Ballet Philippines, Alice Reyes, and All That Jazz

Published March 11, 2020, 9:33 PM

by Dom Galeon

A question of procedure

Images by NOEL PABALATE

Over the past weeks, much has been said about the recent goings-on at Ballet Philippines. It’s a topic of conversations—often passionate, sometimes hushed—among friends who, for one reason or another, are invested in the future of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ resident ballet company. It has been discussed in tons of social media posts and dozens of articles both online and on print.

For nearly a month now, the controversy that has clouded the tail end of BP’s silver season has consumed many who have become part of the company’s history, as well as those who have continued to support it over the years. Just as COVID-19 continues to infect more people, concerns over the selection of BP’s new artistic director won’t seem to go away.

Alice Reyes

Early in February, the social media rumor mill started churning after former members of BP, notably former CCP and BP president Nestor Jardin and former BP artistic director Edna Vida-Froilan, took to Facebook to express disappointment and even anger over the replacement of National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes as artistic director. It wasn’t so much that she was going to be replaced. It was largely about who was going to replace her, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation Mikhail Martynyuk.

As more details—or the lack thereof—about what happened came to light, the discussion shifted from who the incoming artistic director would be to how he was even chosen in the first place.

There and back again

“Alice Reyes’ term as artistic director ends on March 31, 2020, as she herself has declared repeatedly,” says BP vice-chairman of the board Maan Hontiveros. “She was invited to return to BP as artistic director to lead us through the 50th season. She reminded the board several times, the latest of which was in September 2019, that she would be leaving at the end of the 50th season.”

Alice had been intending to retire, there’s no doubt about that. She was, in fact, retired. Since 1989, she hadn’t been involved with the ballet company she co-founded with Eddie Elejar in 1969. She returned because she was asked by then BP president and now CCP chairman Margie Moran-Floirendo to help the company through the runup to its 50th season.

“I only stepped back because Margie was really concerned about the company getting to the 50th,” Alice says. “I went around and talked to a lot of people—former members of the company—to ask if they would take on the artistic directorship. It never occurred to me to take it back. But nobody wanted to take it on and, obviously, something had to be done because nawala ang mga dancers, nawala ang mga staff.”

When Alice returned to BP in 2017, there were only nine dancers left in the company. Things were not in a very good shape, says Richard Upton, a member of BP’s board of trustees and its current treasurer. “We were stumbling from 2000 to 2017. The company was in serious trouble,” he says. “We were taking money from the dancer’s retirement fund that we were not paying back. We were cancelling performances. That started to change when Alice came onboard.”

The financial woes have since been remedied, thanks in part to board members agreeing to give at least ₱200,000 a year to BP’s funds. That was doubled to ₱400,000 in 2018 when Maymay Liechstentein became president. But it was also due to how Alice managed productions and the good audience turnout in almost every production.

“With Alice, we had two of the most successful seasons we’ve had by far. Financially, we’ve never been in such a good shape,” says Richard. “We used to not have funds by the end of the season. Now we have enough funds for one or two productions for the 51st season. This has never happened before. Of course, administration also gets credit for that.”

According to a statement from the BP board shared by Maymay, Mikhail Martynyuk’s appointment “was to be announced only on April 1, at the start of the 51st season, but this was pre-empted by Alice’s premature and unauthorized announcement of the board’s decision to the dancers.”

Maybe they should watch the shows not just on the opening night?

Alice Reyes, Ballet Philippines founder and outgoing artistic director

This supposed “unauthorized announcement” was a decision Alice took as a sign of respect to her dancers. “When, as a trustee, I got an announcement from the search committee that they got Martynyuk, all I did was I wrote Maan and I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to announce it to the company. This is the way I operate. I’d rather do it now than later when and they ask me why didn’t you tell us, alam mo na pala,’” she says. “The moment I found out, my instinct was I will tell the company, this is it, and then we can go back to work.”

It was because the dancers found out about the decision that the controversial dressing down of the dancers by one BP board member happened. They were told that it was the board’s job to choose the artistic director and that it was their job, as dancers, to simply work on the performances. “But we are not robots,” said one senior dancer, expressing what the rest of his colleagues felt at that particular moment.

“We in the board don’t decide on a whim,” says BP chairman of the board Tonyboy Cojuangco, in a statement that was sent to US-based Pinoy dancer Enrico Labayen. “We do our research. We also have our contacts in the field of ballet and have asked for referrals when doing our search.”

This process, according to Maymay and Maan, included “reaching out to a network of artists, dancers, dance communities, and embassies.” Martynyuk was considered after his contact details, CV, and links to a video of his works were given to the search committee by “a top diplomat at the Russian embassy in Manila,” both say.

“The search committee then contacted Mr. Martynyuk. The Russian Embassy did not influence our decision in choosing Mr. Martynyuk over the other candidates,” they explain. “Neither did Ms. Lisa Macuja-Elizalde have anything to do with Mr. Martynyuk’s inclusion as a candidate.”

