Alice Reyes, National Artist for Dance, as Lena Horne.
Words Sam L. Marcelo | Photography Kai Huang
It’s a gray and soggy Tuesday, the kind better spent in bed. Alice Reyes is sitting in a makeup chair, humming along to Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather.” In an e-mail, the Ballet Philippines founder and National Artist for Dance, confessed that she had, for the longest time, wanted to be like the sultry jazz singer. “Horne was a formidable woman,” Ms. Reyes said. “She had a voice that sent shivers down your spine as it caressed the highest ceiling moldings in New York’s theaters.”
A consummate professional who rejected stereotypes, Horne paved the way for black entertainers as she danced, sang, and enchanted audiences in an America that was still racially segregated. Her career spanned some 60 years, beginning in the 1930s. “Lena Horne has certainly been one of my ‘what ifs’ and ‘if I coulds’ since I join many who secretly wish they could sing beyond the bathroom,” said Ms. Reyes, who caught Horne’s final one-woman show on Broadway. “She must have been in her 70s then. She was gorgeous as she sang one song after the other. It just got better and better. Everyone was standing and the audience just wouldn’t let her go. I was fortunate to experience that moment—when you catch it, you know that it won’t happen again. Lena was a unique artist.”
Ms. Reyes knows that these “moments” are the stuff of magic. She’s had several of them herself during her 20-year reign as both artistic director and president of Ballet Philippines (BP). The rock opera ballets she staged in the Cultural Center of the Philippines were massive hits that filled the Main Theater down to its aisles. “There’s nothing better for a dancer or a performing artist to see that,” she said in a previous conversation.
Ms. Reyes still has those moments, more intimate but no less magical. Several summers ago, on a river cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest, she and her four sisters entertained fellow passengers with an impromptu concert that escalated into a full-on sing-along. “That was fun. I can harmonize when I’m in a group,” said the BP founder, who has always been proud of the fact that an orchestra score is more legible to her than a financial spreadsheet. Somewhere out there is footage of the Reyes sisters serenading the Danube with Beatles songs. Of the five siblings, only Ms. Reyes was lucky enough to take singing lessons under their mother, Adoracion Garcia-Reyes, a pianist and coloratura soprano with a double degree in music and voice from the University of the Philippines. “None of them experienced that special relationship,” she said.
There’s a pause, then, filled up by Lena Horne, who is still asking why there’s no sun up in the sky. Rain starts to pelt the studio’s windows in earnest and the sound stirs another memory. “When I was choreographing Cinderella, the weather was like this—stormy.” At a recent dinner, several BP dancers reminded Ms. Reyes that she had made them practice in candlelit darkness. They are able to laugh about it now: how the downpour was so bad that there was a power outage in the rehearsal hall and how Ms. Reyes, armed with a flashlight, counted off the steps to music from a portable tape recorder. “I even told them to bring toothbrushes and blankets because they weren’t going home. They were in total disbelief.” It’s a timely bout of nostalgia since BP is restaging Ms. Reyes’s Cinderella this November. “It’ll be fun to see it again under bright lights.”
Forever on repeat, Lena Horne is crooning about the pittering, pattering, beating, and spattering that’s driving her mad. It’s time for Ms. Reyes to get in front of the camera and she obliges the photographer. Horne had a beautiful smile, chiseled cheekbones, and fabulous round eyes—eyes that Ms. Reyes, a consummate professional like Horne, wants to get right. “Am I making life hard for you?,” she asks. After several snaps, Ms. Reyes finally nods in approval. “Stormy Weather” stops playing and unlike Lena Horne, who has been singing about gloom and misery everywhere, Ms. Reyes has a lot to look forward to: the arrival of her first grandchild, the restaging of Cinderella, and the formal ceremony recognizing her as a National Artist for Dance. As she’s leaving, she’s asked what she thinks of the honor. “I’m still the same person,” she answers. And with that, she steps out of the studio and into the city, where it keeps raining all the time.
Styling Soleil Angeles for Miss Kaycee. Hair and makeup Ish Sison.