NEWS that a Russian will become the new artistic director of Ballet Philippines (BP), replacing National Artist Alice Reyes after her term ends in March, has sparked a social media uproar in cultural circles, inspiring a petition and a demand that the appointment be rescinded.

“We the Ballet Philippines community, dance artists, alumni, and artistic team, are united in the belief that Ballet Philippines is Filipino, for the Filipinos, and by Filipinos,” declares a statement addressed “To the Ballet Philippines Foundation, Inc. Board of Trustees,” which has been spread through social media with the hashtag #WeAreBalletPhilippines.

“We call on the Board to revoke the appointment of the foreign national Mr. Mikhail Martynyuk as Artistic Director,” it continues.

There is also a petition asking the BP Board to “to rescind or revise the contract offered to a Russian artist from a position as Artistic Director to another honored artist position in Ballet Philippines and to keep the position of Artistic Director Filipino.” It has garnered 2,558 signatures as of posting.

BP’s Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Mikhail “Misha” Martynyuk in a memo dated Feb. 8. Mr. Martynyuk is a star dancer of The Kremlin Ballet theater and holds the honorary title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation which was given to him in 2011.

While Mr. Martynyuk is no stranger to the Philippines, having performed as a guest artist with Ballet Manila on several occasions since 2012, he has never performed with Ballet Philippines.

And it is this unfamiliarity with BP’s DNA which has raised both eyebrows and voices.

Ballet Philippines has unique status in the local ballet world. Founded by Ms. Reyes, with the support of Eddie Elejar, in 1969, it is both a classical and contemporary dance company, with a vast and varied repertoire of about 500 pieces, from full-length classical ballets to uniquely Filipino contemporary classics like Amada and Itim Asu. The Cultural Center of the Philippines’ website — BP is one of its resident companies — describes the company as “widely recognized today as a cornerstone of the Filipino cultural identity” and as being “globally recognized as the country’s flagship company in ballet and contemporary dance.”

Ms. Reyes, a National Artist for Dance who served as BP’s artistic director for its first 20 years until 1989, returned to BP in 2017 to supervise the celebration of the company’s 50th season.

What has cultural workers most dismayed is that a resolutely Filipino company will be led by a non-Filipino.

As educator Cecilia Manika wrote in a Facebook post: “… the Artistic Director (AD) as soul and inspirational leader of the whole company must be Filipino! That has been and always will be because we own the right to be Filipino in theme, style, and inspiration. All foreign artists are welcome to collaborate as ballet masters, guest artists, what have you… but the company’s soul cannot be relinquished to another nationality. How can foreign nationalities dig deep into our own literature, our own historical past, or immerse themselves into the life and culture of indigenous tribes so as to derive inspiration for a new dance that expresses culture or heritage? Artistic Directors do that… Will he be as passionate as an Agnes Locsin or Alice Reyes or for that matter Rolando Tinio or Ryan Cayabyab, national artists who have collaborated with Ballet Philippines for original Filipino works?”

Sharifa Pearlsia P. Ali-Dans, assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior and Local Government, commented on one of the many posts on the matter: “The name is Ballet Philippines so why in heaven’s name has the Board appointed a foreigner? In other countries, they are so nationalistic. Don’t we have a Filipino First policy? Are we so bereft of Filipino talents that we have a foreign national as artistic director and still call it Ballet Philippines?”

Dance scholar Ricca Bautista, who worked with Alice Reyes on her book on BP, wrote: “We do not need a Russian artistic director to legitimize Ballet Philippines. Philippine ballet belongs to the Filipinos… I maintain that appointing a RUSSIAN director for Ballet Philippines after its 50th year is a blatant RECOLONIZATION of a dance form that has flourished in the country for over a century through Filipinization… It reeks of the belief that a Filipino is not good enough to lead our own ballet.”

“Ballet Philippines should celebrate and promote Filipino talent in order to be the national flagship in ballet and contemporary dance,” the #WeAreBalletPhilippines statement says. “By appointing Mr. Martynyuk, the Board overlooks the legacy, essence, and artistic mandates of Ballet Philippines, which has resonated with countless artists and audience members globally for the past 50 years.

“We ask the Board of Ballet Philippines Foundation, Inc. for a dialogue with the community, dance artists, alumni, and artistic team, who have created and continue to create this legacy, so that we may all work together towards further cementing Ballet Philippines’ place in the international stage,” it ends.