At Large

Lisa’s ‘last’ Don Q

At its heart, ballet is all about deception. To succeed, the ballet dancer must employ tremendous physicality, athleticism and strength if he/she is to make the leaps, lifts, turns, jumps, and twirls that ballet demands. It is also no mean feat to be able to execute these steps through the two hours of a full-length ballet, without showing any sign of fatigue or flagging energy.

And yet to be truly successful, the ballet dancer must perform all these feats without effort—or no sign of it—masking the physical demands of dance with grace and suppleness, executing the most difficult steps or sequences with lightness and seeming weightlessness. I am continually amazed at how male dancers manage to lift their partners without a grunt or two, and how the women manage to stay aloft without any fear, leaping into the arms of their partners with nothing but air and confidence to boost them.


Now imagine having to do this at an age when more prudent contemporaries are giving up sports and demanding physical activities in a desire to protect vulnerable spots like knees and ankles, shoulders and backs, hips and groin—and to avoid the pain that comes on the heels of age, weight gain and thinning cartilage.

It may be for such pragmatic reasons that Lisa Macuja, the Philippines’ only prima ballerina (defined as a dancer who has performed, or performs, all the roles in classic canon), announced a few years back that she was retiring from dance but would do so only after completing a series of “farewell” performances of her favorite, most beloved and best-known roles.


Indeed, as Lisa’s mother Susan confided, Lisa “thinks that in two years’ time, her ankles (for which she has undergone operations) will finally give way. And she wanted to dance these roles one last time, with no need to alter the difficult steps.”

* * *

So its is that Lisa’s “Swan Song Series” is not just a farewell to a magnificent career in dance, but also to the women, to the characters, who have become, in the 27 years she has interpreted them, not just alter egos but also sisters in spirit, in feeling, and in artistry.

“To say that Kitri (in the ballet ‘Don Quixote’) is my dream role would be an understatement,” Lisa has written. Besides the fact that “this winsome, happy-go-lucky daughter of an innkeeper has become my stage alter ego, a character that fit me like second skin, the ballet persona that brought out the best in my dancing because of the passion and flamboyance that typified her,” Kitri also ushered Lisa into the professional ballet world.

As Lisa tells it, as soon as she was asked to join the Kirov Ballet in 1985, she began dreaming of dancing Kitri onstage, fueling “all my waking hours” so that even as she began dancing as part of the corps, “I already spent extra time rehearsing portions of the ballet that do not require a partner, just so I could fly on my own and enjoy myself.”

* * *

Just a few months later, Lisa’s “Kitri dream” came true, when she was cast as the innkeeper’s daughter in the Kirov’s “first major matinee performance for the year.”


Not only would she be dancing her favorite role, and with the Kirov’s principal dancer, Faroukh Ruzimatov, as her lover Basilio, Lisa would also be performing onstage at the Mariinsky Theater, where Marius Petipa first staged Don Q!

Any dancer or aspiring dancer would “kill” to dance Kitri with the Kirov Ballet, but to dance her on the very same stage where the ballet originated? No wonder Lisa describes the experience as a “fairytale-like feeling of this entire episode in my dancing career.”

In the decades since, after coming home to the Philippines and especially after establishing Ballet Manila, Lisa has brought us not only Kitri and the other heroines but also season after season of performances that explore the entire range of dance, while developing young dancers who are now making a name for themselves here and abroad.

Her avowed lifelong goal was to “bring ballet closer to the people and people to the ballet.” With BM dancers, she has performed in various provinces, once even memorably dancing on a “stage” fashioned from plywood laid onto stacks of soft drink crates. She has brought BM on tours abroad, while also traveling as a guest artist for the most respected dance companies in the world.

* * *

Given all this, and the billing of “Lisa’s last Don Q” (not really, there is still a performance this afternoon at Aliw Theater), expectations were high about Friday night’s performance.

And she—and BM—did not disappoint. In fact, Lisa seemed sprightlier, naughtier, and even stronger as she danced her favorite role. How she could pull off dancing a young woman bent on frustrating her father’s marriage plans for her is a wonder, but even seated a few rows away from the stage, one was completely taken in, falling for her interpretation of a rebellious daughter so young she still stuck out her tongue at her father!

Equally deserving of praise was Lisa’s Basilio, Mikhail Martynyuk, principal dancer of The Kremlin Ballet Theatre, who is young (he was born just a year before Lisa debuted with Don Q, my daughter observed), good-looking and equipped with an admirable “line” and fascinating technique. His high leaps and confidence were so breathtaking the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end of each passage.

And a word about the corps. As always, excellent and coordinated. But special mention must go to the male corps, who are uniformly capable and agile, especially in the sequence of the gypsy men.

I can understand Lisa’s heartache at having to bow to the inevitable. But her “last Don Q” is a testimonial to her lifelong devotion to her art, and her enduring legacy that is Ballet Manila.

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TAGS: At Large, ballet, Don Quixote, Lisa Macuja, opinion, Rina Jimenez-David
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