The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming

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How a piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board fueled a rumor mill

By Sam L. Marcelo, Associate Editor

THE memo that started a firestorm in Ballet Philippines.

A PALL OF uncertainty, fear, and evaporated dancers’ tears still hangs over the rehearsal halls of Ballet Philippines (BP) days after it was suddenly announced that National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes would be replaced as artistic director (AD) of the company she founded in 1969, by Mikhail “Misha” Martynyuk, a star dancer of The Kremlin Ballet theater — a young company compared to the giants of Russian ballet (Bolshoi, Mariinsky) as it was founded only in 1990 — and Honored Artist of the Russian Federation.

Mr. Martynyuk’s appointment was announced through an internal memo dated Feb. 8. Signed by BP President Kathleen “Maymay” Lior-Liechtenstein, it read, in part: “We anticipate your warm welcome and full support as Misha starts an exciting season for the company.” The memo was the first time that BP dancers and Ms. Reyes, whose term as artistic director ends in March, officially heard that Mr. Martynyuk — who was nominated by the Russian Embassy — was assuming the role of AD.

Ms. Lior-Liechtenstein and the rest of the BP Board didn’t anticipate how much havoc could be wreaked by an innocuous-looking piece of official stationery tacked to a bulletin board.

On Sunday evening, Feb. 9, former Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) president Nestor O. Jardin, who served BP in various capacities, including lead soloist and artistic director, denounced the move in a Facebook post that went viral in cultural circles: “I am appalled to learn that National Artist Alice Reyes who is currently artistic director of Ballet Philippines did not get the full support of its board of trustees and president causing her to resign from the company she co-founded with Eddie Elejar. And more appalling is that she was not at all consulted on the choice of her successor. When the board of trustees exercises its legal power over artistic matters, it is bound to kill a performing arts company. I do hope this doesn’t happen to Ballet Philippines.”

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Asked what he thinks of Mr. Martynyuk and how his appointment will affect BP, Mr. Jardin told BusinessWorld in an e-mail: “He [Mr. Martynyuk] doesn’t know Ballet Philippines, what it stands for, its repertoire of uniquely Filipino contemporary pieces, and its legacy to Philippine dance. What this signals to me is a shift in artistic direction of Ballet Philippines to a Russian style classical ballet company.”

It is common knowledge is that Mr. Martynyuk has performed with Ballet Manila (BM), the dance company headed by Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, on at least two occasions: the first in 2013, as Solor in BM’s production of La Bayadere; and again in 2017, as Basilio in Don Quixote.

In contrast, he has never performed with Ballet Philippines. Former BP soloist Edna Vida, in a Feb. 9 Facebook post, asked: “Does he know our repertoire? Does he know our brand of classical ballet and modern dance? What does this man know about our beloved company? Who is he?” (In addition to sharing dance as their vocation, Ms. Vida and Ms. Reyes also share the same blood — they are sisters.)

“We want to stay uniquely Ballet Philippines and not become Ballet Russe de Manila. We don’t want Ballet Philippines to look like any other ballet company. Why should we allow it after 50 years of being a unique trailblazer? What a shame!,” ended Ms. Vida’s post.

Ballet Philippines’s repertoire, which is composed of about 500 pieces, is vast and varied. Insiders are worried that the appointment of Mr. Martynyuk means that ballet buns, pointe shoes, tights, and tutus will take over a company that has always prided itself on its versatility.

Ms. Reyes is known for groundbreaking pieces such as Amada, a wild-haired tribute to feminine power based on Nick Joaquin’s “The Summer Solstice”; Carmina Burana, a monumental piece that combines the lines of classical ballet and the freedom of modern dance; and Itim Asu, a reinterpretation of Virginia Moreno’s play The Onyx Wolf, which is slated to be remounted this February. Danced with bare flexed feet and grounded bodies, these pieces are outside Mr. Martynyuk’s wheelhouse.

Although he won a prize for best performance of modern dance choreography in 2002, Mr. Martynyuk simply has not put in the time with the Ballet Philippines. “This company [Ballet Philippines] is a Filipino cultural institution. It can do ballet, modern, contemporary, and everything in between,” said a member of the Ballet Philippines community. “The unforeseen appointment of Mr. Martynyuk as artistic director blatantly and disrespectfully ignores the proper process of succession… People are livid because he has no knowledge and zero connection to the company and its history.”

