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‘Total fail’: How communication breakdown broke Ballet Philippines’ leg

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KAI HUANG

By Sam L. Marcelo
Associate Editor

IF the Ballet Philippines (BP) controversy was used as a case study in change management, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City would have given its board an F.

“A total fail,” said Manolet M. Siojo, a part-time faculty member at the university’s John Gokongwei School of Management.

The latest chapter in the imbroglio was a one-night concert titled Alice & Friends, held on Feb. 21 at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Supported by the cultural community, National Artist Alice Reyes, BP’s outgoing artistic director and founder, mounted the show in a matter of days after the BP Board, chaired by Antonio O. Cojuangco, announced that it was canceling the entire run of Itim Asu & Other Dances, the originally scheduled production, as a precautionary health measure against COVID-19.

Using the coronavirus as a reason was deemed spurious by insiders since other productions — among them Batang Mujahideen by Tanghalang Pilipino (another CCP company also chaired by Mr. Cojuangco) — continued their runs, albeit with fewer shows.

Coronavirus or no, Alice & Friends pushed through. To perform and pay tribute to Ms. Reyes, dancers had to go on leave since the show was produced outside the auspices of BP. (Alice & Friends was given a venue and production grant by CCP.) Eric Cruz and his CCP production design team worked overtime to create new sets and costumes after the existing ones — those to be used in the canceled Itim Asu production — were whisked to a warehouse and made unavailable for Ms. Reyes’s use.

Albeit hastily put together amid much drama, the resulting show filled the Main Theater’s 1,800 seats, with about 300 more people watching on a screen set up in the lobby. People who flew in from New York, London, and Paris expecting to see Itim Asu & Other Dances were treated to a program that featured all the numbers in the canceled production — along with three more.

BP alumni dressed in red turned out in full force and were joined by bold-faced names such as National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera; visual artist Jaime De Guzman, who designed the original sets for Itim Asu; and playwright Virginia Moreno, whose play, The Onyx Wolf, was the basis of Ms. Reyes’s choreography.

It should be noted that Feb. 21 is a significant date: it is exactly 50 years to the day that Alice Reyes & Dance Company in a Modern Dance Concert closed its groundbreaking run at the CCP Main Theater and laid the foundation for Ballet Philippines, a company now being sundered by conflict (Related story: “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming: How a piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board fueled a rumor mill,” https://www.bworldonline.com/the-russians-are-coming-the-russians-are-coming/).

More than a week has passed since Alice & Friends. The curtain has fallen. The standing ovations have receded into recent memory. The adrenaline has worn off. Dancers are deep into rehearsals for Rama Hari, which closes BP’s 50th season. And come end-March, they will have to decide whether to renew their contracts with BP. What was once a formality is now a life-changing decision.

“The anticipation between now and that point is making people anxious. People don’t know how to decide. People don’t know what to do. People are lost. People are confused,” said dancer Sarah Alejandro in a Feb. 19 interview, two days prior to the Alice & Friends concert.

Ms. Alejandro and the rest of the BP dancers are weathering an emotional maelstrom triggered by the shock announcement of Mikhail Martynyuk, a Russian dancer steeped in the Vaganova tradition, as Ms. Reyes’s successor after the BP founder steps down this month.

This bombshell was followed by a two-hour meeting on Feb. 11 with BP board member Marianne “Maan” B. Hontiveros, which did nothing to reassure the dancers who were repeatedly told it was the board’s prerogative to select Ms. Reyes’s successor. The next bombshell: the cancelation — later worded as “postponement” — of Itim Asu. “What they did broke us,” said Ms. Alejandro of the board’s actions.

Prior to the controversy, BP was on an upswing. Ms. Reyes returned in 2017 as artistic director, after membership dwindled to nine dancers because of internal issues. Today, the company is at a healthy 25 members; subscriptions are up thanks to the Board’s efforts, led by BP President Kathleen “Maymay” Lior-Liechtenstein; BP is more viable than it’s ever been; the curtain goes up on schedule; and Ms. Reyes’s seasons have all been produced below budget.

Numbers provided by the accounting office show that the 48th season had a budget of about P9.7 million; the 49th, P11.9 million; and the 50th, P13.9 million. Savings, meanwhile, were tallied at P2.2 million; P800,000; and P5.7 million, respectively, with one last show remaining in the 50th season.

“Everything was so smooth. The company became so much stronger,” said Ms. Alejandro. “There is no problem in terms of how everything is running. Why is there a need to fix anything? That’s one question that bothers us.”

