Memory notwithstanding: Notes on PBT’s “Filipino Masterpieces”

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

by Joelle Jacinto

▶︎ Philippine Ballet Theatre (PBT) turns 30 this year, and the celebration was both onstage and online —former dancers relived the glory days through Guada de Leon Bas’ Facebook meme: post photos of your time with the company for 15 days and tag other PBT dancers. The nostalgia was tremendous, and the sharing of memories a heartwarming tribute to a ballet company that has braved odds and stands strong and steadfast to this day.

I joined PBT in 1993, and danced for the company off and on until 2013, spanning 20 of its 30 years. It is a joke that “everyone is my batchmate” because whenever I came back to PBT, there was a new batch of dancers to meet and share the stage with. PBT started this 30th anniversary season with Great Classics in July, presenting several classical pas de deux, the Act 2 of “Swan Lake,” and the divertissement from “Paquita.” September presented Filipino Masterpieces, namely Tony Fabella’s “Mantones de Manila,” and Gener Caringal’s “Vinta” and “Darangen ni Bantugen.” In November, PBT will reprise its Christmas favorite, Michel Chernov and Gelsey Kirkland’s The Nutcracker.

This indeed feels like a tribute anniversary season to this former dancer, as there is so much history in the choices of repertoire. I danced in “Swan Lake” in 1993 and 2010, and I still know all the parts of the corps de ballet of “Paquita” from performing it in 1996. I had danced in all three Filipino Masterpieces, and my favorite memories of the “Nutcracker” was whirling around in fake snow for Waltz of the Snowflakes.

Coming to watch Filipino Masterpieces with this level of anticipation was perhaps a bit unfair to the younger dancers. It didn’t help either that the gala kicked off with a special performance of Tony Fabella’s “Beautiful Girls,” featuring beautiful PBT ballerinas through the years: Maritoni Rufino Tordesillas, Liza de la Fuente Castaneda, Rosalie Carreon Zarate, Cathee Lee Roslovtsev, Guada de Leon Bas, Therese Arcinas Jaynario, Erica Marquez Jacinto. The reconnection of these former ballerinas went from Facebook to real life, and was so meaningful in its impact on that Saturday evening audience. This was PBT, and the legacy that nurtured these artists had undoubtedly persevered as all were still very much part of the Philippine dance scene.

So after all that, and then seeing the company onstage, it was very clear that the current crop of dancers were all very… well, young. This was most obvious when the aforementioned alumni performed again as Datu Magali’s wives in “Darangen” — the simplest of the mature movements were striking beside the still-raw port de bras of the younger maidens. My memories of the attack needed for “Vinta” spoiled my appreciation of the ala secondes of the new generation, as well as the delicacy needed for “Mantones.”

Though I must admit — memory is a tricky thing.
I had never seen “Mantones” onstage before I performed in it, and my initial memories of it are of the process of learning the dance. It was restaged by Katherine Sanchez-Trofeo, who had danced it before and was also dancing in that particular staging. She would tell us the reason for the dance and where the movements came from — it was choreographer Tony Fabella’s tribute to the main institutions he served during his dance career: “Sa Sala” was for Alice Reyes when he danced for her in what was then the CCP Dance Company, now Ballet Philippines; “Sa Piging” was for the Bayanihan (now) national folk dance troupe; and “Sa Entablado” was for PBT. The best part of the work was the costumes — designed and made by Tito Tony himself — lavish gowns and tutus that recall an opulent Spanish-Philippine era, accented by mantones in all three parts. While dancing, you get the feeling that the dance is just as opulent and rich, and how beautiful to be part of this grand work.

Seeing the ballet unfold onstage, however, is another matter. This is my second time to see “Mantones” from the audience — the first was in 2010, and I thought it was under-rehearsed and failed to deliver the opulence I had imagined. This second time, I have to admit that perhaps the opulence might have only been imagined — the lengthy passages dragged a bit, and while it evoked an era, it now seems like that period in time best seen in sepia photographs or short slow motion vignettes, and not in lengthy dance sequences.

Interestingly enough, I interviewed Tito Tony about “Mantones” in 2006 and he was not very excited to discuss this work; he preferred to discuss other works such as “Kundiman: Noon at Ngayon,” and “Marcha at Sayaw.”

He also talked about how simple his choreography is, and that the dancer should invest more emotion to the dance than to technique. Remembering this, I can see how this staging of “Mantones” ended up short — it was a flurry of steps without the emotion that Tito Tony required. A glaring example was the contrast of Mark Pineda’s brillo in “Sa Piging,” making the other men pale in comparison. Perhaps too much to ask of the young dancers?