THE ART OF ARTISTS Ballet Philippines dancers, many of whom have expressed concerns over the selection of the new artistic director, at the 50th anniversary gala that featured works by fashion designer Michael Cinco and was held at the cultural center of the Philippines

A drama within a drama

While it is the prerogative of the board to choose who would be artistic director, Richard claims that even that was not done properly. In a letter dated Feb. 19 that he sent to his fellow trustees, he writes that the matter of selecting an artistic director for the 51st season was mentioned almost as an after-thought at the end of a meeting that took place on Nov. 7, 2019. “[It] was an off-agenda item without any formal decision(s). This was discussed in a very casual atmosphere. No selection committee was officially composed or approved. No mandate or timetable was offered for approval,” he writes.

Richard says that Maymay and Maan, whom he calls “process mavens,” claim that the board approved a search committee on that same meeting. “The membership of this committee, its mandate, and budget, if any, does not appear in minutes of the board of trustees,” his letter continues. He adds that he was told by someone that he was a member of the search committee but he had never received an invitation to any of its meetings.

Both Maymay and Maan shared in a similar statement that “actions leading to the selection of a new artistic director were made after Ms. Reyes served notice [in 2019] that she would be on board only until the end of the 50th season, an arrangement that was mutually agreed by Ms. Reyes and the board.”

It is clear that steps had been taken after the Nov. 7. 2019 meeting that pushed for the selection of a new artistic director. What many, including Richard, question is what these steps were. Because the minutes of that meeting hadn’t been shared to the trustees, as Richard says, “for review, comment, and possible correction,” details of what happened remain unclear. “No copy has been received by the corporate secretary, Ms. Doreen Yu,” the letter continues. “On what basis and authority did the matter of the selection of the new artistic director move forward?”

Then came the Feb. 6 meeting, which was held at the Manila Golf Club, where the appointment of Mikhail Martynyuk was approved. Richard writes that this decision is “seriously tainted,” owing to the fact that several members of the board were not present, including Aldine Basa, Doreen Yu, Richard, and Alice herself.

Most commentaries lament why the board did not consult Alice, out of courtesy, as ongoing artistic director and National Artist. But even in terms of procedure, the fact that she is a trustee already warrants the she be present at board meetings, especially since the Feb. 6 meeting, Maymay and Maan say, “was expanded to include other board members who expressed an interest in the search. This was converted to a special board meeting with the concurrence of majority of the board present therein, due to the urgency of a decision on the appointment of an artistic director.”

Richard says that this decision to morph the search committee meeting into a board meeting should not have been done. He adds that BP is under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and there are procedures that have to be followed for board meetings.

In a message he sent to Tonyboy on the evening of March 5, he says, “According to the statement released a few days ago by the SEC chairman [Emilio] Aquino: All board meetings of legally constituted organs must follow the process of 21 days notice of all board meetings (formerly 14 days) to all board members/trustees and must be minuted and minutes must be approved. This process [was] not followed. All trustees were not notified and not included as part of the February board meeting. Minutes have never been submitted for proper board approval.”

The message, which Tonyboy has not yet responded to, continues with a plea for remedial action. “Let’s do it properly,” Richard says in a phone conversation. “Let’s put together a committee of stakeholders: BP management, dancers, some alumni, and the CCP, and maybe outside legal people. Let’s back up and re-search.”

A disconnect?

Apart from matters of procedure, this issue hounding the BP is, in truth, not unique to it. An underlying theme is the relationship between the management and the artists. Some claim that the BP board did not consider the opinions of its dancers, of its artists. Members of the board, including its chairman, deny this.

“We have tried to include both the executive and artistic departments in our strategy and planning sessions,” Tonyboy says. “Neither the artistic director nor the dancers have attended these sessions. But I don’t blame the dancers. Maybe they were not informed by the artistic director. Or maybe the artistic director scheduled rehearsals on the planned dates, which were announced months in advance.”

It, however, didn’t help that the controversial cancellation of Itim-Asu and the supposed spiriting away of set pieces and costumes happened, although the BP board has since denied the latter. A one-day staging of Itim-Asu, not by the BP but by Alice & Friends, took place on Feb. 21, after the CCP gave Alice a grant for the production. The Cultural Center’s 1,800-seater main theater was packed usque ad sumum, to the brim, with 300 or so watching from screens set up at the lobby.

Many of those who watched that evening were from a younger generation of ballet lovers, which might come as a surprise for members of the board who say that one of the reasons for choosing a younger artistic director was to draw the younger crowd in. Richard says that BP shows fill up the CCP more than any other performances. There is, perhaps, a disconnection between the management of the BP and its artists.

“We’ve had Millennials who have come to me and say, ‘I just want you to know that I am a subscriber. I’ve been subscribed since the 48th season.’ Sometimes you see these young people in the lobby and they’re all dressed. Parang date night,” Alice says, explaining how attracting the younger crowd has never been a problem.

“Maybe they,” she continues, referring to some members of the board, “should watch the shows not just on the opening night?”

 
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