East and West converge in Ballet Manila's 'American Stars Gala'

Anjie Ureta

Posted at Jun 23 2018 11:49 AM

Boston Ballet principal Junxiong Zhao. Handout

MANILA -- Paving the way for the opening of its 23rd performance season, Ballet Manila brings together some of today’s brightest and fastest-rising Asian and American dance artists in its fundraising event, “American Stars Gala,” scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on July 7 at the Aliw Theater. 

The one-night-only concert will be headlined by Boston Ballet principals Lia Cirio and Junxiong Zhao, with soloist Hannah Bettes; Houston Ballet principals Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews, together with Ballet Manila resident guest principals Katherine Barkman and Joseph Phillips.

Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde says the idea of bringing together these outstanding young dancers onstage was broached to her by choreographer and Boston Ballet faculty George Birkadze, who was recently in town to create new works for her company. 

Since most of the dancers were scheduled to perform in gala concerts across the Asia-Pacific region, it would be the perfect time for them to converge in the Philippines and join forces with the Ballet Manila artists. 

“Of course, the plan took off immediately because I really wanted to bring in Lia Cirio, who is an outstanding principal dancer with Filipino roots. It would give local audiences a chance to see her perform and get to know her better,” she adds.

Boston Ballet principal Lia Cirio. Handout

Since 2004, Cirio has danced numerous classical, neo-classical, and contemporary roles for Boston Ballet, and has been hailed as “one of the most accomplished actress-dancers in the company” by The Patriot Ledger. She has performed in galas worldwide and most recently was a guest artist with Los Angeles Ballet. 

She is the sister of American Ballet Theatre principal, Jeffrey Cirio, with whom she co-founded the contemporary company, Cirio Collective.

“I have never been to the Philippines,” says the US-born ballerina, who spent most of her growing up years in Philadelphia. “My father was born in Subic Bay but left the Philippines at the age of three to move to the US. I am looking forward to seeing where my father spent some of his childhood. He still has family there, so I am hoping they will be able to attend the show. I know that Filipinos love dance, so I know that performing for them will be rewarding.” 

“Growing up, we spent holidays with my Filipino family, so we became familiar with the food and celebrations of the Filipino culture,” she recalls. “However, when I was about 14, we moved so that I could study ballet seriously. I was immersed in ballet and had less time to learn about my culture. This is the reason I am so excited to visit.”

Classical jewels, contemporary charms

While leaning more towards the splendor of the classics, the evening’s repertoire will also feature powerful neo-classical and contemporary pieces – including a world premiere. 

Cirio will perform as the White Swan, Odette, together with Ballet Manila soloist Mark Sumaylo and the BM corps de ballet in Swan Lake Act 2. 

Kajima and Matthews will grace the stage with two pieces -- Giselle pas de deux and the Madame Butterfly pas de deux by Stanton Welch. 

Zhao will partner Bettes in the pas de deux from La Sylphide and the Sleeping Beauty wedding pas de deux.

Joseph Phillips and Katherine Barkman will be dancing Le Corsaire pas de deux. Handout

Philippine-based American principals Barkman and Phillips will be dancing Le Corsaire pas de deux and the contemporary piece KBJP, especially created for them by choreographer Augustus Damian III for the XI USA International Ballet Competition. 

Meanwhile, Ballet Manila will unveil Birkadze’s brand new choreography, Imperial, as well as restage a company warhorse, Deconstructing Gershwin, by Hazel Sabas-Gower.

Dance as dream catcher

Macuja-Elizalde’s previous efforts to organize international ballet galas have resulted in the successful staging of “Today’s Stars of the Russian Ballet” in 2010, the “The World Stars of Ballet” in 2012, and the homecoming concert “Stars of Philippine Ballet” in 2013. 

The prima ballerina reveals that the upcoming event has been arranged to raise funds for Ballet Manila scholars who have qualified to participate in the prestigious Asian Grand Prix to be held in Hong Kong this August. 

While the company continues to shoulder most of the expenditures as it has done in previous competitions, the number of qualifiers had swelled considerably, making it increasingly difficult for the company to keep up with the travel expenses of the competitors and their coaches. 

Hanna Bettes. Handout

“Ballet Manila has been sending competitors to the AGP since 2013 with much success. Every year, our delegates always came home with medals, citations, and scholarship offers. In fact, Katherine Barkman, who started her professional career with BM, won for us the competition’s highest award -- the Grand Prix -- in 2015. So we really want to continue making the opportunity to learn and grow from this unique experience more accessible to our young dancers – especially to those who cannot afford to further their dreams.”

“We are truly grateful that Mr. Birkadze, along with all the wonderful artists who are performing in this concert, have given their full cooperation and support to this endeavor. With the help of an enthusiastic and generous audience, our ballet scholars would have the chance to participate and do well in the AGP – and perhaps even win more honors for our country!”

Tickets for Ballet Manila’s “American Stars Gala” are now available at all TicketWorld outlets.