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Three decades on, and the prima ballerina still dances

17 August 2016

By Daisy CL Mandap

Not age, nor injury, has stopped prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde from donning her pointe shoes to indulge her lifelong passion for dancing.
At the age of 51, she is set to take to the stage again to play the lead dancing role of Inang Bayan (West End star Joanna Ampil is doing the singing part) in "The Rebel", a play on the Edsa People Power Revolution that she helped write.
“Ballet is a short-term career,” she says. “I am more the exception rather than the rule, to be dancing at more than 50”.
For sure, there were times when the Philippines’ first prima ballerina thought she couldn’t dance anymore, especially after surgeries to both her ankles, which sidelined her for a year. But with her usual tenacity honed from years of rigorous practice to perfect her art, Lisa was soon back to doing what she has always wanted to do.
Most recently, she scored another first in her illustrious career when she was invited to sit as a juror in the Asian Grand Prix, an international ballet competition that has been held annually in Hong Kong for the past six years.
Lisa and her school, Ballet Manila, has been sending dancers to the competition since the start, and last year scored its biggest win when its principal dancer, Katherine Barkman, won the Asian Grand Prix Award.
This year, with 276 dancers from 15 countries competing, Ballet Manila’s promising young dancer, Nicole Barosso, won the silver medal in the junior division for the second consecutive year. Six other dancers from the school landed in the top 10 in their respective divisions.
Though winning is obviously the end goal in any competition, it should not be the only objective of those who want to make a career out of dancing, says Lisa. Failures are often inevitable.
“You have to rise above it,” she says, “because it could be very subjective and intense”.
Speaking from years of experience in auditioning for nearly all the major roles a ballerina could aspire for, Lisa knows that for every dancer who lands the position, there are dozens others who go home in tears.
Thus, one should look at competing as a chance to hone skills, get noticed, and if one gets lucky, to be offered a scholarship or a contract with a prestigious dance company.
“It’s the way things are in our world”, Lisa says matter-of-factly.
Life in ballet can also be brutal because after all the grueling time spent rehearsing and perfecting one’s craft, the payback is often too short, and too little.
“If you’re lucky and you don’t get injured you can have 20 years of dancing,” she says, then adds, “but it doesn’t pay much”.
Given this reality, the fallout from the profession is high, with many dancers eventually opting out to look for jobs that offered better and steadier income. Others take the more commercial route, like joining HK Disneyland and cruise ship shows.
Lisa says there’s no shame in any of these. “It’s a job, and it offers opportunities”, she says.
Still, she says parents should encourage their children to take up ballet, or any form of dance education.
“It is entertaining, and it great training ground for developing a lot of skills that help you get through life. It teaches you the meaning of sacrifice, dedication, commitment and plain hard work.”
If Lisa were to be the gauge, these life skills are certainly worth aspiring for.

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