MANILA -- The scenario looked like a surprise sequel from the 1977 film, "Turning Point," starring among others Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne.
Saturday last week on February 8, 2020 to be exact, Ballet Philippines (BP) Foundation president Kathleen L. Liechtenstein issued a memo announcing the appointment of Russian danseur Mikhail Martynyuk as the new artistic director of Ballet Philippines for the 51st and 52nd seasons for the years 2020 to 2022.
Martynyuk replaces Alice Reyes who founded the company and was artistic director from 1969 to 1989. She came back two years ago after being proclaimed National Artist for Dance to reclaim her post from Alexander Paul Morales who held the position from 2009-2017.
The board of trustees further added Reyes will finish her term in March 2020. “The Board of Trustees of Ballet Philippines is grateful for her efforts in contributing to the success of the season that has upheld the standard of excellence of the national dance company.”
As expected, Reyes quickly resigned upon learning of the memo which obviously caught her by surprise.
The same memo said Martynyuk will arrive in Manila March 15 for a “seamless transition.”
It looks like the transition will be far from seamless.
When the memo was posted on Facebook, the social media became an angry platform to denounce the action of the newly installed Ballet Philippines Foundation president.
Dancer-choreographer Edna Vida asked if Ballet Philippines board was infected with a deadly virus to act the way it did.
She said there was nothing wrong getting a new artistic director for a 50-year old dance company. “But to get one without the right DNA is lethal. Was our soul sold to a Russian at a steep price? Apparently,” she rued.
She pointed out that BP is one of the few companies in the world that can perform classical ballet and modern dance with equal excellence. “This was the vision of Alice Reyes -- the founder, artistic director emeritus and National Artist, Alice Reyes -- from the very beginning. This exceptional artistic thrust stood the test of time that even in her absence the company progressed. The BP DNA remained consistent in the veins of the artistic directors, dancers, choreographers and staff that followed. Will it die this year? Ballet Philippines will die over our dead bodies, all of us who gave our blood, sweat and tears to it for 50 years.”
In her opinion, the company should not be run by an artistic director who has no inkling of company’s sacrifice, repertoire, and Filipino soul. “We question the decision of the BP board of trustees to hire Mikhail Martynyuk without consultations from the artists.”
Dancer choreographer Hazel Sabas said the appointment is a major setback in Philippine dance. “I returned to my beloved homeland after 30 years of living, working and breathing dance abroad. Who is K. L. Liechtenstein to make such a disastrous decision? Never heard of her. Maybe I’ll trace the dots, get some answers, clear assumptions and arrive at the bottom of this fiasco.”
Dance scholar Ricca Bautista posted on Facebook: “We do not need a Russian artistic director to legitimize Ballet Philippines. Philippine ballet belongs to the Filipinos. As a dance studies scholar, I maintain that appointing a Russian director for Ballet Philippines after its 50th year is a blatant recolonization of a dance form that has flourished in the country for over a century through Filipinization.”
Speaking as a dancer and anthropologist-in-training, Bautista added she is aware that there may be other issues that people bring up about the company and its history. “But this appointment speaks of larger issues about how those in power are trying to Europeanize us,” she added.
As an educator, she is worried this issue will eventually be dissipated without critical questions raised in the dance community and in the arts policy sector. “I am worried that this acceptance means we are complicit in such outdated colonialist thinking and more so that the people in power funding the arts will not see it that way. Dancers are not often vocal about issues of power. But this time we are making our statement.”
Dennis Marasigan, who has collaborated with Ballet Philippines on many projects, said it is troubling that the appointment of the new artistic director is reported to have been done without consulting current artistic director Alice Reyes contrary to accepted practice in almost all major performing companies in the world.
Choreographer Norman Walker added his voice to the controversy: “It always amazes me how boards of directors all over the dance world suffer from the same delusion that they know better than the founder of the dance company they are ‘supposed’ to serve. It is a delusion that has seen the termination of many companies here in the US, and that arrogance has now infected BP. Alice Reyes is Ballet Philippines! That is an internationally known fact. That the board of BP has chosen to ignore her: her persona, her talent, her known expertise, and her genius says a great deal to the dance world. It is apparent to anyone with a modicum of intelligence that the whole situation is rife with ‘political maneuvering.’ When ‘politics’ impinges on ‘art’, art is always the victim.”
Martynyuk, the newly designated artistic director, is a star dancer of The Kremlin Ballet theater and has the honorary title of People's Artist of the Russian Federation. A prizewinner of the Vaganova Prix and Arabesque-2002 ballet, Martynyuk is a winner of the First International Ballet Competition in Astana. He has guested many times with Ballet Manila to great audience and critical acclaim.
(Concert Advisory: In view of the DOH advisory to avoid gathering in crowded areas due to threat of 2019 coronavirus, "Itim Asu and Other Dances," scheduled February 21-23, 2020, has been cancelled by the board of trustees of Ballet Philippines Foundation until further notice. Tickets for "Itim-Asu" may be used in the next show, "Rama Hari.")
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)