The resilient Ballet Philippines has maintained its focus through its 45-year history. Amidst the leaps and falls of recent history and even through a recent typhoon (the opening night of Giselle was plagued by Typhoon Mario in Manila), the company has affixed its creative eye on presenting an eclectic and growing repertoire ranging from full-length classical ballets and internationally recognized masterworks to interpretations of Filipino folklore, historical and contemporary social issues.
I recently had extended conversations with two leaders of Ballet Philippines: Margie Moran-Floirendo, president of the company, and Paul Alexander Morales, artistic director. I learned with admiration and fascination, through their stories, reflections and insights, not only of their evolution as dancers and growth with Ballet Philippines, but also how the company has remained strong through the years.
Margie Moran-Floirendo: Grace And Grit
Margie and I were high school classmates at St. Theresa's College (Manila) in the ‘70s. At a time when most teenage girls feel physically awkward, I have an image of Margie keeping a dancer's posture, standing taller than most of us, from 7:15 in the morning to 4:15 in the afternoon, even through sweaty P.E. classes and disheveled afternoon hair.
Another high school and then college friend, Christine Dorffi Billings, recalls, “For as long as I’ve known her, Margie has been a dancer. She's not only a wonderful natural dancer, I always thought of her as a jazz dancer – she has the moves! At St. Theresa’s, it seemed like Margie was the ‘hot’ avant-garde jazz dancer while Karen Ilagan, one of her best friends, was the ‘cool’ classical ballet advocate.”
Karen Ilagan Aegerter, who remembers doing a jazz number with Margie to the music of Led Zepellin's “Whole Lotta Love,” says she has “a lot of love and respect for this incredible and intelligent woman” who has continued being the same loyal and wonderful friend before and beyond her becoming Miss Universe. “If I were to be face-to-face with the members of Ballet Philippines, I would say that what she is doing is out of pure love and passion for this incredible art form that is dance!”
Forty-two years after high school, I discover a side of Margie beyond our awkward youthful years – a philanthropic and generous side. She leverages her beauty queen reputation towards social change. In the ‘90s, she redefined Davao's Kadawayan Festival beauty contest into a cultural showcase of indigenous bianeng women's talents and diverse dialects. In 2003, she co-edited Mindanao on the Mend (with Eliseo R. Mercado), profiling four Mindanao communities as they answered a call for peace. She has also engaged Muslim women weavers in Central Mindanao, whose textile art works were turned into shawls. Margie was part of the Mindanao Commission on Women, a vehicle for Muslim, Christian and indigenous women leaders to influence public policy and public opinion about peace and development. It participated in Women's Peace Table dialogues with Bangsamoro women from the three Islamized tribes (Maguindanao, Maranao and Tausug).
Today, as president of Ballet Philippines, her leadership skills are called back to the dance world. She is responsible for the company's fundraising, ensuring that 200 scholarships are awarded annually, allowing low-income youth to study at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Dance School, where Ballet Philippines is housed.
Margie firmly believes that the arts supplement youth education: “We cannot and should not separate art and academics. Art reflects the spirit of who we are as a nation. We can construct bridges and erect buildings as much as we want but it is through our art that we become strong. The talent is so great here. When we learn to appreciate our own art, we can establish pride in our national identity. There’s apparently more funding going towards sports (which is also important). We need to elevate the support for the arts to the same level.”
When she was a board member of Habitat for Humanity, Margie recalls visiting different low-income neighborhoods. “Poverty does not stop Filipinos from dancing in the streets. The ‘fiesta atmosphere’ is something we manage to maintain, even in the face of daily challenges.”
Ballet Philippines tries to nurture young people who feel they have a calling to pursue dance as a career. It is no wonder that Margie Moran-Floirendo's leadership has been called on to serve this innovative, cutting-edge dance company. The former Miss Universe has truly mastered the art of “spotting,” managing through the years to keep her eyes and her heart focused on what truly matters in her world. She has continued to shape her life's work beyond physical beauty queen values, modeling the art of human kindness.
“I strive to do my part to improve people's lives,” she contends.
Paul Alexander Morales: Flying Against The Wind
Ballet Philippines' artistic director Paul Alexander Morales “grew up” with the company. With the support of his mentor, former artistic director Denisa Reyes, Paul got a scholarship for the Laban Center in London and had the opportunity to study dance in England.
When he turned 18, Denisa asked him if he wanted to be the premier danseur or be a choreographer. He replied, “No, I want to be artistic director!” In 2012, his aspiration was fulfilled.
Today, Paul is a multi-disciplinary artist. He is a dancer, choreographer, theater director and filmmaker. Oftentimes, artists specialize in one discipline and dabble in other art forms. Not so with Paul. It seems he has managed to excel in whatever medium he chooses. His first feature film, “Concerto: A Davao War Movie” (2008, CineMalaya Foundation), received rave reviews in venues like the San Francisco International Film Festival and has been compared to the work of seminal Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. As a theater artist, he founded Dulaang Talyer, an experimental theater company, for which he was artistic director until 2002.
But Paul's first love is dance. “I will choose dance at any opportunity. Like film and theater, dance is a highly collaborative art form. You work with librettists, musicians, designers.” Ballet Philippines' next production, A Midsummer Night's Dream, will be multi-media. At every turn, this well-rounded artist intends to meld his three loves in his works.
He says, Ballet Philippines represents “many colors, many histories.”
“We make a conscious effort to uphold our Filipino cultural identity. Dances are rooted in neo-ethnic styles, integrating indigenous moves from Muslim dance and various traditional dance forms. Our repertoire is distinctly Filipino, which also means it is highly multicultural as a result of Filipino culture and history having many influences.”
“When the company decides to do classical,” Paul explains, “we go really classical!” The recent fundraising gala featured Giselle with Stella Abrera, theFilipina American soloist for the American Ballet Theater.
Reflecting on Ballet Philippines' beginnings, Paul attributes the company's eclectic dance approach to its founder Alice Reyes, whose dance background included dancing with the Bayanihan Dance Company and studying under Merce Cunningham (one of the major forces in modern dance). The company's North American tour will include a section called “Tambol At Padiyak” which will feature a reprise of Alice Reyes' suites danced to Filipino folk songs sung by the Madrigal Singers. As well, Tony Fabella's energetic choreography will showcase dancers wearing bakya (wooden slippers), an amalgam of hip hop as well as street movements like the kembot, a flirtatious way of walking with exaggerated hip movements.
Paul's decisions as artistic director are made collaboratively. He works with the choreographers and is close to the former artistic directors. He engages the artists through writing, designing and brainstorming with choreographers. Even Margie drops in every day to confer with him, but steps back to give him the creative space. The collaborations include international artists. For example, The Blue Moon Series features masterworks and acclaimed award-winning works with special international guest artists such as Hong Kong-based Filipino choreographer Carlo Pascis and Norman Walker of Arizona Ballet Theater (who has strong connections with Jacob's Pillow).
Being at the helm of a creative company also means one deals with the storms of living as an artist everyday. The key is constant communication. After all, Paul says, “who was it who said you can't fly a kite unless you go against the wind?”
Marlina Gonzalez is a Minneapolis-based writer, curator and arts consultant for theater, film and new media. She is a 2012 Joyce Awardee in Theater and named one of The 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in The U.S. as an Innovator & Thought Leader by Filipina Women's Network (2009).