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Lisa Macuja: The third degree

For someone whose body was never considered ideal for ballet, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde has ironically carved a long and productive career in it. Her story is the stuff dreams are made of: A scholarship to study at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute in  Russia at 18, top of her class graduate two years later, first foreigner to be invited to join the prestigious Kirov Ballet as soloist.

She eventually finds her way back to the Philippines and becomes a passionate advocate of bringing ballet to the masses as she performs in noontime shows, a cockpit arena, high school gyms and town plazas.

On her 47th birthday this October 3 and her 27th theater season, Lisa has decided to hang up her pointe shoes for good.

While she feels a tinge of sadness, Lisa says she has accepted the inevitable. She muses, “Retirement for dancers is not an “if” – it’s  a “when.” But it comes way too soon.Still, to have a Swan Song Series – where  the idea is to say goodbye to beloved full-length classical ballets one at a time in the next three years – I am truly blessed.”

Here, Lisa ponders the rewards of being on her toes all her life:

What is your concept of perfect happiness?

Waking up from a good night’s sleep and genuinely looking forward to everything you’re planning for the day.

What is your biggest source of contentment?

My family.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Long massages.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Our family vacations.

Who are the people you admire most?

Those who are passionate about what they are doing and unafraid to show their own weaknesses or limitations.

Who are the biggest influences in your life?

My parents – Cesar and Susan Macuja!

What are the traits you most admire in other people?

Being honest and true to yourself, being hard-working, being committed and loyal.

What are the traits you wish you had more of?

Selflessness, thoughtfulness, a sense of harmony and balance.

What are the traits you deplore most in yourself?

My almost obsessive-compulsive need to fill up my time with productive pursuits. I cannot seem to relax.

What are the traits you deplore most in other people?

Laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and disloyalty.

What other talent would you like to have developed?

Singing, acting and writing.

Name one thing most people don’t know about you.

I had eye surgery at the age of 18 to make my face more theatrically effective.

What’s your most vivid memory of studying in Russia during the Cold War era?

Having a KGB agent (though he never really said he was KGB) check up on me now and again. I even remember his name. He would call on me and invite me out to dinner and just ask me lots of questions about how I was finding life in St. Petersburg, who my friends were and how they were treating me.

What is your most treasured possession?

My wedding ring.

What motto do you live by?

No pain, no gain. Every success is the result of hard work, whether physically, emotionally or mentally exhaustive.

What is your biggest regret?

Not having a third child when I still could.

Define in three words the Filipino audience of dance.

Hard to please.

What do you consider your greatest contribution to Philippine arts and culture?

Ballet Manila and the Ballet Manila School. This is my legacy.

What do you recall is your best moment in ballet?

Running to (veteran actress) Luz Fernandez and doing the final pose at the end of “Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang” to a roar of cheers, applause and whistles from the audience.The ballet trilogy was an original Ballet Manila production that brought together the work of so many Filipino artists. We had created a Filipino classic!

What’s your most embarrassing moment onstage?

There’s been a lot: the many times I’ve fallen, that costume malfunction in Japan… I was dancing in “Pinocchio” as the Good Fairy but I had to exit because the strap of my tutu snapped and my costume was falling off!

What’s the downside of dancing ballet?

That it’s such a short career.

What do you look forward to in retirement?

Worry-free vacations. Keeping in shape.

What is your current state of mind?

Worried. I still haven’t completely recovered the sensation in my left foot after a recent foot surgery, and I have to be able to dance Swan Lake in three weeks.

What do you advise your daughter Missy now that she’s pursuing a career in ballet?

Listen to your body and don’t force anything that your body is telling you not to do. When dealing with my daughter, my motto of “No Pain, No Gain” sort of loses its significance. I want to protect her from the pain.

What’s the best advice you ever got – and from whom?

My teacher Tatiana Udalenkova was backstage one night and saw that I was extra nervous and jittery. I told her I was scared of dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake because I was always insecure my whole life about transforming into a Swan Queen. She said, “Just dance for your own enjoyment and pleasure. You’ve earned it.” I snapped out of my nervousness and decided to just enjoy my dancing. It worked! •

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde dances as Odette/Odile in her final performances of “Swan Lake” at the Aliw Theater, CCP Complex, Roxas Blvd., Pasay City, on October 7, 7:30 p.m.; October 9, 1 p.m., and  October 15, 5 p.m. Other Ballet Manila performances of “Swan Lake” are scheduled on October 8, 1 and 5 p.m., and October 15, 1 p.m. On October 21 and 22, Lisa dances her final “Romeo and Juliet” at the Star Theater, also at the CCP Complex.


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