The unlikely Swan Queen

After undergoing hip surgery, what’s next for Lisa Macuja-Elizalde?


WORDS  ZSARLENE B. CHUA | IMAGES  G-NIE ARAMBULO

When does a ballerina hang up her pointe shoes for the last time?

“Frankly, if I could put off retirement for another ten years, I would, but at the same time, there’s this anecdote where a dancer, Maris Liepa of the Bolshoi Ballet, was asked: ‘until when can a ballet dancer dance on stage?’ She said, you know what, you can go on stage at any time in your life and dance, but pity the audience,” Lisa Macuja-Elizalde laughingly told High Life in an August interview at her residence in Pasay City. She considers the question again and muses that she’ll leave the stage once she starts pitying the audience, like Liepa, and pitying herself due to the physical pain accumulated over a career spanning three decades, thousands of performances, and even more discarded pointe shoes.

The prima ballerina is grateful for having the opportunity to plan her final bow. “I actually consider myself very, very fortunate that I was still able to dance until the age of 51 because most ballerinas retire before the age of 35. Already, those extra 15 years have been icing on the cake,” she said.

Ms. Macuja-Elizalde’s long goodbye began in 2011 with her Swan Song Series, where she bid farewell to Odette/Odile of Swan Lake and Juliet of Romeo and Juliet; Giselle, Kitri of Don Quixote and Carmen followed in 2012; and Nikiya in La Bayadere and Masha in The Nutcracker in 2013.

She was supposed to stop dancing when she turned 50 in October 2014, but she couldn’t stay away. “I missed the activity, I missed moving to music. I remember going to class and feeling so good when I was stretching and moving again to music. That was when I decided to more or less continue, though I decided to cut back and I was very selective of what I would do,” she said of the decision. “I know I’m overstaying,” she added with a laugh.

Lead roles were off the table. Ms. Macuja-Elizalde limited herself to short appearances and dances like Fokine’s The Dying Swan popularized by Anna Pavlova, which she continued to dance until October of last year. And then, her comeback was cut short when she underwent hip joint replacement surgery this July. “Whether or not I go back to dancing after this hip joint replacement, after healing, I think it will all depend on how I feel at that point in time. Right now, I’m just concentrating on healing,” she said.

At the time of the interview, held in the beginning of August, Ms. Macuja-Elizalde was three weeks into post-operative recovery. While her legs were covered with bruises and she still had a little trouble walking, her energy showed no signs of dampening.

As a dancer of one of the most rigorous and strictest forms of classical dance, she was never a stranger to injuries and some were more memorable than others, having threatened to end her career before it even started. She was 17 years old when she fell from a lift onto her left ankle, fracturing a bone. A small chip was found floating in her Achilles tendon. It took her five months to get over that injury. She had to visit three doctors, two of whom told her to just stop dancing. The third, Antonio Rivera, who continues to be her orthopedic surgeon, offered more optimistic alternatives: putting on a cast and seeing if muscle would grow around the floating bone—allowing her to dance again—or surgery.

Ruefully, she recounted that she decided that if the cast didn’t work out, she would stop dancing and become the accountant her grandparents wanted her to be. The cast worked, however, and the muscle grew around the errant bone and she took it as a sign to resume dancing. Until now she calls it her “minor miracle.”

A year later, she hopped on a plane and entered the Vaganova Choreographic Institute (now Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) in St. Petersburg. Under the tutelage of Tatiana Alexandrovna Udalenkova, who she considers her second mother, she trained under the “very, very intense” Vaganova method which demanded 180-degree turnouts, high legs and high extensions, the use of the head, the use of the upper body, and daily training sessions of up to four hours.

She had but two years to learn all of the techniques, whereas other students in the same school had eight. At the age of 20, she graduated at the top of her class and debuted as Kitri in Don Quixote at the Mariinsky Theatre. She was the first ever foreign soloist to join the Kirov Ballet (also known as the Imperial Russian Ballet).