My memory of “Vinta” is also dangerous to the viewing of this present one. As one of the small girls, I no longer begrudge Tito Gener’s preference for the tall girls, but perhaps it is not just height — given that Lisa Macuja-Elizalde was originally cast in this ballet — as it might be the ability to convey an unmistakable presence onstage. In that sense, it was the fullness of movement that was lacking from both Regina Magbitang and Peter San Juan.

While Magbitang impressively pushed her turns and extensions to maximum, it is simply the lack of the majestic opening of the arms which throws off the entire performance. She opens her arms sharply at each turn when it should be a voluptuous unfolding, abrupt only where the hands are flexed, slicing deliberately into the swelling music, when she should be a princess acknowledging the adoration of her people. Now, Magbitang is not a bad dancer — I have seen her at her best and recognize her gifts — but she did not shine in Filipino Masterpieces.

This is not her fault. She was dancing way too many things, which does not develop artistry very well; she wows technically, but she could have been advised to put her heart more into it. As Princess Datimbang, she hardly looks at Ian Ocampo as Prince Bantugen, not even in a shyly coy manner where she pretends humility in the face of a suitor. No, she just doesn’t look at him at all. And because of this simple omission, her Datimbang is forgettable.

The storytelling also did not help her purpose: Datimbang is the queen of her kingdom, yet none of her soldiers even try to protect her from the Angel of Death and they calmly watch as she takes on the scary figure herself.

Earlier in the narrative, Bantugen falls in love with Datimbang’s vision while she is supposed to be having visions of him too in the Kingdom between the two seas; yet when Diwata brings him to her, there is no impact of recognition, no indication that this meeting is rather significant in both their lives, therefore it was jarring how hard she lamented when the Angel of Death steals the Prince’s soul away. Errm, suddenly you’re in love, eh? In contrast, Prinsesa Magimar is an easier character to portray, and to this end, Joni Galeste was aptly voluptuous.

Ocampo surprises us with an unexpected sensitive heroism and saves the ballet by being the Bantugen that the epic song demands. Previous Bantugens were equally heroic, but less the brash playboy that was Jared Tan and the formidable leader that was Marvin Arizo. As for San Juan’s Mabaning, perhaps alternating for the role of Bantugen had rubbed off on him, as his Mabaning was far larger a character than I remember. It could also be that his rapport with new Angel of Death Jimmy Lizardo Lumba was smoother and more humorous, and as San Juan has always been funny, this just made it even more palpable with bigger movements and a seemingly bigger presence.

Now if only that came out in “Vinta.”

I had seen “Darangen” onstage before I got to perform it in 2008, and I find that my memory cannot be a measure of whether or not this work is perfect. Seeing it again, I realize it had some flaws, especially in the transitions that were either draggy or abrupt. For example, suddenly a bird appears out of nowhere, searching for Bantugen. Program notes advise us that this is Bantugen’s pet and companion, but not everyone reads (or buys!) the program. The mourning for Bantugen was sweet, but went on too long when at that point the audience would only want to see the exciting action-adventure part already. The gorgeous dance of the fairies ends with Bantugen unconscious at Diwata’s feet, making it so capricious of these fairies to thoughtlessly dance while the Prince lies dying.

These flaws must have always been there, but I had been busy changing costumes to really notice. That said, though it is not perfect, it is still one of the most important ballets in Philippine dance history, a triumphant translation of an epic chant into a more universal language that is able to present a culture inside the Philippines, and able to represent Philippine culture, all at once.

Beyond memory, there is the present. And right now we must state the obvious that while the company looks very strong as a whole, it’s obviously also still young. Already, newcomer Veronica Atienza is wowing everyone with her beautiful lines and secure technique, especially as a green girl in “Vinta,” and technically as Diwata in “Darangen” — though she was not quite Diwata yet.

I reckon she will still grow into this role, as will the other baby ballerinas and danseurs of PBT, just as we oldies grew up into who we are now, through PBT’s 30 years. It is interesting to see what lies ahead. ***

Joelle Jacinto was a soloist with Philippine Ballet Theatre, while also a critic with Runthru Dance Magazine and Malaya, school principal of TEAM Dance Studio, and a lecturer at the De La Salle College of St. Benilde. She is now based in Kuala Lumpur as a lecturer in dance for University of Malaya, and a dancer for Balletbase. She is pursuing a PhD in Philippine Studies at UP Diliman. This review was previously published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Oct 2016.