ARTMAGEDDON By Igan D’bayan (The Philippine Star) | Updated June 29, 2015 - 12:00am
When Sylvia Lichauco-de Leon became the president of Philippine Ballet Theatre (PBT) two months ago, the first thing this lady did (the daughter of a former ambassador of the Philippines to the Court of St. James) was the most un-ballet thing you could think of: get rid of rats and cockroaches in the old PBT office at the backstage of Meralco Theater.
“They were eating our ballet costumes, props and sets,” laments Sylvia, giving us the impression that this lady would do anything for the young ballet dancers of PBT. “It’s a difficult job because you have to raise a lot of money in a hurry and do the most un-presidential looking activities (such as getting rid of vermin and insects). But I’ll do anything for these kids.”
If you think ballet is only for the rich and privileged, think again. “Many of our dancers come from the grassroots,” Sylvia explains, “but they have this enormous talent and we really hone them in this classical ballet tradition.”
The lady herself took up ballet when she was six. She had two older sisters who were studying under an American ballet teacher, Ricardo Cassell. “Oh, I remember how my butt used to stick out since I was so skinny. Cassell called me, ‘Peanut.’”
But then came a Papal Nuncio disallowing Catholic high school girls from dancing in leotards or to be carried around by boys. “It was a big deal in the Fifties,” describes Sylvia. Thus, many of the girls quit ballet altogether, including the Lichauco sisters.
“I guess there must’ve been a seed in me that loved ballet — and it was removed,” she shares.
In London, when she was 16 and her dad Marcial was the Philippine ambassador, Sylvia watched shows at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden every chance she got. She raves about British ballerina Margot Fonteyn and Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. In college, in Georgetown, Washington D.C., she was a frequent theater-goer, even making regular trips to New York to watch shows. Sylvia got married and had daughters whom she encouraged to learn ballet. One girl — Sunshine, who’s now a writer — felt like an elephant in ballet class because she was too tall. Another preferred ice-skating. The third one gravitated toward acting. But Sylvia still organized trips to ballet shows for her daughters and their friends. Still she wanted to share the spectacle.
When Sylvia moved back to Manila in 2008, she ran into Felicitas “Tita” Radaic, who (along with Eddie Elejar and Julie Borromeo) was one of the founders of Dance Theatre Philippines, now considered the mother company of what has become the present-day PBT. Sylvia went to the see Philippine Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake. Then she came to see Mir-I-Nisa.
“I was so impressed! I asked (the people at PBT) if I could get tickets so that I could take children from public schools to watch shows. They said yes.”
Sylvia rented buses for the schoolchildren of the Sta. Ana public school, 50 kids at a time, even a hundred. Those were children who had no exposure to the performing arts. And she saw what watching ballet did for them.
“After seeing Peter Pan, the grade four schoolchildren drew artworks for their teacher,” Sylvia says. “Some drew curtains, chairs, cute little dancers, or heads of little children. There were two that really got to me.”
One kid drew an astronaut on the moon holding the Philippine flag. It was captioned thusly: “If Peter Pan can fly, then I can become an astronaut.”
“I still have it,” Sylvia proudly says. “It made me cry. Wow! They’re dreaming, they’re dreaming big. They believe that anything is possible. Their imagination has been stirred by the scenery, the music, and the sets. So I kept on bringing them — Cinderella in Resorts World, Pinocchio in the Repertory, and as much ballet as I could get free tickets for. After a couple of years, I realized, ‘Now, they want to dance. Let’s teach them how to dance.’”
It was around that time that Tita Radaic asked Sylvia to be a board member of PBT. She later on became vice president and organized ballet and art workshops for underprivileged kids in the Mandaluyong and Pasig area. Now, as Philippine Ballet Theatre president, she’s showing off snapshots of her PBT dancers on iPad and she is — I kid you not — beaming.
“These talented young boys,” she points to a particular picture, “come from a poor family of nine children all sleeping in one room.” They attended the workshops and were named apprentices last year. PBT’s Russian ballet instructor Anatoli Panasyukov (whom everybody calls “Papa”) see so much potential in them.
When the two boys go to class, they usually don’t have any money, so Sylvia feeds them and makes sure they get home. (“Last night, we had a bit of sinigang,” she relates.) Eduardson and Emmerson have appeared in Carmen and The Nutcracker; they even made a trip to Malaysia (Sylvia got them passports); and now are slated to dance in PBT’s opening show in its 29th season, Don Quixote, which features guest artist Joseph Phillips.
Joseph, who will play Basilio, is the principal dancer of the State Primorsky Opera and former soloist of the American Ballet Theatre. He was so impressed with PBT stars Regine Magbitang and Lobreza “Loby” Pimentel, the alternating Kitris. (See sidebar.)
“There is a lot to do in PBT,” Sylvia explains. “We need better system, procedures, a bigger staff. We need to grow our company. Here, in the Philippines, the common person doesn’t know ballet, as opposed to Russia where — as Joseph says — everybody on the streets knows the story of Le Corsaire, appreciates it, and watches the show. The Russian government supports that. Here, to get a little bit of money from the government is so hard.”
She raises a valid point: feeding the soul is essential for the country. The performing arts shouldn’t be treated as a beneficiary of charity; it is part of nation-building.
“You see our studio — it’s old, it needs paint, new mirrors, new floors. But when you see us onstage, you will be blown away,” Sylvia Lichauco-de Leon concludes.