, it makes me cry, too.”
Makarova explained how she transforms herself for a particular role.
“It is very much an inner vision for me. The change for the role starts within me. You can’t afford to lose control. Art is art. When it’s inside you as in a role in Giselle, I put the skin of Giselle in me. It is a role you perfect by experience, by constant practice and unending search for artistry. You just have to be involved.”
In the last rehearsals before opening night for excerpt from Giselle, I watched her movements and I was gradually carried away by the way she essayed lyricism in the dance medium. Her turns were swift but luminously graceful, her leaps were like a giraffe caught in slow motion by a movie camera. She was quite a sight. When she wanted certain parts of the accompaniment right, she hummed with the orchestra and made suggestions on the way. “That’s wrong, that’s wrong. Stretch that a little, just a little before my exit.”
When she was in Paris 1978 eight years after her defection, she saw her friends at Kirov for the first time after nine years and she unabashedly confessed, “I cried on the second act of Swan Lake.”
In 2012, Makarova was one of the honorees in the annual Kennedy Center Honors along with bluesman Buddy Guy, actor Dustin Hoffman, television host David Letterman and rock band Led Zeppelin.
When asked if she considered herself Russian or American, Makarova replied in her native Russian tongue answered simply. “I am a ballerina. For me ballet has no borders, no barriers – it’s a universal art form. I am a dancer of this planet.”
Filipino danseur Nonoy Froilan who is re-staging Swan Lake March 4 and 5 had an uncanny recollection of Makarova: “As a ballet great, we expected her to be very demanding but she wasn’t at all. She has a way of getting what she wants without flaring up. She is very receptive no matter how advanced her training is from us. When she’s late for rehearsals, she apologizes. And she listens to corrections. Young as we are in the CCP Dance, she goes down to our level to work out certain differences. She knows how to adjust to limitations.”