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Innate Grace: A Sit-down With Kathleen Lior-Liechtenstein

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By KRISTOFER PURNELL

Running as deep as the history of the Cultural Center of the Philippines is one of its resident companies, Ballet Philippines, which has also turned 50 this year. The company kicked off its golden anniversary with a grand staging of Tchaikovksy’s Swan Lake, inviting two principal dancers from the Mariinsky Ballet to perform the leads during the two special opening performances.

As part of its anniversary celebrations, Ballet Philippines recently featured another treasured work, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring two of their own resident dancers Denise Parungao and Nelson Yadao.

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Kathleen Lior-Liechtenstein

Fifty years is a remarkable milestone for any one, and Ballet Philippines’ current president Kathleen Lior-Liechtenstein is among those delighted to show what the company has in store not just for the golden season but for all the years still to come. Panorama sat down with Kathleen to ask her about how Ballet Philippines made it to 50 years.

How does Ballet Philippines choose which performances to put on year in and year out?

When we were planning, the board of trustees always had in mind to give the best it could offer to Filipinos and the country. We, therefore, planned to have Swan Lake because it’s truly well loved and no one can say it’s not good enough.

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And then, of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best works—maybe he envisioned it to be a ballet because all the characters of the story, and its twists, are so “ballet.”

It’s comforting, in a sense, and it is danceable. We thought of having Shakespeare come in and, of course, to educate our audiences.

Then Cinderella, as you know, is one of the most-loved children’s ballets, so it became our Christmas offer. It was very pleasing to the eyes—from the ball gowns to the love story, which has a lot of value to it.

And finally there’s ItimAsu and Rama Hari, which are our own work, part of the more than 500 repertoire of Ballet Philippines. We could run for a whole year, every day, without repeating a ballet from our repertoire—that’s how rich Ballet Philippines is and, I think, it’s one of the most prolific in Asia.

Ballet Philippines has programs that help aspiring ballet dancers. Can you talk more about that?

The heart of Ballet Philippines is its CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs. So we have scholarships that we give to deserving students. For one, being a ballet dancer takes [up] so much of your time and studying for it is very expensive. If you are really into it, your family will definitely need to support you. Your schooling must revolve around your dancing and you won’t have a normal nine-to-five job.

If you’re really into it, we’ll give you a scholarship. We have Denise (Parungao), for instance. She was a scholar. We have scholarships for younger students we find from summer classes in our satellite schools. If they are very talented and are potentially good dancers, we have that scholarship for them.

Ballet Philippines strives, and this is our calling, to give audiences more or less the same quality of the shows seen abroad. Why aim for a substandard, when with a little bit more you can give them that?

All of these are the driving force behind keeping, sustaining, and making dancers, a lot of whom aren’t from “rich” families. They’re people who, if not given support, would find it so hard to get to their dreams. We have a very good setup in Tondo, in Pasig, and in Pasay where they can learn how to dance—for all you know, they may become the next company dancers. That I’m very proud of, a lot of our resources go into [that].

We’re the first company that gave salaries to their dancers. Before you could dance and maybe get paid. But now, every month, they receive salaries. Of course, it compensates for the blood, sweat, and tears that they [give] out in training. Also, the board of trustees made a big decision, a couple of years back, to supplement the salaries of our dancers. As you know, there’s a talent exodus. It’s a reality in our country. It’s not something you close your eyes to.

How do Filipinos fare in ballet?

That’s a tough question. I used to really say that we dance with our hearts, because we don’t have much more. Our grace is innate our talent is out there, and anyone can see a Filipino—a child—if you let him or her dance to music, you can immediately see the rhythm. As much as I would like to say that we are on par with Russia, London, Paris, Scandinavia, America, we dance with our hearts.

When someone uses his or her heart for arts, all else fails in comparison. We may not have the height, the face, the arching that is so loved but we have the heart. And that’s what keeps us on our toes.

What can people still look forward to in the 50th season?

The productions will always be awesome. Every one of them will aim to be better than the other. Ballet Philippines strives, and this is our calling, to give audiences more or less the same quality of the shows seen abroad. Why aim for a substandard when, with a little bit more, you can give them that? It educates the audience, keeps them wanting to have a better performance. We are really looking forward to Rama Hari, which will have four National Artists for the first time on stage. One is enough, but four? Think of how wealthy our repertoire is. We have all that.

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COUTURE AND CULTURE Michael Cinco presented a 50-piece collection to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ballet Philippines last month at the Marriott Grand Ballroom

And what can people look forward to beyond 50?

What we, more than anything, are really trying to do is bring relevance to Ballet Philippines, in this digitally wired world. The entertainment industry isn’t what it was before. Everything is online and at the click of a button. We have to be relevant there.

We are looking into a baseline of audience age without alienating our old patrons and donors, because there has to be togetherness. In essence, it’s the relevance: How can we be relevant for the 51st and onward? Go with the times, be friendly with this digital norm, and look to younger audiences.

It has been very challenging, but  very gratifying when you see the youth as part of the audience. They’re not just motivated by looking at beautiful things. They’re motivated by the values they get out of it.

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