Ballet Manila’s (BM) American “import” Katherine Barkman is cast against type as Kitri in the company’s season ender, “Don Quixote.” She’s determined to nail her role nonetheless.
This popular ballet is loosely based on the novel, although Don Quixote’s story is just a side scene to the love story between a Spanish innkeeper’s daughter, Kitri, and charming barber Basilio.
Barkman’s face is angelic, more appropriate for a romantic heroine and ghost such as Giselle, or a regal ingénue like Princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” or the Snow Queen in “Nutcracker.” In contrast, Kitri is naughty, free-spirited and feisty. Her solos demand speed and technical fireworks.
The ballet itself portrays Spanish haughty elegance and requires sharpness of movement, fluttering fans and the crisp trills and clacks of castanets.
“It’s the monster of ballet,” said BM’s 20-year-old principal dancer. ” It’s going to be a push. But I live for challenge.”
Barkman is being coached by BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, who essayed Kitri in one of the world’s oldest and greatest companies, Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky Ballet) in Russia. Through the decades, Elizalde wowed audiences with her spunk the moment she leaped on the stage and her rapid spins. Now Elizalde is passing the proverbial torch to Barkman.
Barkman reviewed Elizalde’s performance tapes filmed in 1986. She was inspired by the fact that Elizalde was coached by great Russian ballerinas.
“It doesn’t come more pure than what she has given me,” said Barkman. “What I like about her ‘Don Q’ is her speed and her ability to fly. She really is explosive in her energy, and that’s something I’m trying very hard to push myself to achieve that.”
Elizalde has instructed her on the nuances of Kitri such as balancing suppleness beneath the feisty nature.
“She teaches me the dynamics of the movement,” Barkman said. “I always think of fire or lava underneath Kitri. Yet my character has an elasticity to her that makes it very interesting. Not everything is an attack.”
For Barkman, conveying expression across the stage comes naturally.
“When I’m on stage, I’m free to just be and to create whoever I’m playing. For my Kitri, aside from her big jumps, fast turns and speedy footwork, there is also something that is invisible, is only felt. That is what art does,” she said.
Barkman admitted that nothing came easy for her. Growing up in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, she took up ballet in recreational schools. Deadest on pursuing a ballet career at 14, she studied under Russian coach Nadia Pavlenko, an alumna of the revered Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, the bastion of pure classical dance. Barkman had to relearn the correct foundation of classical ballet.
She didn’t suit the ballerina ideal of long limbs and overarched feet. But Pavlenko encouraged her.
Daily, Barkman underwent private training. “It was brutal—mentally, physically—to be so isolated. Yet I had this dream and put in all this work. But I was not really able to see even where it was going to lead me, or was this even going to work.”
She became a competition alumna—in flying colors, in regional and global events such as the Youth American Grand Prix in Philadelphia and New York, USA Ballet International Competition; Tanzolymp in Munich, where she won the gold medal for Classical Variation and a bronze prize in Contemporary.
She sent her application to several dance companies, many of which had shown their interest. However, Elizalde’s offer to join BM was the most tempting.
For one, BM was steeped in the Russian tradition. Then again, Elizalde offered the possibility of hiring her as a principal, considering Barkman’s impressive competition records.
“I took this shot because Ma’am Lisa took a shot on me. She really took a chance at someone with no experience,” she said.
Barkman did not disappoint. Three months into her residency with BM in 2015, she represented the country and won the Grand Prize in the Asian Grand Prix 2015 for her Kitri variation from “Don Quixote” Act 3 and Grand Pas Classique variation. She also performed with aplomb in pas de duex from “Don Quixote” and “Sleeping Beauty” despite having no experience in partner work.
On her fourth month with BM, she gained accolades for her soulful dancing in “Romeo and Juliet.” Last year, she has added the title “international artist” after her appearances in galas in Latvia and productions in Canada and Florida.
Mikhail Martynyuk of the Kremlin Ballet and a frequent guest artist of BM chose her to be his partner in a festival at the Chelyabinsk State Academic Opera and Ballet in Russia.
However, the glory came with tests. She came with only P16,000 allowance from her parents.
There was the culture shock of leaving a comfortable life in the East Coast to live in a strange land. There were the language barrier, the heat, traffic and outmoded washing machines, she said.
“I didn’t know where to get water,” she continued. “I was relearning how to be human. Everyone told me not to walk on the streets alone. Do I just stay in one place? It was so hard.”
Barkman, who enjoyed having her own room in the States, shared a dormitory with five other dancers. Her baptism of fire was getting food poisoning.
“I was going to be like a grown-up, and make myself salmon for dinner. I hadn’t even met my roommates yet. Around midnight, I was hugging the toilet, and I called my mom. There was nothing anyone could do for me. It was one of those moments that I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re alone here, you don’t have your mom.’”
After living in a dormitory with no air-conditioning, Barkman, then 18, used her AGP prize money to lease her own condominium unit.
“I didn’t want to take money from my parents. I wanted to prove that I could save and be responsible,” she said.
Barkman admitted that she was high-strung on her first year in Manila. She has mellowed down, becoming a vegetarian and meditating regularly.
The practice of quieting the mind helps her to connect with her inner self, inspiration, and subsequently with the audience.
“Before a show,” she said, “I just walk to the center of the stage. It helps me to get in touch with the energy around me. I become aware of the pure energy within myself and share it with other people.” —CONTRIBUTED
BM presents “Don Quixote” on Feb. 24-26 at Aliw Theater. Call 8919999.