MANILA - Despite her extensive theater experience performing in London's West End, Gia Macuja Atchison feels both nervous and excited as she returns to the Philippine stage for "Ibong Adarna," Ballet Manila's latest musical offering.
"I haven't performed in Manila for two or three years now," said Atchison, sister of prima ballerina and Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.
"It's a healthy nervousness at the moment, but it's more excitement. It's such a well put-together show. It's a fantastic concept and I can't wait to hear the feedback."
Atchison has earned rave reviews from UK critics for her "glorious, expressive, and haunting" voice in her role as Estrella Cumpas in the musical "Here Lies Love" in 2014. She has also performed in the country as part of the trio, West End Mamas.
Recalling her conversation with her sister, she said: "After they [Ballet Manila] did 'Rebels,' she (Macuja-Elizalde) wanted to have that singing and dancing again, but with an all-Filipino work. So she told me, 'We're doing 'Ibong Adarna' and it's definitely gonna be you.'"
"Ibong Adarna" is Ballet Manila's most ambitious production to date. Comprised of an all-Filipino cast and crew, the musical is based on a Tagalog myth about a legendary bird with healing powers.
The choreography was artfully created for the stage by Gerardo Francisco, with music from Diwa De Leon.
Atchison lends her voice as Ibong Adarna, while her sister appears as the regal queen mother of the three princes.
"It's not the first time we're working together—and hopefully not the last. It's fun to share the stage and talk about the production and, of course, I like having her here. She lives in London most of the time and we rarely see each other," Macuja-Elizalde said.
"It's a family reunion and a chance for her to come back home. She rarely performs in the Philippines now. It's also a good way to get in touch with Filipino audiences," she added.
Atchison, for her part, said: "It's exciting for me to be on stage again with my sister. It's always a privilege... Because we really enjoy performing together. It's a fantastic thing for my parents to witness. That makes us both very happy. I think they're proud of us."
RETURNING TO HER ROOTS
Preparing for the role, however, was no easy feat as Atchison needed to return to her old way of singing and reacquaint herself with ballet.
"I'm not dancing as much as the other dancers. But I have to sort of elicit a graceful bird-like movement and stature," she said. "When I was approached to do the part, they told me to start doing ballet again to improve my form."
"I have to keep track of my weight and it's really hard when you’re back home... All the food I miss. The temptations are here!" she added.
Atchison started training ballet once a week since January. The physical training was easier for her since she also did dancing for previous roles as Princess Nala for "Lion King" and as Gigi for "Miss Saigon."
The more challenging part was returning to her opera-style singing. After training in conservatory music in her teens, Atchison took a Performing Arts degree in London in the 90s, and has since been doing roles in musical theater.
"The bulk of my work in London is more musical theater, so more on belting the lower register of my voice," she explained. "I have to go back to my roots or retrain my voice classically. I have to kind of retrain my voice in the classical high notes, which was good. It’s nice to come back to my roots."
Apart from that, getting into the role of the bird was easy for Atchison. "I had an idea on what kind of bird I wanted to be," she said with a laugh. "A bird that turned people into stone because of the singing knows what she wants and how to get it."
BIG FISH, SMALL FISH
Before snagging critically-acclaimed roles in the West End, it wasn't all roses and peaches for Atchison on the international stage.
"After 5 years with Repertory, I asked myself: 'Do I want to be a big fish in a small pond, or to be a small fish in a bigger pond?'" said the singer, who immediately grabbed the opportunity to study in London.
Back then, it was tough for a Filipino to get a role in an international production. Atchison said there were even times when "they won't even look at you" or "consider you for the part."
"But I remember thinking that anything you want, you can go for—no matter what you feel or sets you back," she said.
During her second year in "Lion King," Atchison was a swing—an understudy for several roles who is tasked to fill in if an actor is absent—and decided it was time to step up.
"I decided to audition for the main part, Princess Nala, for the second contract. And everyone was saying, 'But you're Filipino.' I said, 'So? I can sing the song. Hear me first!'" she recalled.
That leap of faith made Atchison play Princess Nala for almost three years, and do a string of roles in London. More recently, her vocals in "Here Lies Love" were touted as "dreamlike" and of "golden notes."
"You can think out of the box and make it happen if you really want something to happen," she said.
TALENT, ATTITUDE, LUCK
All of Atchison's hard work paid off, and her daughter, Abigail, even wants to pursue the same career path as hers.
As a mother and as an experienced thespian, she gave three things that one needs to succeed: talent, attitude, and luck.
"I always tell my daughter, 'It is 50% talent, but the other 40% is luck, and 10% attitude. A big chunk of it is being at the right time and place," she said.
"Work hard. Don't give up. Never give up. When you have a dream, just keep working hard. Keep going for it," she advised. "Theater is thriving in the Philippines. The opportunity to be part of a production, or to join a workshop, or a ballet class or a dance class or singing is everywhere. Be part of it."
Ballet Manila's "Ibong Adarna" runs at the Aliw Theater at CCP Complex in Manila on August 27 (3 p.m), September 2 (6 p.m.), and September 3 (3 p.m.).