Arts & Leisure

By Sam L. Marcelo, High Life Associate Editor

Start small but start well: Alice Reyes and Ballet Philippines

Posted on June 25, 2014

FROM THE BUSINESSWORLD ARCHIVES: This article originally appeared in BusinessWorld on November 23, 2012.

Alice Reyes in her home.
A RED shoe announced the presence of Alice Reyes as she eased herself down the staircase of her home in Mandaluyong City. Then, red pants, a wrist adorned by a red watch, followed by a mostly red top. Finally, the sartorial symphony in red gave way to a leonine mane -- more salt than pepper -- swept away from a face punctuated by a red lip and a pair of kohl-rimmed eyes. Her name is on almost every poster, every program and every press release circulated by Ballet Philippines.

"Founded in 1969 by Alice Reyes with the support of Eddie Elejar and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ballet Philippines (BP) is widely recognized today as a cornerstone of the Filipino cultural identity" is a coda to anything from the dance company. You forget that there is a living, breathing woman behind the name "Alice Reyes." Of her it was written: "The story of Ballet Philippines... is the story of Alice Reyes."

In response to being told that she is a legend, she laughs and says, "No, no. I'm Alice. What's your name?" The illusion shatters and Ms. Reyes --"Alice" -- becomes a person. Albeit a person with the kind of dignified posture that shames others into straightening their backs and lengthening their necks while basking in reflected glory.

Alice Reyes, who served as both artistic and president of BP for 20 years, is taking a break from Chrysara, her design company, to oversee the restaging of Rama, Hari, a rock opera ballet based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The production expands on the Philippine ballets based on mythology, history, and literature she had previously choreographed. "Ramayana was wonderful to go into because it gave me a chance to do something from an Asian perspective rather than just a Filipino one," she explained, adding that she did research on theatrical forms found in Indonesia and Malaysia.

When it premiered in 1980, Rama, Hari was a raving success. How could it not be with a creative team that included Ryan Cayabyab (music), and National Artists Bienvenido Lumbera and Salvador "Badong" Bernal (libretto and set design, respectively). Edna Vida, Ms. Reyes's younger sister, danced the role of Soorphanaka, a comic part made difficult by many acrobatic lifts. Nonoy Froilan, Ms. Vida's partner in dance and in life, was both Rama and Ravana.

"Being in Rama, Hari was glorious. I remember the CCP (Cultural Center of the Philippines) being filled up to the aisles night after night," Ms. Vida said in an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld. People lined up to see the show, which featured singers such as Basil Valdez, Kuh Ledesma and Leo Valdez. "It became the talk of the town," continued Ms. Vida. "I was proud to be part of it."

The success of Rama, Hari was nothing new to Ms. Reyes, who had a Midas touch. She had already scored hits with Tommy in 1972 and Tales of the Manuvu in 1977. "We had gotten spoiled since we knew there was a market for it," said Ms. Reyes, referring to rock opera ballets. "It was a good way to bring in an audience that would not normally see either a classical ballet or a contemporary piece. It's always fun to present another style of dance and theater. You always experiment and try to do things that you haven't done."

After putting a rock band on stage for Tommy, Ms. Reyes brought in a full orchestra for Rama, Hari.

"I can't be too glib," she adds after a moment. "Of course it's wonderful when you draw the curtains and there are people sitting all the way down the aisles. There's nothing better for a dancer or a performing artist to see that."

Born October 1942, Ms. Reyes is the daughter of Ricardo Reyes, dubbed "Mr. Philippine Folk Dance," and Adoracion Garcia-Reyes. Both her parents were pianists with music degrees from the University of the Philippines. Her mother had a double degree in voice. Ms. Reyes is the eldest in an artistically inclined brood of five. Her sister Cecille is a pianist with perfect pitch, while Denisa and Edna Vida are also dancer-choreographers.

"Dance was always a part of our life, so was singing," said Ms. Reyes. "We grew up with our mother giving voice lessons right in our little sala. Our house was full of song and we'd push furniture around so we could dance."

At the age of four, Ms. Reyes was performing with her father in front of dignitaries visiting Malacanang. Together, they were the "father-daughter Philippine dance team." After being invited to join what is now known as the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company, Ms. Reyes and "Mr. Philippine Folk Dance" traveled around the country, entertaining people who were impressive but nameless to the little girl.

At her mother's insistence, Ms. Reyes's ballet lessons with Rosalia Merino and, later, Greta Monserrat, were accompanied by piano and painting, the latter under Araceli "Cheloy" Dans. The holistic education paid off, giving her an ear for music and an eye for design. "I'm very musical - that's something I'm not modest about. It's very hard for me when somebody doesn't know when a phrase begins and a phrase ends. They can't hear the musical phrasing and it's like nails on chalkboard," she said. "I was always proud to say that I could read an orchestra score a little better than I could read a financial spreadsheet."

Her background in the visual arts, on the other hand, helped her in the theatrical aspects of production design.

After completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Foreign Services at Maryknoll College and post-graduate studies at Ateneo University, Ms. Reyes attended a summer dance workshop run by Hanya Holm in the Center of Dance in Colorado Springs. Holm then invited Ms. Reyes and a couple of other students -- Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, among them -- to New York, where they took classes with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Saying that you studied modern dance with these people is like saying you studied quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. Holm and Graham were half of the "Big Four," a group credited with advancing American modern dance. Nikolais and Louis belonged to the next generation and the two men, according to PBS, "created a dialogue that pushed the boundaries of contemporary avant-garde dance."

"It was an eye-opener. It was quite a time to be there [in New York] because it was like the whole modern dance cauldron was just starting to bubble up," Ms. Reyes said.

Though fortunate to be there at that moment, she felt that she needed more structure since the approaches were "too disparate." She decided to take more formal studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County, New York. Sarah Lawrence was an easy choice because it was close to New York City, where all the action was, and the faculty was composed of instructors who were also performers. Don Redlich, for example, could perform a piece by Holm then take the train to Sarah Lawrence and teach.

In 1969, Ms. Reyes returned to Manila and caught the performance of Mir-i-nisa, a full-length ballet choreographed by Julie Borromeo and Felicitas Radaic, at the newly opened CCP. Ms. Reyes asked Lucrecia "King" Kasilag, Bayanihan music director turned CCP artistic director, if she could stage a dance concert. Kasilag agreed and gave Ms. Reyes a budget of P12,000. "I saw the theater and its potential, so I just took the opportunity," she said.

When Alice Reyes First Modern Dance Concert was staged in 1970, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal. Ms. Reyes collaborated with visual artists Ray Albano, Roberto Chabet, and Lee Aguinaldo to present a mixture of things: "Amada," Ms. Reyes's thesis at Sarah Lawrence based on Nick Joaquin's "Summer Solstice"; a modern interpretation of Bach; a light comedy featuring Eddie Elejar; and a rock ballet piece that brought the house down. "It was a whole range of dance forms and music and everybody was taken aback by how fun it was," she said. "It was the first of its kind at that time because before that, it was a lot of classical ballet and folk dance."

The modern dance concert was so successful that it toured the Philippines. When Ms. Reyes returned to the CCP, she found that nothing much was happening. "There was an orchestra hall and there was a conductor's room, but there was no conductor," she remembered. "It was like a vacuum and so we occupied it." (This explains how a rehearsal hall designed for a philharmonic orchestra is now BP's dance studio. The floor, which was made of cement, had to be raised several times for the sake of the dancers' knees.)

Instead of going back to the US to teach at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Ms. Reyes decided to stay in the country. She asked Kasilag if she could use the empty halls for dance rehearsals and Kasilag again agreed. CCP President Jaime Zobel de Ayala also gave his blessing. "We had the whole CCP to ourselves. There was nobody there -- nobody -- except for a few people in the offices upstairs," said Ms. Reyes. "It was an incredible feeling because we were pioneering. There was this building that Imelda Marcos put up and there were a few souls in there with a mandate to get it going."

This marked the beginning of Ballet Philippines. Ms. Reyes was 26.

To this day, people still ask why and how the Alice Reyes Modern Dance Company landed in the CCP. Why not Hariraya Ballet or Dance Theater Philippines, companies which already existed? "There was resentment. They couldn't understand why they woke up one day to find that I was suddenly there in the CCP. They were waiting to be either invited or declared national dance company," said Ms. Reyes. "They were waiting," she repeats and laughs. "Why didn't they go in? This is the thing: they were here; I was in the States; I came back for a summer and saw this place; I went in. It's as simple as that."

Just like in New York, Ms. Reyes was at the right place at the right time. She invited herself into an empty building and gathered people who had the same interests and talents. They put their heads together and worked. "That's basically it," she said. "It was a wonderful opportunity and I took it as a sign and a blessing that this is what I was supposed to be doing."

"Start small but start well," is a mantra that Ms. Reyes holds close to her heart. "It's something that I've done all my life. You have to start in a small way so that you can do it perfectly, then you grow from there," she explained. "If you plan something big then you might wake up and realize that it's fallen apart because you couldn't manage it. I've always taken that approach."

She put that mantra into practice when she progressed from a modern dance concert, to dance concerts, to a three-concert subscription. Those things were doable. She didn't do a full-length ballet right away, either. She started with the third act of The Nutcracker. "It gave the dancers a feel of doing classical ballet without having the burden of producing the entire lot. Maybe we weren't ready for it," she said. "It's not just starting small: it's making sure you're ready."

Though schooled in modern dance, Ms. Reyes recognized that dancers with basic training in classical ballet would always be stronger than those without. "There are no limitations and you can do practically anything," she explained. "It (classical ballet) teaches you the most basic foundation -- meaning, you learn things such as where your vertical is. If you don't know where your vertical is, how can you go off it? If you don't know the classical technique, how can you go off it?"