Prior to her triumphant debut, another injury almost made her quit: a strain on her ankle, this time her right. At that time, she was already making progress—enough to warrant a solo variation at the year-end recital, where she was chosen to represent the school in Moscow for an exhibition of outstanding foreign students. “I remember doing a passe en pointe and I could feel intense pain from my ankle and I couldn’t get up,” she said. “I remember going home, injured, from that rehearsal and thinking, ‘maybe this isn’t for me.’” Her injury forced her to sit out the Moscow performance but she healed in time for the year-end recital.

“I think for dancers, the hardest times to get through are times when you’re injured. You’re not sick, you feel fine, but you can’t dance. That’s the hardest part,” she said. Terrible bouts of homesickness made recovery even more difficult. She was alone in what was then the Soviet Union. Ms. Udalenkova, seeing her charge suffering, advised her to heal, rest, and come back.

STANDING OVATION

Ms. Macuja-Elizalde remembers her Kitri debut fondly as she was given a 25-minute standing ovation. Her first full-length Swan Lake performance also ranks high in her list of personal favorites, despite calling it “the worst Swan Lake” of her entire life.

Swan Lake was a role my second mother [Ms. Udalenkova] told me—warned me—not to do,” she said. “I was told that it wouldn’t suit me because I wasn’t a Swan Queen. I’m short. I’m very Asian. I just don’t look like a Swan Queen. I don’t have the lines of a Swan Queen.”

But dance it she did at 25.

It was during a festival in Havana Cuba and she was there with three or four pas de deux, representing the Philippines. One night, the general manager of the Teatro Nacional de Cuba (“I remember his name was Salvador,” she said laughing) knocked on her door and asked her if she had danced Swan Lake before. Ms. Macuja-Elizalde had done the Black Swan pas de deux but never the White Swan pas de deux nor the full length. Turns out, the Brazilian dancer injured herself and her partner, Maximiliano Guerra (a famous Argentinian danseur) refused to dance with anyone else. Was she interested, Salvador inquired, in taking the place of the injured dancer and performing with the Cuban National Ballet in four days time?

“If I said no, I would forever regret it. I should at least try. And I did try and it was the worst Swan Lake I ever did in my life,” she said, remembering that she equated the hotel’s flooded lobby, a lake of sorts, as a good omen. “I had very little time to prepare and I was struggling with the new choreography of the Alicia Alonzo version. I couldn’t speak Spanish at the time. Everyone around me only spoke Spanish and I had to struggle with my insecurity of not being a Swan Queen,” she recalled. “But I did get a standing ovation after the performance.”

She thinks she could have done better if she were given more time to rehearse. Still, the experience taught her that Swan Lake was within her reach. Eight months later, she danced the full-length Swan Lake with Philippine Ballet Theatre in Manila.

“I wish I could turn back time and do it all over again,” she said.

Ms. Macuja-Elizalde, considers herself her own worst critic. She can’t watch her taped performances until a few years have passed. “I feel like I’ve done enough. I have all my memories of dancing these roles that I loved dancing at the peak of my physical ability.” If she had to dance them today, she’d probably do things differently emotionally and artistically. “With age, I’ve grown so much as an artist,” she explained. “But that’s part of it. Now, I’m handing over my knowledge to a new generation of dancers and that gives me immense pleasure.”

Ballet Manila (or The Lisa Macuja School of Ballet Manila), the ballet company she founded in 1995 and where she acts as artistic director, is what she considers her legacy. She figures she has 20 more years to continue establishing that legacy. Occupied by preparations for the High Life photo shoot, Ms. Macuja-Elizalde failed to hear her husband’s comments. “I hope she’ll dance as long as she is able. The stage would look so lonely without her,” said Fred Elizalde, who was gazing at their wedding photo, taken 20 years ago, across the room. 

Informed later of what her husband said, Ms. Macuja-Elizalde chuckled. “He won’t admit it but he’s a stage husband. He doesn’t want me to retire.”

The tail end of her career has been terribly bittersweet. Kitri will always have a special place in her heart since it marked her debut on the world stage and Kitri, full of vim and vigor, is the character she identifies with the most. And yet, the Don Quixote character, with her sissones en attitude and her pirouettes, isn’t on the prima ballerina’s list of roles she would like to revisit, hip permitting. “If I could ever come back on stage and dance one last full-length ballet, it would be Juliet,” she said.


Arambulo uses a Fujifilm GFX 50S medium-format camera.