Ballet that is haunting, eerie, and elegant

‘Fremd.’ Photo by David Akiba

‘Fremd.’ Photo by David Akiba

By Tricia J. Capistrano

When I was 6, my mom sent me to ballet class in dark green leotards and tights while all the other girls wore pink and black.

The ballet studios were in an L shaped building in Quezon City, in the Philippines. Each wing had several dance studios whose mirrors reflected the mango trees outside. When I looked at my reflection, my leotard blended with the leaves. Inside the classroom though, I stuck out. My mom didn’t want to buy the uniform until she was sure that I liked ballet.

I wanted to, badly. I wanted to be like Princess Odette in “Swan Lake” whom I saw on TV. I could do all the positions but when the ballet mistress asked us to move our arms and legs across the studio while we moved to the pianist’s music, my brain and limbs protested. I kept trying but I was not getting any better. I started to get stomach aches on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the days when I had class. After trying several for sessions, I stopped.

I actually forgot about the stomach aches until I watched my 7-year-old son, Emil, in a ballet class in New York City, 30 years later. Hearing the plie and tendu practice music reminded me about the distress that ballet caused me. When I realized I couldn’t do ballet, I think I subconsciously decided not to like dance. I have always loved to read and consider myself a ‘words person’ so when I was growing up and was asked to watch a dance performance, I would suggest that we watch a play or a concert. I thought of dance, especially ballet, as old fashioned and an art that did not resonate my life.

Fortunately, my son didn’t take after me in that way. He loves to dance. He loves ballet. His brain and body communicate fluidly. Emil is 14 now. He has been going to ballet class for seven years. He has been in a number of shows including New York City Ballet’s “Swan Lake” and the “Nutcracker.”

After finishing college in the Philippines, I moved to New York to go to graduate school where I met my husband. We decided to live in Manhattan and then continued to stay partly because Emil’s ballet school is in the city.

My husband, Tony has always been a follower of dance — both ballet and modern. To support Emil’s dance education, he endeavored that we expose Emil to as many ballets and modern dance performances as we can.

My favorites — New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins’ “Barber Violin Concerto,” for me, it’s an essay on marriage. I rediscovered the beautiful tragic dances of Odile and Odette in “Swan Lake.” I loved watching the formations even from the fourth ring! And if I could watch a performance every year, it would be Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” Whenever I see it, I am touched spiritually, I am reminded of the hardships of Filipinos, how we persevere and continue to find hope and joy.

‘Tactility.’ Photo by Ani Collier

‘Tactility.’ Photo by Ani Collier

I first read about Jeffery Cirio, the first male Filipino American Principal Ballet Dancer at the Boston Ballet and then at the American Ballet Theater, from the New York Times in July 2016. In May of this year, Emil and I had the opportunity to meet him through Cristina Pastor, the Editor of The FilAm. Cristina is also one of the hosts of Makilala, a Filipino American TV show taped in New York City. Cristina invited Jeffrey, Emil, and me as guests to talk about boys in ballet.

While talking to Jeffrey, I learned that as a child, he played soccer. During the Winter months, when he couldn’t play he decided to try ballet because his older sister Lia Cirio (now a Principal Dancer at Boston Ballet) was taking classes. At 16 for Lia and 15 for Jeffrey, they were invited to join the Boston Ballet II. They have both been in the professional dancers now for more than 10 years.

In 2015, Jeffrey and Lia decided to start their own dance company, the Cirio Collective. In the summer, when the established companies’ seasons have ended, Jeffrey and Lia and other ballet dancers from American Ballet Theater, Boston Ballet, and Norwegian National Ballet, come together to collaborate on works that stretch ballet’s boundaries.

In an interview, Jeffrey said that he enjoys choreographing for his company because ballet can be so strict and square. When he choreographs, he says, “I can get out of the squareness and be me.”

Last July 23 and 24, the Cirio Collective participated in the Joyce Theater’s Ballet Festival. The theater, founded in New York in 1982, is renown internationally for cultivating and honoring emerging and established dancers and choreographers. My son was away at ballet camp so it was just my husband and me who watched from our family. On both nights, the theater was packed with followers of dance, and dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and the Boston Ballet.

The first piece, “Fremd,” choreographed by Jeffrey opens with Altan Dugaraa in muted red tights moving fluidly on the left side of the stage. The ballet dancer from Mongolia is later joined by couples in matching muted blue short suits moving around and with Mr. Dugaraa but never fully joining him. Fremd is a synonym for alien, outsider, a situation I think, we all know.

“Fremd” is then followed by “World Premier Video” also choreographed by Jeffrey. The piece is actually a film shown on stage of dancer Blaine Hoven in an abandoned building. Hoven is wearing armor made of crumpled newspapers. He is then joined by Lia Cirio and Emily Mistretta. There is something aberrant, angry, and artful about this piece. I felt like I was watching a David Lynch movie.

The Cirio Collective dancers after their performance at the Joyce Theatre Ballet Festival.

The Cirio Collective dancers after their performance at the Joyce Theatre Ballet Festival.

“Tactility,” choreographed by Gregory Dolbashian and performed by Jeffrey Cirio and Blaine Hoven, stands out because it is an elaborate partnering piece with two men, definitely not common in ballet. The complex movements and the illusory music makes the dance eerie and beautiful.

The show ends with “Efil Ym Fo Flah/ Half of My Life” also choreographed by Jeffrey. The music, played by electric violinists Josh Knowles and violist Anna Stomer, is haunting and then picks up in speed. All nine dancers in the company start with angular movements and formations, then break off to do fluid duo pieces, and then the group gathers again quickly and moves in unison like melancholy and then crashing waves.

The piece is pulsing and elegant. They make it look so easy. One forgets that each of the dancers have to control every single part of their body, their limbs, their toes, the strength in their fingers, even the intensity of their stare.

“Half of My Life” made me think of my life, Jeffrey and Lia’s, being different, the toiling, the crests, the unexpected turns.

You may not be a “dance person,” but it’s worth checking out Cirio Collective’s next season in 2018. Watch them and watch you step out of the box.

Tricia J. Capistrano’s articles have appeared in Newsweek,, and the Philippine Star. She is the author of “Dingding, Ningning, Singsing and Other Fun Tagalog Words.”

© 2017 The FilAm

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