Ballet Manila soars as Aliw Theater rises from ashes

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Aug 13 2022 08:17 AM

The newly rebuilt Aliw Theater. Totel V. de Jesus
The newly rebuilt Aliw Theater. Totel V. de Jesus

MANILA -- “Ang daming comfort rooms ngayon!” A well-respected music and dance writer said during the soft opening of the newly reconstructed Aliw Theater at the renovated Elizalde Complex in Pasay City. 

There are eight in total, ABS-CBN News learned from one of the ushers, and they are evenly distributed for males and females around the theater. It’s a relief, in a sense, for regular concertgoers with bladder problems who are always in quandary to find the nearest comfort rooms -- small, crucial details that other performance venues in Metro Manila take for granted. 

We’re witnesses to the return of Ballet Manila doing live performances and Aliw Theater’s re-opening last August 10, when the dance company performed excerpts from “La Traviata, “Cinderella” and Martin Lawrence’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“It’s great to be back with a real, live performance. There’s nothing like live after two years going on video, making films, teaching ballet online,” Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, founding CEO and creative director of Ballet Manila, told the audience composed of media people covering the arts as well as movers and shakers in theater and the performing arts industries. 

“Ballet Manila returns leaner, meaner and ready to adapt,” Macuja-Elizalde said, like a victory motto. 

The dance company, like everybody else, was forced to migrate online for its classes and performances since the pandemic quarantines and lockdowns started in March 2020, or about two-and-a-half years ago.

But before that a fire gutted the Star City amusement park that spread to the theater on October 2, 2019.

“We did decide when the fire happened that we are going to rebuild and going to improve. But it was decided that rebuilding an exact copy of Aliw Theater was out of the question. [Rest assured] we were going to improve, make things better for the artists and the audience,” Macuja-Elizalde said.

“Before, we had a capacity of 2,300. We were bringing in busloads of children to watch ballet then riding-all-you-can in the (Star City Amusement) park after the show. We were bringing in families to the show and riding-all-you-can at the park. It was a sweet, hard deal. It was something that was helping us with our vision and mission in bringing ballet to the people and bringing people to the ballet,” she recalled.

“I really didn’t think that we would be changing anything radically and making our theater smaller. So, now we are 1,275 seats. If we put down this orchestra pit (pointing to the front end of the stage), we are losing about 200 seats,” she added.

Then again, she recalled when the classes for the enrolment in the Lisa Macuja School of Ballet (LMSB) migrated online, the number of enrollees increased. Besides students from the Philippines, both in Metro Manila and the provinces, there were enrollees from Bahrain, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hongkong, Portugal, the United States and Australia.

“We transferred our classes online and went on from there to develop an entirely new way of running the school. With online recitals, examinations, a developed syllabus and new classes such as the ‘Dance With Me’ toddlers classes and the Ballet for the New Young senior citizen classes among many others -- and we continue to grow!” said Macuja-Elizalde.

When Star City finally re-opened early this year, renovations went on for the theater. 

The complex now has three distinct facilities that can host different types of events.

Besides the Aliw Theater for concerts, ballet, stage plays and other performances, there’s the 500-meter area called The Custom Space for rehearsals, intimate shows, recitals, exhibits and social events. 

Third is the Elizalde Hall for business meetings, training events and small conferences. It is 370-square-meter area that includes a spacious lobby and two meeting rooms.

“So, we are opening the complex to be more inclusive. This is a hard-working complex where there is versatility open to anybody who wants to maximize the facilities. If you need to have conferences and presentations afterwards, that is all possible within this complex, it is not just a theater anymore. There’s a warm-up studio upstairs,” Macuja-Elizalde went on explaining the new amenities.

At the scaled-down Aliw, the theater has a powerful LED screen that can cut costs in set building and offer more possibilities for interactive theater. The idea is for dance or theater companies from outside not to bring extra equipment. 

“The lights are so excellent we can’t see you,” Mitch Valdes, one of the hosts in the launch said in jest. With what looked like lantern flood lights focused on her, Macuja-Elizalde and co-host Reb Atadero, they can’t see from the stage who’s talking in the audience. 

Besides the top-of-the-line lights and audio equipment, there are the brand-new seats and carpets. What’s wonderful is on-stage, there’s the 36 ft. x 15 ft. LED screen in the main theater. 

“The LED screen will be a huge help in putting up our old repertoire with less cost for production without compromising on the quality,” Macuja-Elizalde added.
 
Another major highlight of the renovation is Aliw Theater’s new smoke suction and fresh air system. “This is basically like a built-in air purifier. We were rebuilding during the lockdowns and this allowed us to put in features that will make the theater safer given the pandemic conditions.”

The theater lobby has also undergone major renovations. Besides the eight comfort rooms mentioned earlier, there’s an elevator and special seating for Persons With Disability (PWDs). 

As for Ballet Manila, Macuja-Elizalde remains optimistic and realistic at the same time. 

“I lost my co-director, Osias Barroso. He got very sick and he is unable to work in the company. We are forced to adapt, I am not going to lie. It is more difficult now because we lost 50 to 60 strong, able dancers. 

“We cannot do a ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Giselle’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’. We are doing ‘Don Quijote’ and combining efforts with Lisa Macuja School of Ballet, with the more advanced students and children in the school,” said Macuja-Elizalde.

“There are many changes, challenges that we are facing but what I feel is the phoenix is rising. We are leaner and meaner and better and ready to adapt to any kind of change. If we survive the last three years, from the fire in October 2019, the best is yet to come,” she added.

To officially mark the return of Ballet Manila, a special full live performance titled “Rise!” will happen at the Aliw Theater. There will be two shows only, at 8 p.m., on October 7, and at 5 p.m. on October 9.

As confirmed on BM’s official website, to be performed is a double bill featuring “La Traviata” with baritone Andrew Fernando and “Ballet & Ballads”.

There will be a full orchestra with Maestro Gerard Salonga as musical director and conductor. It was announced that there will also be guest pop singers. Macuja-Elizalde told ABS-CBN News via Facebook Messenger they are still finalizing the lineup. 

“Meeting with Gerard (Salonga) next week,” she said on Friday afternoon. 

“Rise” will be followed by “Holiday Cheer Series” for families and children. It will stage Macuja-Elizalde’s original choreography of “Cinderella” from December 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, and 30. All shows at 4 p.m.

In 2023, Ballet Manila will return by staging its 25th performance season. It can be remembered it was stopped because of the pandemic lockdowns in 2020. 

Titled “Of Hope and Homecoming,” it will open with Martin Lawrance’s “Romeo and Juliet” on February 18 and 19. 

Its mid-season will showcase “Don Quixote” with guest artists from San Francisco Ballet on May 27 and 28. The season will close with Gerardo Francisco’s “Ibong Adarna” on August 19 and 20.

Indeed like the phoenix, Ballet Manila despite the challenges of the times is about to soar and Aliw Theater has risen, literally from the ashes. 
 
Macuja-Elizalde said, “They say seeing is believing. We can do it and we did it. Yes, we will soar. We all need each other to make that happen, not only for Aliw [and BM] but the entire creative industries. We are here for you and let’s do this together.

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