It would have been a banner golden year for Ballet Philippines (BP).
Under the quiet leadership of company president Kathleen Liechtenstein, it had secured a budget of P70 million even before the current season opened last August with “Swan Lake.” It was bigger than the last two seasons.
Subscriptions had spiked by 180 percent in the 49th season over the 48th season.
“That was the first time there was money before the opening. People trusted [Liechtenstein] enough to give that much,” said Ping Valencia, BP public relations and communications head. Added Marianne Hontiveros, board of trustees vice chair, “We didn’t have to dig into our pockets as we usually did to meet expenses.”
Likewise for the first time, the BP president had provided health insurance for the dancers and paid overtime rates as prescribed in the Labor Code.
This month, however, just weeks before the end of the celebration of its 50th year, BP is being rocked by controversies.
Despite Liechtenstein’s professionalization of the company and noninterference in artistic policies, there emerged rumors of a rift between her and National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes, BP founder and artistic director. On the surface, it seems like the classic clash between artistic bent and business pragmatism.
The dance community is emotional about Reyes’ impending departure and the recently announced appointment of a foreign artistic director, with supporters insisting she was not consulted in the process. BP dancers say the confusion was triggered by the board’s lack of transparency. They believe due process (an audition for the board and the company), as expected of performing arts companies, was not observed.It appears that the bigger concern is Reyes possibly leaving the company in an atmosphere of discord.
In 2017, Margie Moran Floirendo, then BP president and now Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) chair, sought Reyes’ help with artistic management. Reyes flew back to Manila from her home in New York to ask former dancers to consider taking on the post of artistic director.
Nobody wanted to. eyes agreed ton see the company through to March 31, 2020, the end of its 50th year.
Today, BP’s size has increased from nine to 33 dancers. There’s a junior company called Ballet Philippines 2 and a roster of apprentices and scholars.
The board claims that it meant to make the now controversial announcement on April 1, when Reyes would have finished her term.
As it happened, last Jan. 23, Reyes, who signs the checks, saw a request for transportation on her desk. She told top management that it was not covered by her budget. It turned out to be a request for the airfare of an applicant for artistic directorship.
Rumors began to circulate that Lisa MacujaElizalde, CEO and artistic director of Ballet Manila (BM), had recommended Russian Mikhail Martynyuk, principal dancer of the Kremlin Ballet (and her partner in her last fulllength ballets before retirement).
Speaking to Lifestyle, MacujaElizalde clarified, “It was Ballet Philippines’ search committee for artistic director that asked the Russian Embassy for recommendations. The embassy contacted Marynsky Ballet in St. Petersburg.” She said one of the dancers recommended Martynyuk, citing his fondness for the Philippines and willingness to move his family to Manila. “It was Marynksy Ballet that gave his name to the embassy.”
Lifestyle also met with Hontiveros and Reyes for clarification. We drew extensively from the minutes of board meetings leading up to the ruckus.
Here are excerpts from that log, and a parallel timeline of relevant events:
April 12, 2019: Reyes officially announces to the board that she is recommending both Adam Sage and Ronelson Yadao, BP associate artistic directors, as her replacement starting April 1, 2020. “It’s up to the board to choose,” she says. “I’m just planning to train them.”
Sept. 2, 2019: Reyes announces she is definitely leaving “after the 50th—I just want to bring it before the board.”
Nov. 7, 2019: Reyes is in New York on medical leave. Hontiveros reminds the board that Reyes is grooming Sage as successor. (Yadao would be coartistic director). The 14 trustees want to explore other options. They agree that the artistic director does not have to be Filipino. They are willing to search internationally. It is mentioned that the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, a resident company of the CCP, currently has a Japanese musical director.
The board envisions a new leadership that would make BP “top of mind” among other companies across Asia, Hontiveros told Lifestyle.
A search committee is formed, headed by Mercedes Zobel, culture advocate and daughter of late tycoon Enrique Zobel. In it are board chair, businessman Antonio Cojuangco, Hontiveros, Liechtenstein, Amanda Luym and Cora Corpuz. According to the minutes, treasurer Richard Upton, Reyes’ exhusband, suggests that the search be kept under wraps.
Another board member says she made a longdistance call to Reyes, who confirmed that she would be in Manila from the end of November to April 1, 2020.
Jan. 29, 2020 (a week after Reyes finds the request for plane tickets): Five candidates have been shortlisted for interviews: Sage, Yadao, an American, a Portuguese and Martynyuk.
Two are seen as promising prospects. Martynyuk is flying in from Moscow to Hong Kong on his own. His Hong KongManilaHong Kong airfare will be shouldered by the board.
Martynyuk’s curriculum vitae shows that he is an “honored artist” for the Russian Federation, the equivalent of National Artist in the Philippines. He has won eight Soviet and international awards and citations. He is the founder and artistic director of Boutique Ballet Studio and, with his extensive experience in teaching, production and choreography, organizes numerous ballet workshops and lecture series. He has been a guest artist in over 30 international festivals.
11 a.m.: The Russian Embassy sends word that interpreters are not available for Martynyuk’s interview. Hontiveros calls up MacujaElizalde, who is conducting a class at BM, for help in translating the questionandanswer portion of the interview. In the conversation, Martynyuk expresses his wish to meet up with MacujaElizalde.
(“I realized that he was already in the Philippines,” MacujaElizalde would also tell Lifestyle later. “It wasn’t a conference call.”)
Liechtenstein brings Martynyuk to BM.
