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Dancing my way through Christmas memories

By LISA MACUJA-ELIZALDE, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 25, 2021 5:00 am

With so many Christmases past, choosing one memory — a favorite — is next to impossible. Clearly, the optimist in me will say the best Christmas memories are yet to come. Every Christmas celebration will just get better and better as time passes.

The pragmatist in me will say, however, that time and location qualify my memories of the best Christmases. Like that one in our house in Boracay when the kids were very young and I had them hang their presents from Santa Claus on the coconut trees outside the porch, assuring them that Santa would find them on the island.

Or that time when we spent Christmas in our Tagaytay home and my husband Fred and I pretended to hear sleigh bells, running outside with the kids to meet Ruby and Diamond, the two ponies from Santa. Our kids Missy and Manuel were none the wiser. They didn’t wonder why there was a newly completed stable in the farm for their two new ponies that Santa had just dropped from his sleigh that very same day. Oh, the sweet innocence of children!

At home for Christmas 2019 are my husband Fred Elizalde with me and our children Missy and Manuel.

Then there was the Christmas and New Year when my sister Gia was playing the role of Estrella in Here Lies Love at the National Theater in London — and the whole family made their way there to watch the show and celebrate a wintry Christmas together. We partied like it was the ’80s and danced with Gia and the cast on their night of victory. The warmth of family ties more than made up for the unforgiving weather.

Ask any ballet dancer about the holidays, and the most immediate thought likely to pop in our heads is The Nutcracker!  This quintessential Christmas ballet celebrates the magic of the season like no other.

Christmas and New Year in lockdown last year? That was spent on Boracay Island once more, with one child logging online for his university studies during the night, and another child halfway across the globe. But boy, did we keep the video calls burning! We may not have all been in the same place, but our hearts were clearly linked and bonded.

It makes me think of my days studying ballet in Russia in the 1980s and how, to make a phone call to my parents, I had to wait for hours in the post office to connect with them for a few precious minutes. Now, thankfully, I can communicate with my children wherever they may be in the world in an instant.

Since Ballet Manila began its collaboration with Star City many years ago, it became a foregone conclusion in the company that Christmas would be spent performing onstage or working backstage. In my case, at some point, it was both.

On those cold days from December to January, I would join my dancers in struggling to keep warm and limber to perform for families and spread some Christmas cheer while leaving behind our own with a promise to catch up and celebrate later.

In lockdown mode: Christmas 2020 was spent in Boracay with Fred and Manuel. Missy couldn’t come home from the US, so we just spent a lot of virtual time with her and Kona, her pet Corgi.

But while having to work on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and all the days in between may seem unfortunate, my fellow bun-heads and I would always feel much gratitude for the opportunity to perform during this most important season. We are each other’s second family and sharing the stage is always a joyful moment.

Ask any ballet dancer about the holidays, and the most immediate thought likely to pop in our heads is The Nutcracker! This quintessential Christmas ballet celebrates the magic of the season like no other. A nutcracker that comes to life, toy soldiers, an army of rats, dancing snowflakes, a sugar plum fairy and many other colorful characters all come together on Christmas Eve to transport the audience to a world of fantasy and wonder.

To perform this for a Christmas crowd is always a delight!

But to dance my last Sugar Plum Fairy together with my own daughter as Masha was an incredibly amazing experience.

As an artistic director, I am always proud to see my dancers achieving much-coveted roles, knowing how hard they have worked to improve their skills and be worthy of the honor. But as a mother, sharing the stage with Missy was a unique and out-of-this-world event, especially knowing that it would be my last time to don that pink tutu. Truly, it was a Christmas gift that will always be in my heart and my memory.

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Apart fromThe Nutcracker, Ballet Manila has also had the privilege of creating and unwrapping original productions that reflect the spirit of a true Filipino Christmas. These locally flavored vignettes have not only entertained audiences but also offered thoughtful messages and valuable lessons so perfect for the season.

Through dance, we are able to share stories that warm the heart, laced with humor and fun — Christmas gifts that we have loved bringing to Filipino families year after year.

In Kutitap, an angel comes to earth in the guise of a cripple to observe what is happening to mankind and leaves reassured that compassion and kindness still prevail.

In Paskong Pista, an array of neighborhood people is woven into a story of local customs and Christmas practices, reflecting the elements of a traditional Filipino fiesta.

In Belen, we reimagine the fabled journey of the Three Kings as they search for the Child Jesus born to Joseph and Mary in a manger, underscoring the real meaning of Christmas

We spent Christmas 2014 and New Year 2015 in London so we could watch my sister Gia play the role of Estrella in Here Lies Love at the National Theater. Along with Fred, Missy, Manuel and I came my parents Cesar and Susan Macuja and my brother Joly, his wife Mariton and their kids to be with Gia, her husband Robert Atchison and their kids.

Through dance, we are able to share these stories that warm the heart, laced with humor and fun — Christmas gifts that we have loved bringing to Filipino families year after year.

It was heartbreaking for us when a fire destroyed Star City in October 2019, abruptly halting this annual tradition of performances that are always thoughtfully put together. Even though it was tragic, Christmas that year was oddly very special because for the first time, there were no shows in the park and that meant everyone in Ballet Manila got to spend the whole season with their family for a change.

One day, when live performances return, I will join Ballet Manila in bringing joy to Filipino audiences once more through our unique Christmas shows, drawing other families together through the language that we know — of dance and love and hope.

In what would have been a commonly busy week or two at the theater, I suddenly and pleasantly had all the time in the company of Fred and Missy and Manuel, as well as my parents Cesar and Susan Macuja.

Sadly, the following year and the year after that, the stage remained empty — not just during Christmas — as COVID-19 hit and put a stop to all live performances. But what this agonizing situation has reaffirmed for many of us is that the one constant is family.

Sharing more time with loved ones, through lockdowns and quarantines and pandemic restrictions, proved to be a source of comfort and reassurance that we will make it no matter what — as long as we are together. Through it all, we have made new memories and recalled the abundance of old ones to sustain us.

So what makes Christmas special? For me, it is the family you get to spend the holidays with, the places you spend them together in, and the time that you spend together celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior. I am doubly fortunate because I have known what it’s like to share Christmases, not just with my own family but also with my extended family of dancers, performing artists and theater staff that is Ballet Manila.

One day, when live performances return, I will join Ballet Manila in bringing joy to Filipino audiences once more through our unique Christmas shows, drawing other families together through the language that we know — of dance and love and hope.

I am full of gratitude for the blessings despite the many hurdles, and I await what lies ahead with eager anticipation.

Christmas is about sharing and loving and loving the sharing… and I will continue to think and believe that the best Christmases are yet to come.