Ms. Reyes, the dancer continued, is a motherly figure who will be missed when she leaves. “She guides us. She’s like our mama. We know that her door is always open and we know that we can always talk to her,” Ms. Alejandro said. “Whenever we have a problem, personal issues, no matter how small, we go to the artistic director. We look to them for guidance and strength. That’s why this means a lot.”

‘SO DID STEVE JOBS AND HE WAS FIRED’
While Ms. Reyes’s relationship with the dancers is, by their accounts, a nurturing one, her relationship with the Board — at least a very important faction of it — has soured.

“I respect her for founding the company. But to run the company? I don’t think she’s capable of running a company. Why should she choose her successor?,” said Mr. Cojuangco, BP Board chair, on the sidelines of an event in Okada Manila on Feb. 13. “She founded the company — so did Steve Jobs and he was fired. … You know what I’ve learned in my life? Nobody is indispensable. Even me.”

The selection of Mr. Martynyuk, he continued, is a chance to improve the technique of BP. “We’re not the best in ballet. We may be good but we’re not the best. You go to a country which is superior to you in level of performance and you get techniques from them. You have to bring in somebody who’s exposed to that level of dance to explain to you how it’s done. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

In the two-hour conversation with Ms. Hontiveros that took place after Mr. Martynyuk’s appointment, dancers voiced their opinion, saying that the Vaganova technique — which is highly selective when it comes to anatomy (it favors open hips and perfect turnout) — will tax their bodies to the point of breakage.

Mr. Cojuangco, who has been issuing statements to address the accusations leveled at the Board, characterized Ms. Reyes as “malicious.” “I don’t care how this plays out,” he said. “Alice can jump up and down for all I care. She can do her pirouettes. I’ve been with Ballet Philippines for 27 years either as president or chairman and I have never encountered a situation like this. Never.”

‘A TOTAL FAIL’
This hullabaloo could have been avoided if only the Board communicated with the dancers and prepared the organization for the arrival of its new artistic director.

“Right now, it’s blown up because the leadership did not do what they had to do to prepare for everyone,” said Mr. Siojo, who has been a consultant on organizational behavior and human resources for 20 years (aside from being a part-time faculty member at the Leadership and Strategy Department of the John Gokongwei School of Management at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City).

“It’s not a complicated problem. If I were to look at it from the corporate side, [what happened] was a total fail. You initiated a radical change but you did it from just one side. How do you expect to get support from your stakeholders? Your big stakeholders are your dancers.”

Based on reports and facts available to him on Feb. 22, Mr. Siojo — who has no interest in ballet and therefore has no dog in this fight — identified communication (or the lack thereof) as the villain in the story. The dancers, despite not being the decision makers, should have been consulted much earlier in the search for a new artistic director.

“Communication is your most critical skill in any organization. Communication is about knowing about the other, knowing how they think, knowing how they feel, knowing where they come from,” he said. “I don’t think that was done here. I don’t think they [the Board] did their homework. If this was an academic exercise, I would have given them an F: You failed in communication, which is the foundation of a change management process.”

Mr. Martynyuk represents culture change, Mr. Siojo continued, and culture change is the most difficult kind of change to manage especially when it involves an organization like BP, which is proud of its 50-year legacy and its unique identity.

“They could have had a little more heart,” Mr. Siojo said of the Board. “A little heart could have done a lot in making the change less painful. It’s the same for any human situation.”

A FANTASTIC COMPANY
Ms. Reyes, who turns 78 this year, didn’t expect that the company she founded would celebrate its golden anniversary embroiled in controversy, its fate in question. Although she is not on social media, she is aware of the discussion (which has devolved into rude ad hominem attacks in some corners of Facebook).

“What is sad is that the dancers see it the way I see it, and it seems the rest of the community sees it the way we see it. And what they cannot understand is why our Board sees it differently. That’s the question, why? If we were on the same page and people on the outside were not — that would make a little more sense, even if we were on the wrong page together. At least we’d be together,” she said.

“I want to stop all the rumors because I want the dancers to concentrate on the work. I have been trying to calm everybody down. I think that it’s very sad that as far as the Board members have been told, I am the bad person. And that’s really sad to have that kind of portrait of me being painted. That’s okay. I accept it. It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I go down to the rehearsal hall and I get inspired by the dancers. It’s a fantastic company.”

They may not see eye to eye anymore but on the last point, Ms. Reyes and Mr. Cojuangco agree.





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