Lisa Macuja personifies Philippine ballet. She is ballet’s one and only pop star. Everywhere she goes around the country, the masses recognize her. She has successfully brought a dance form associated with the elite to all citizens with her company, Ballet Manila. A ticket bought for the rides at Star City—the amusement park owned by her husband Fred Elizalde—also gets one free shows of Ballet Manila’s at the complex’s Aliw Theater, next to Manila Broadcasting Company, also owned by her husband. That’s where she broadcasts her award-winning radio show “Art 2 Art” on DZRH, covering 97 percent of the country. But this loving partnership is but a small part of what makes her iconic.
This prima ballerina was the first foreign soloist who ever joined the Kirov Ballet in 1984, where she began her training with its very unforgiving Russian Vaganova method—a technique that even Americans and other European companies find too extreme—at the age 18. She has garnered international acclaim for the country, starring in performances all over the world. She also has her own weekly newspaper column and has appeared in several commercials and shows. She is already taught in elementary school books as one of the Philippines’ most notable people. A person like Lisa Macuja comes around once in a lifetime. And now she dances to her swan song. The ballerina takes time to confide with asianTraveler not just her plans but also her candid opinions on the state of cultural tourism in the Philippines.
You are in the midst of your “Swan Song Series.” Please tell us more about it. Why now? Why this way? What are your plans after?
It’s the second year of my three year plan. Last year I did the last ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Rome and Juliet.’ This year I’m doing my last ‘Don Quixote,’ ‘Giselle,” and ‘Carmen.’ Next year hopefully my plan will include the last ‘La Bayadere,’ ‘Le Corsaire’ and the ‘Nut Cracker.’ It’s basically swan song performances that recreate my last performances of these full length classical ballets.
Whether or not I continue to dance after the ‘Swan Song Series’ is probably a yes given my continued health. But I don’t think I will do full-length ballets anymore because it’s really very taxing. Stamina is an issue already at my age. I’m turning 48 this year. The plan is to retire at 50. That will be my 30th season as a ballerina. So the numbers are right.
I needed to be able to say goodbye to live performances of my favorite roles slowly and instead of just one day deciding to retire. Also, the ‘Swan Song Series’ not just prepares me for retirement; it also prepares my company (Ballet Manila) for it. I’m already teaching my roles to a younger generation of dancers… I’m slowly backing out [of] the picture and pushing younger and more capable dancers forward.
Do you have a protégé whom you see capable of taking your place and attaining the same iconic stature?
It’s hard to say. There are dancers who I can say, ‘Oh, that one has a beautiful jump’ or ‘This one is a joy to watch on stage because you can see she’s really enjoying herself playing and experimenting and being a true artist.’ So I guess if you find all these little qualities all boiled into one person then you get that protégé. But that’s hard because first of all, I had a different kind of training. The Vaganova (method) we teach here is more or less the same. But when you get in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with its 260 years of tradition… you can’t ask someone to duplicate that kind of quality and quantity of experience on stage. At this point in my career I’ve danced ‘Don Quixote’ more than 40 times. I can’t ask a young ingénue to do ‘Don Quixote’ really well—that’s why I’m letting her dance—to be compared to me who has done it so many times before. It’s not fair. Whether or not there will be a ballerina of my stature will all depend on whether all these ballerinas work on the opportunities they can take advantage of, how they will grow, and how they will handle success, and if they last as long as me. I’m in my 28th season as a ballerina. That’s a track record that’s hard to beat. So you don’t ask of it of an upcoming teenager.
Cultural tourism is one of the major thrusts of the Department of Tourism. And though folkloric fiestas have been successfully promoted, people still go to Singapore and Hong Kong to watch touring Broadway musicals and concerts when many of their actors and singers are Filipino. How come we are not doing more theater tourism?
Oh this is going to make me controversial again. Do I dare answer that question frankly? (Laughs.) First of all you do it by giving Filipino artists jobs that will enable them to make a living here and not leave for greener pastures (abroad). It’s not a secret that the funding of the government (for the arts)—however limited it was in the first place—has been drastically cut by the current administration. We just have to come to terms with the fact that our economy cannot support long performance runs where there will always be a paying audience.
But isn’t it the solution to attract foreign audiences and tourists to sustain all these artists locally?
That’s happening in London and Broadway where you have around 200 hundred theaters in a small radius. You have to have the proper venues, the infrastructure. There’s so much that needs to be done before you can make the performing arts start to make money for our country. My thrust since when I first came back from Russia was audience development. In Russia you would see soldiers and families with kids going to the ballet. They have a different culture.
You have successfully reached out to the masses. Do you have any plans of reaching out to the opposite end of the spectrum—the foreign audiences?
As a theater owner, we are in the process of upgrading our facilities in Star and Aliw Theater. You have to make the venue viable for music concerts, musical theater, etc. But it can be controversial. The CCP (Cultural Center of the Philippines) because they really needed the income, had ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Mama Mia.’ But then the OPM (Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit or Organization of Pilipino Musicians) complains about equity, that the Filipino artist has just lost a large amount of jobs because these foreigners are coming in to perform. But they (the CCP) need the money.
That’s the perspective of a venue owner. How about the perspective of a performance arts company? What can you do to target and market yourselves to foreign audiences? Are you considering tie-ups with travel agencies to promote tour packages that include theater performances?
Sure. If we have a show that is interesting to them, you can get schedules on the internet. We partner with hotels in the nearby area. It’s possible, but it’s local audiences you normally don’t find at the CCP—the masses—have always been our target market in Ballet Manila.
What are your favorite travel destinations?
Boracay is always a favorite destination for me and my family because we have a nice house there. Even if the island has become a little bit overdeveloped and crowded, our house still offers us privacy. It’s been a family tradition to be at Boracay and we have our favorite restaurants.
London is another favorite destination for me and my family. I’ve been to London many times but recently we were finally able to visit Stonehenge and revisit Windsor Castle with my family, since last being there at 14. We caught shows nearly every night.