At the BM studio, the dancers ask Martynyuk why he is in Manila. He says he is being interviewed for the post of BP artistic director.
1 p.m. (5 a.m. Lisbon time): The Portuguese candidate, wearing a suit for the video conference, makes an impression. He has a master’s degree in school administration, a methodology diploma from the Vaganova Academy in Russia, a professional dance diploma from Germany, 13 years experience as director in Lisbon’s National Conservatory Dance School, and 22 years teaching in Vaganova classical and character dance. He has been a juror in over 50 international ballet competitions and speaks eight languages.
Feb. 1: Hontiveros sends Sage and Yadao separate emails informing them of their interviews with the search committee on Feb. 3. Sage, an American national, first worked with BP in 198283 and returned as associate artistic director in 2001. He was founder and artistic director of Missouri Ballet Theater and choreographed fulllength ballets. He was principal dancer of six international companies and has taught for 40 years. (Hontiveros told Lifestyle that the board pays for Sage’s housing, since he is an expat.)
Yadao is artistic director of Ballet Philippines 2. He was a BP company member before he joined Cloud Gate Dance Theater in Taiwan. He returned to BP in 2016 and has performed lead roles and choreographed new works.
Sage told Lifestyle that he received the notice of the interview on Feb. 3 and its requirements on Saturday night, Feb. 1. He informed them that he had previous commitments. “I didn’t feel that less than 48 hours was enough time to prepare myself. Aside from the interview, they wanted the choreographic works on a flash drive and the paperwork. I offered to move the interview to Feb. 4, 5 or 6. The response was that if you could not be here on that day, then we can’t adjust to you. I don’t understand why this was so lastminute. This interview was not planned on Saturday for the following Monday. It’s not like I haven’t been interviewed before for other jobs. You’re not asked to come 48 hours before the interview.”
Yadao also has an important commitment on Feb. 3.
Feb. 3: Neither Sage nor Yadao turns up for the interview.
The other American candidate makes an appearance. He is a teacher, choreographer and dancer and an adjunct professor of dance, with artistic director experience. He has taken up an honors program in business administration. He was a principal dancer in Russia and several American dance companies, won awards in international dance competitions and has international coaching experience.
Feb. 6: The board decides on Martynyuk.
Feb. 7: The board issues a circular and announces Martynyuk’s arrival on March 15. In a company call, Reyes shares the news with the dancers.
Feb. 8: BP dancers read the circular on Martynyuk’s credentials on the bulletin board. Reyes writes to the board, saying that the Russian’s appointment came as surprise to her. Nevertheless, she congratulates the search committee and says she is looking forward to meeting her successor.
Feb. 810: Netizens decry the appointment of a foreigner in BP and accuse the board of not giving Reyes the respect that she deserves.
Feb. 11: Hontiveros meets with Reyes and the company. She reviews the search timeline with them and tries to quell their resistance to a foreign artistic director. She reminds them that American Alan Hineline held the post in 20082009.(In an interview with Lifestyle, the dancers said his coartistic director and then partner was Max Luna III, a BP alumnus. See related story on the same page.)
Meanwhile, the board issues another circular, this one canceling “Itim Asu,” following an advisory from the Department of Health about the coronavirus epidemic. The gala was earlier set for Feb. 21. The date is significant because Alice Reyes Dance Company made its public debut at CCP on Feb. 21, 1970, introducing a new dance form.
Feb. 12: Reyes protests the cancellation of “Itim Asu.” Sympathizers accuse the board of creating more obstacles.
“It’s force majeure,” maintains Hontiveros. BP dancers circulate a petition demanding that a Filipino be named artistic director.
Feb. 13: BP alumni continue to repost a letter, calling on the board of trustees to revoke Martynyuk’s appointment, for nationalistic sentiments.
Russian for ‘hugot?’
When she met with Reyes and the dancers, Hontiveros expectedly defended the board’s decision. “I told them that nationality shouldn’t matter. An outsider could offer new perspectives, raise technical and artistic standards…”
A dancer wanted to know: “How would a Russian explain hugot?”
Another said Martynyuk was not familiar with Filipino choreography. Hontiveros explained that the board made it clear he was expected to expand the Filipino repertoire and encourage new local works.
The dancers expressed hurt for not being informed of the search. Hontiveros told them that the search committee has been instructed to keep the selection confidential. Besides, she said, the choice of artistic director had always been the board’s prerogative, not the dancers’.
In any case, she assured them that she would convey all their sentiments to the board, and that they could approach her if they had any problems with Martynyuk.
Reyes maintained that, although she was a trustee, she was not invited to any board meeting deliberating her successor, and especially not the one held on Feb. 6, when a decision was made. Hontiveros explained, “Nobody was under any illusion that she was not aware of what was going on. And once again, she is not being replaced; she is finishing her term.”
Hontiveros spelled out the board’s choice on a higher level for Reyes: Martynyuk has excellent ideas on the use of multimedia instead of sets, which can lower costs. He also has a network of choreographers and teachers whose fees are negotiable. Plus, he is young, just pushing 35, so he will be an energetic teacher who can demonstrate partnering and other steps.
To which Reyes merely said she was oblivious to both rants and sympathetic posts from the dance community. “I don’t have a social media account. People have just been telling me.”
She agreed it’s been “a most extraordinary” week. What’s kept me sane is coming down here and working with the dancers. You forget the hullabaloo. In fact, she emphasized, she is not resisting Martynyuk’s appointment. “Change? That is my middle name,” she says.