It takes two to dance ballet

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By Nickky F. P. de Guzman, Reporter

IF EXPERIENCE is the best teacher, then prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde is a straight A-student. For 32 years she danced lead in 350 full-length ballets and performed in 90 cities on five continents. Retired from dancing since 2017, the A-student took on the role of teacher early in her career, melding both theory and practice in her teaching style. Among her best students is Ballet Manila’s guest principal dancer, Katherine Elizabeth Barkman, who is the only ballet dancer to win back-to-back medals from two of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world.

“When you have danced for as long as I have, you have this arsenal of tools, procedures, and tricks in analyzing and picking methods that might work for a dancer. I’ve been doing it so many times before and I was equipped with these trainings. And when needed, I would pick from this deep pocket of stuff that I have, and sometimes I don’t even know what’s inside,” Ms. Macuja-Elizalde said during a lunch with Ms. Barkman and a few writers.

Under Ms. Macuja-Elizalde’s tutelage, Ms. Barkman bagged the silver medal at the USA-Jackson Mississippi International Ballet Competition (IBC) in June, and just a month later she competed in the Varna IBC in Bulgaria and placed second in the senior women’s category, making her the only ballerina to win consecutive medals in international competitions during their current competition cycle. The Jackson IBC is held every four years while the Varna IBC happens biennially. Ms. Barkman was lucky to join both and win. The two IBCs, together with the Helsinki and Moscow IBCs, are like the Olympics for ballet dancers.

But just like any story of triumph, her journey was fraught with defeats. Last year, the 21-year-old ballerina competed in the Moscow IBC and was cut right after her performance in round 1. She was, naturally, devastated by her fall. “It was like a bad car accident and I wouldn’t want to drive again. It knocked me down big time, and it eliminated all my ounces of confidence in dancing,” she said.


She called her mentor, Ms. Macuja-Elizalde, to tell her the bad news. Ms. Macuja-Elizalde then told her that it was her “biggest plié,” which is a ballet movement where the knees are bent and is used before jumping and turning. “Think of it as your biggest plié and from here you can only go up,” Ms. Macuja-Elizalde told her.

Ms. Barkman, who had not danced professionally before meeting Ms. Macuja-Elizalde, lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, USA. She started dancing ballet as a little girl, and at 16 she took private lessons with US-based Russian teacher Nadia Pavlenko. She wanted to pursue ballet professionally and her Russian teacher gave her a list of dance companies around the world that she could enroll in — and the list included Ballet Manila, which Ms. Macuja-Elizalde founded in 1995.

The ballet world is small — Ms. Pavlenko used to attend Ms. Macuja-Elizalde’s recitals and practices when the Philippines’ prima ballerina studied in Russia for four years as the first non-Soviet to enter a Russian ballet school. “I remember her as a little girl watching my rehearsals in school,” said Ms. Macuja-Elizalde of the Russian dancer.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been trained and taught in Russia and I was able to dance and experience it. Now, I have the opportunity to hand it down to the next generation of dancers. It’s a cycle. But I am still learning,” said Ms. Macuja-Elizalde, who is the CEO and artistic director of Ballet Manila, the only dance company in the country that teaches the Vaganova technique, a classical Russian dance method and training system.

So, with the encouragement of her Russian mentor, the young American dancer sent a one-minute audition video to Ballet Manila, hoping to be mentored by the Filipina prima ballerina. And Ms. Barkman was in. The timing was right because Ms. Macuja-Elizalde was retiring and leaving behind a male dance partner, and she was looking for a short ballerina to dance with him.

Ms. Barkman stands at 5’2 inches. “But I always say I’m 5’3,” she said laughing.

“It factored in that she was short and it worked to her advantage, but most of the time it didn’t. Also, there was a need for a principal dancer. She was 18 that time, and with lots of potential. I gave her my honest e-mail saying that ‘If you want to learn ballet and if you’re serious, come to the Philippines.’ But I also told her that if she’s only doing it for high salary etc., I don’t pay high salary. She accepted and she arrived here,” Ms. Macuja-Elizalde said.

Ms. Barkman packed her bags and moved to the Philippines.

Under Ms. Macuja-Elizalde’s wing, she learned not only dancing, but acting in narrative ballet. “There’s not really nothing wrong with her technique, but more on what’s wrong with her way of thinking about dancing and approaching a role and breaking it all down. She was up to standard, and she knew what she was doing, but, at the same time, she did not know. There was unawareness on how she was doing it and why,” said Ms. Macuja-Elizalde, demonstrating how her mentee used to act.

“It’s about tackling ballet as a form of art and performance,” she said, adding that as a mentor, one doesn’t use only theory to teach but also practice as well.

“If you didn’t dance any of roles, you’re only going by what you see. It’s not what you feel. You’re only attacking the coaching in a cerebral [manner], whereas if you danced, it is how you feel the movements which gives you extra understanding of the movement.”

For a relationship of mentor and mentee to work out, of course, it takes two to tango — and dance ballet.

“It takes a student who’s willing to learn and will inspire you to dig deeper into your pocket of tricks and methods. If the student is reluctant or satisfied already, then you end up with a shallow performance and understanding of a piece,” said Ms. Macuja-Elizalde.