Iconic Philippine cultural center a Marcos legacy

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 24 2009 12:14 PM | Updated as of Sep 24 2009 08:14 PM

MANILA - The Cultural Center of the Philippines no longer echoes to applause for the likes of the Bolshoi Ballet, Frank Sinatra and Placido Domingo.

But 40 years after it was controversially built along Manila Bay, the now iconic block of masonry that seems to float over water fountains at night stands as one of dictator Ferdinand Marcos's more pleasant legacies.

The CCP, as it is commonly known, came to being only because it was a pet project of infamous former first lady Imelda Marcos, who was accused of wasting billions of dollars on extravagant projects while disregarding the poor masses.

While the nation was spiralling deeply into debt, the CCP enjoyed the spending power only the Marcoses could provide and brought the world's premier performers from Europe and the United States all the way to Manila.

Former Filipino ballet dancer Nestor Jardin was there in the glory days of the 1970s, when the world's best ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, brought great pleasure to those in the 1,893-seat main theatre.

That halcyon era also saw tenor Placido Domingo sing for the opera "Tosca", while the Bolshoi Ballet performed "Swan Lake" and Frank Sinatra cast his famous blue eyes across an enraptured audience.

Jardin, who started as a ballet dancer at the center in 1973, has been its president for the past eight years and remains upbeat about its role today as a local and regional artistic hub despite hosting no global stars.

"I think the CCP has helped discover, nurture and support the Filipino artist in such a way that some of them have achieved high standards of excellence recognized both here and abroad," Jardin said.

Indeed, the world-renowned pianist Cecile Licad was nurtured at the center while Lea Salonga trained and auditioned there for her award-winning role as Kim in the Broadway musical "Miss Saigon".

"(Southeast Asian countries) look up to the Philippines as far as artistic talents are concerned, be they performers or visual artists or directors or choreographers," Jardin said.

Today, the center continues a steady turnover of performances that may not make the grade internationally but provides an important platform for artists in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

The center's annual festival that features young, independent local filmmakers with no commercial experience drew in a huge college-based crowd of 41,000 in July, a five-fold rise from its inaugural staging four years ago.

With a philharmonic orchestra, four dance companies, a drama outfit and a choral group, the center also hosts about 500 performances, exhibitions and other artistic events every year.

It does so on a shoestring budget compared with the Marcos era of 330 million pesos (8.68 million dollars), 47 percent from the government and the rest from private patrons.

"I'm not saying that (culture) is not supported and given attention (by the government), but it's not a priority over other economic programs," Jardin said.

Perhaps best illustrating the current fortunes of the CCP is that it defied critics who said there was no demand and hosted four operas this year, double its recent annual average, and sold 60-80 percent of the tickets.

However Jardin said about five of its ballet dancers -- nearly 10 percent of the total -- were lost every year, lured by fat salaries from the likes of Hong Kong Disneyland, the American Ballet Theatre and the Singapore Dance Theatre.