Arts & Entertainment

Back in the spotlight: Manila’s dancers return to stage after Covid closures

By Mark Cristino

Manila, Dec 17 (EFE/EPA).- The stage curtains of a Manila theater closed to thunderous applause – the audience had just watched its first live performance in nearly two years.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, theater doors in the Philippines have been locked, shows and productions have been put on hold, and dance rehearsals moved from studios to online. But that changed last weekend.

“My initial reaction was gratitude – grateful that we are getting our lives back. The dancers displayed that the pandemic did not dent their technique, still brilliant,” said audience member Nestor Palabyab after the show inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

The CCP celebrated its 50th anniversary at the end of 2019 and was preparing for upcoming 2020 shows when the pandemic struck.

For a group of people who spend most of their days in motion, the dancers’ lives and livelihoods were suddenly halted.

“It was difficult. Dancers were at the peaks of their careers when the pandemic hit,” said Philippine National Artist for Dance, Alice Reyes, who took four dancers into her home during lockdown.

Dancing at home presented its own challenges, such as a lack of space and internet lag.

“We were doing a lot of Zoom classes, work from home, but it was very difficult because of the small space,” dancer Stephanie Santiago said.

Despite the restrictions and challenges of the pandemic, support poured in from various groups and individuals to motivate the dancers to keep moving.

“In the beginning it was all private — friends from the US, friends from Davao gave, then CCP found resources from grants. The dancers were all grantees,” Reyes said.

The movement produced the Professional Dance Support Program, under the CCP, in which dancers were given grants and space to continue their practice and performances. What was initially a six-month program creating online performances was then extended to more than a year.

When authorities relaxed pandemic social restrictions last month and allowed the reopening of theaters and other entertainment venues, the opportunity came for the group to finally dance live, in front of a limited audience.

“We didn’t know if we were in shape, since we couldn’t dance at home properly,” said Victor Maguad.

But Reyes said “the pieces quickly fell into place, the dancers got their stamina back.”

In the run-up to the show, dancers were tested for Covid-19, wore masks during training and strictly observed health protocols. They all trained in a bubble a week beforehand, converting rooms such as the theater’s ballroom and dressing room into sleeping quarters.

On Dec. 12, the CCP opened its doors and raised its curtains for “A Christmas Celebration.”

It showcased classical ballet and an all-original Filipino dance production about Christmas and culture in the country, complete with traditions including Simbang Gabi (Dawn Mass), and local Filipino treats such as puto bumbong and bibingka (rice cakes).

With Covid-19 cases dropping in Manila, the group hopes for more shows and support.

“It’s my first wish that there will be a return to some normalcy so that culture, arts, theater can come back to life,” Reyes said. “But people have to understand that Covid-19 is here to stay (…) so we have to deal with it. Get vaccinated, use your masks, so that we can continue to function and people can earn a living.”

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