Review by Joelle Jacinto
When ballet companies repeat full length productions within a few years, the new production will inevitably be compared to the previous one. When Philippine Ballet Theatre presented Andres KKK in 2008, many PBT balletomanes declared the production a success, but found space to comment that it wasn’t as tight or as magnificent as the previous 1996-1997 productions. In contrast, the revitalized Mir-i-Nisa presented from July 27 to 28, 2019 at the CCP Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo had audiences euphoric, it being a vast improvement from the 2009 version. This year’s staging is to celebrate the ballet’s 50th year anniversary; in a way, the ballet has finally lived up to its prestige in the last 50 years.
Mir-i-nisa was premiered by Dance Theater Philippines as part of the inaugural year of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969, and holds the distinction of being the first full-length ballet performed in the CCP, as well as the first full-length Filipino ballet performed in the CCP. Two of DTP’s three artistic directors, Julie Borromeo and Felicitas “Tita” Radaic (the third is our dignified premiere dance scholar, Basilio Esteban Villaruz) choreographed the ballet, as invited by composer, Eliseo Pajaro. Borromeo took on acts I and III, which were the scenes in the kingdom, while Radaic composed the underwater scene of Act II. The ballet translated a short story by Jose Garcia Villa, based on a myth where good wins over evil. Borromeo and Radaic performed as Nymphs of the Pearls in Act II, while the lead roles were portrayed by Nini Gener and Mary Anne Garcia, alternating as Mir-i-nisa, Odon Sabarre as the virtuous suitor Tasmi, and Tony Fabella as the boorish suitor Achmed.
The ballet was said to be well received and was even offered a performance in the US, sponsored by the Rockefeller center. However, DTP had gone on hiatus the following year, after its dancers joined the Alice Reyes Modern Dance Company, which later became the CCP Dance Company, and even later, Ballet Philippines (Borromeo, personal communication, 13 January 2006).
Mir-i-nisa was reprised in 1989 for its 20th anniversary, also by Dance Theater Philippines, with Mylene Saldaña in the title role, Nonoy Froilan and Osias Barroso Jr. alternating as Tasmi, and Raoul Banzon as Achmed, then in 2009, for its 40th anniversary, with Lobreza Pimentel as Mir-i-nisa, Lucas Jacinto and Mark Joseph Piñeda as Tasmi and Peter San Juan as Achmed. The 2019 staging has Regine Magbitang, Matthew Davo and Julafer Fegarido in the lead roles.
Regina Magbitang as Mir-i-nisa, flanked by Matthew Davo (L) as Tasmi,
Joel Matias as the Datu, and Julafer Fegarido (R) as Achmed.
Photos by Erica Marquez-Jacinto
It is difficult for me to imagine what the 1969 version looked like, since I had not been born yet, and had never seen the video. But its importance in dance history would make us believe that it was a spectacular ballet, and should have seen more restagings through the years. For this is a gauge of whether a show is good or not: it is repeated; whether demanded by sponsors or audiences or the administration have acknowledged that ticket sales were impressive during this run. A performance is so good that people who haven’t seen it, but have heard about it, want to see it, and the people who have seen it would want to see it again.
I wasn’t very excited about Mir-i-nisa when I heard that it will open PBT’s 2019 season, but decided that ten years is enough time to rework flaws in any ballet. Frankly, the 2009 version looked rushed and underdeveloped. The company dancers at the time looked immature and many ensemble sections looked underrehearsed. Pimentel was forced into the lead role after Jay-Anne Tensuan was untimely injured. Importantly, Pajaro’s music was difficult to dance to, and often ended abruptly.
Today’s choreographers, already experienced and regularly working and experimenting with 20th century music, would have figured this out easily, and it is one of the main obstacles that Jaynario has conquered in this restage. Further, they had employed musicians from the Philippine Baranggay Folk Dance Troupe to enhance and accentuate the old recording of Pajaro’s music with traditional Maranao gongs and chants, making for livelier transitions and easily moving the story along.
On the seaside, the Datu throws a pearl into the sea.
Of course, we wouldn’t know that it was a pearl that was thrown into the sea from just watching the ballet, or that it wasn’t actually a pearl but salt and Tasmi wins the princess for his honesty, and I feel it is perfectly fine to spoil the audience beforehand. Because that isn’t the point of Mir-i-nisa, it is the dancing, much of it delivered gloriously by the now very capable company of dancers. Although I feel that Davo and Fegarido are not full princes yet, the male ensemble as a whole is very strong and formidable. More memorable than either of the princes, or any of the male dancers, is veteran Joel Matias, supposedly portraying a character role as Mir-i-nisa’s father, surprising us with lively tour jetes and pirouettes.
It is however the PBT ballerinas who are the most impressive, led by Mir-i-nisa herself. Magbitang shines as Mir-i-nisa, injecting a fulsome character that renders her so much more than a pawn in a political chess game, making you believe that men will risk drowning themselves just for a chance to marry her. She is gracious to both her suitors, but the way she dances with each in their respective pas de deux shows how she prefers Tasmi to Achmed, intimating that she is smarter than she appears and definitely won’t tolerate arrogance. Her sure technique and musicality allow her to be a joyous heroine. It is really her ballet, through and through.
Kim Abrogena, Clarise Miranda and Mikaela Samson as the wives of the Datu.
The three soloists, Kim Abrogena, Mikaela Samson and Clarise Miranda, are all testament to the quality of dancing that is now the PBT standard. They are stunning together as wives of the Datu, and even more arresting when separated as ocean nymphs. Jaynario's particular choreographic expertise is complex partnering, and this can be fully appreciated during Achmed's search for the black pearl, as he encounters the different pearl nymphs in all their glory. From the old photos of the 1969 production, where the nymphs are seductively entwined with either their consorts or Achmed, Jaynario seems to remain faithful to the original intention of Radaic, simply updating the technical level according to the dancers' capabilities.
Mikaela Samson as the Nymph of the White Pearl
While I did marvel at Abrogena's sultriness and daring (especially when flying off the strong arms of ever reliable Mark Pineda), and was pleasantly surprised at Miranda's voluptuous movements, I was most impressed by Samson's imperious turn as the Nymph of the White Pearl, from her majestic ascendance from the large clamshell to every unfolding of her arms and legs, ably partnered by Jimmy Lumba. To hear that she had only two weeks to learn the parts (filling in for Veronica Atienza, who was suddenly sick) has further raised my regard for her talents.
The production is lavishly designed by Miguel Faustmann; my favourite parts were the palace scenes, which is just how one would imagine this opulent storybook kingdom. They tried to incorporate videos for dynamic coastal scenery, but I'm not very convinced that it is necessary.
Lovely ladies of the UESDT performing a traditional Maranao dance
A native touch that is welcome is the participation of the University of the East Silanganan Dance Troupe, performing traditional Maranao dance and a fusion of traditional and contemporary dance as part of the wedding divertissement in Act III. Because Mir-i-nisa's movements are stylised in the Filipino ballet tradition that has been practiced and perfected for over 50 years, the inclusion of a pure traditional form is seamless and natural, not out of place at all. Another reason to celebrate this ballet, for sure.
Magbitang and Davo at the wedding of Mir-i-nisa and Tasmi.
All photos by Erica Marquez-Jacinto