The appointment of Mr. Martynyuk — with his ties to Ms. Macuja — also birthed rumors that Ballet Philippines would eventually be merged with Ballet Manila, which recently lost its home to the fire that destroyed Star City. It didn’t help that Ballet Manila knew about Mr. Martynyuk’s appointment before Ballet Philippines did. (Ms. Macuja was a professional reference and, at one point in Mr. Martynyuk’s interview, the BP Search Committee had to call Ms. Macuja and ask her to translate, over the phone, what Mr. Martynyuk was saying. Mr. Martynyuk later stopped by BM to say hello to Ms. Macuja, who initially had no idea that he was in the Philippines. In hindsight, the optics of that visit did nothing to quell talks of a merger.)

Ms. Macuja, a proponent of the Russian Vaganova technique just like Mr. Martynyuk, denied these rumors. In a Feb. 9 Facebook post, the Ballet Manila CEO and artistic director said: “I am very happy where I am.”

Ms. Macuja had to face the online onslaught by herself because the BP Board — caught flat-footed by the speed and the ferocity of the cultural community’s response — chose to stay silent.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
It took the BP Board three days — an eternity considering the churn of social media — to address the rumors surrounding Mr. Martynyuk’s appointment. First, through a brief statement posted on Facebook on Feb. 11, which barely addressed issues raised, and then through a face-to-face meeting between BP dancers and BP vice-chair Marianne “Maan” B. Hontiveros, who was also part of the Search Committee tasked with looking for Ms. Reyes’ successor. By then, hashtags such as #LiechtensteinResign (referring to the BP President) had already proliferated on social media. The meeting was too little, too late.

In a Feb. 11 phone interview with BusinessWorld, Ms. Hontiveros assuaged fears that BP would turn into a Russian clone. “We had emphasized to Mr. Martynyuk that it is important that Filipino choreographers be engaged to continue choreographing works with Filipino themes and motifs. And he’s very happy to do that,” she said, “We’re not here to redo the entire company. We’re just here to enhance the training of the talent of the Philippines and to grow it.”

She also refuted that Ms. Reyes was not consulted. “Alice Reyes actually had recommended candidates: an American, Adam Sage; and a Filipino, Ronelson Yadao. They were both invited for an interview, but they did not make themselves available for the interview.”

Mr. Sage, the current ballet master and associate director of BP, was the first foreigner to join Ballet Philippines and danced with the company from 1981 to 1983. Mr. Yadao, meanwhile, is a BP soloist and choreographer who returned to the company in 2017, after five years with Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan.

Both of Ms. Reyes’s candidates were informed of their interview with the BP Search Committee through an e-mail sent two days ahead of the appointed date. Neither Mr. Sage nor Mr. Yadao could make it due to prior commitments; their requests for alternative dates were refused.

The unwillingness to compromise on scheduling matters is symptomatic of the rift between BP’s executive department and its artistic department. The lack of communication manifested itself in myriad ways before reaching this point: staffing requests to fill vacated positions in the artistic department went ignored while the executive department beefed up its own team; dinner parties at Ms. Lior-Liechtenstein’s home, where BP dancers were expected to attend, conflicted with actual performances; and finally, the piece of paper announcing Mr. Martynyuk’s appointment, which fomented the unrest in the dance community.

These developments have all but squashed the jubilant spirit of BP, which should be celebrating its 50th season. Instead of basking in the glory of BP and its founder — a living legend held in high esteem — the dancers feel lost and upset, questioning the fate and the future of the company that raised them.

BP dancers are protective of the company and its legacy, built on the bodies of those who came before them. They have nothing against Mr. Martynyuk, a man they barely know, but they are wary of him. What grates is the callous disregard shown by the Board in their tone-deaf announcement of Mr. Martynyuk’s appointment — and, to add insult to injury, the Board’s expectation that the company wouldn’t react badly.

The Board decides who gets to be artistic director. It also decides how to convey this decision to the dancers who have dedicated their lives to an art and institution they love. Clearly, a piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board wasn’t the way to do it. The Board did Mr. Martynyuk no favors by releasing a memo before talking to the dancers. There will be no “seamless transition” as the Board hoped — there is already an online petition to rescind or revise Mr. Martynyuk’s contract.

Liliane “Tats” Rejante Manahan, a noted supporter of culture and the arts, summed up the fiasco in a Feb. 12 Facebook post:

“The cause of tears was a simple case of protocol gone awry, disregarding not just the propriety of including the artistic director’s opinion, but also, the respect for the heart and soul that fuels the impetus that defines the essence of this well-loved and established dance company.

“It is my fondest hope and prayer that all will be well, because to lose these beautiful dancers, and break this dance company’s genealogy, will indeed be a tragedy.” — with Michelle Anne P. Soliman

Read the related story, “Petition against BP’s new AD finds support

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