As a choreographer, Ms. Reyes needs to find a spark that will get her going. Every piece has a different starting point. It can be music, as in Company (1970), a modern ballet set to Bach; literature, as in Amada (1969), which, as mentioned, was inspired by Nick Joaquin's text; or a perspective, as in her interpretation of Bizet's Carmen (1984), which was done from the vantage point of Don Jose. "Carmen is always about Carmen. To see it from the man's point of view gave it a very different look," she said.

"Choreography is the hardest aspect since you're creating something new and taking things from nowhere and everywhere."

Today, Ballet Philippines prides itself in its versatility, a consequence of Ms. Reyes' belief in both classical ballet and modern dance. It was the first company in the country to combine dance forms. "There were purists who thought that if you did modern dance you couldn't be a classical dancer regardless of the fact that all the dance companies abroad were doing exactly that," she said, citing the American Ballet Theatre as an example. She persisted in the face of criticism and staged her brand of choreography. Along the way, Alice Reyes Modern Dance Company became the CCP Dance Workshop Company, the CCP Dance Company, and, ultimately, Ballet Philippines (BP).

Ms. Reyes never set out to be the Martha Graham or the Merce Cunningham of the Philippines. Dropping "Alice Reyes" from the company name didn't give her any grief.

"People think that it was such a personal thing. Nobody will believe
this but I do not have an ego," she said. "I was always very happy when somebody else succeeded. It's a big stage, it's a big world and we can all succeed. I was very happy when someone else was doing great stuff on the stage. The moment that [the company] could become something else beyond the personal side, it was a no-brainer."

She was more interested in was creating an opportunity for Filipinos to perform and live as professional dancers, and not as bank people or secretaries who work during the day and rehearse at six o'clock. BP was the first company to pay its dancers regularly and the first to have a planned season.

"The moment that we had dancers on a salary, it changed the entire thing because they were dancing 10 hours a day," she said. "That was a big step at the time because we proved that yes, you could become a full-time dance artist."

Of course, things weren't always easy. Unable to meet the payroll, Ms. Reyes had to call Jaime Zobel de Ayala, who took her to lunch and ended up paying for more than a meal. "I told him my problem and he said, 'Fine, I'll write the check but, por dios, this is a very expensive lunch."

BP eventually got better at raising funds and Ms. Reyes, who was both president and artistic director of the company, learned how to manage. Her efforts were supported by an active board, composed of "wonderful spirits who loved art, theater, and dance" -- Kasilag and Zobel, of course, along with architect Leandro "Lindy" Locsin, Jaime Ongpin, and Ma.Teresa Roxas (who would later become CCP President).

Ms. Reyes remembers the D.I.Y days of the company fondly. "I had the dancers doing all sorts of crazy things," she said. When BP staged Tommy in 1972, dancers did the marketing themselves. They printed announcements, cut them to size, and pasted them on matchboxes, which they then distributed on the streets. They were going up and down buildings, tacking posters in every cafeteria and canteen. "We were just starting but it was fun," she remembered. "Traffic wasn't so bad. You could go from CCP to Makati and back to rehearse."

Nobody has been able to match Ms. Reyes' 20-year reign at BP. It took her five years to wean her presence away from the company. During that period, she was flying eight times a year from San Francisco to Manila; that's 16 trips over the Pacific Ocean. "I was often jetlagged. I was wife, mother. It was a bit too much," she said.

In 1989, she said goodbye to BP.

As usual, Ms. Reyes "went crazy" for the 20th anniversary celebration and scheduled three different productions. Burned into her memory is the image of people rehearsing in every nook and cranny of the CCP -- theaters, hallways, places that weren't studios. "It was really something," she said. "And I thought, wow."

People have asked her to choreograph another piece, to stage another dance concert. "I've toyed with idea," she admitted, "you know what they say, never say never."

The four-year-old girl who danced with her father is now 70, and Ms. Reyes is well-acquainted with the aches and pains that come with a life of dance.

"It's dreadful. I've had bad knees for a long time and I've learned to accept the effects of years and years and years of abuse on the body. There have been lots of falls, bad twists. In dance, you make your body do tremendous things that it doesn't normally do. It takes its toll," she said. "What is maddening is that I've lost my ability to jump. One of the reasons I decided to retire was that I had to work so hard to do something that a little girl could do without any fuss. I thought, why kill myself? It's their turn."

Even if she's let go of the company that she founded, she's still around when BP needs her. One such instance was in 2011, when the bill seeking to designate BP as the Philippine National Ballet Company ran into opposition. "There were people who were so ferocious in their opposition of the bill. I was so speechless that there was so much anger," said Ms. Reyes. "My attitude is that it's our turn now and your turn will come. Why stop something? Allow it so that there is development. There's no reason that we can't have someone else in three years." She added that nobody can take BP's track record away. All over the world, there are dancers, choreographers, and pieces that prove the company's cultural worth.

While that battle simmers in the background, Ms. Reyes is back in CCP for Rama, Hari. "It's wonderful to go into a studio and work with dancers again," she said. "The dancers of Ballet Philippines are incredible. I'm always amazed that generations later -- so many generations since I left BP - the dancers are still working so hard, that they're still so poor, that they're still as passionate and as idealistic. It's lovely."