While her father was touted “Mr. Philippine Folk Dancer” during his time, newly-named National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes has successfully continued his legacy to develop and promote dance arts nationwide, and even pioneered contemporary dance in the Philippines.
As founder of Ballet Philippines (BP), the country’s premiere company in ballet and contemporary dance, the multi-talented dancer, choreographer, and artistic director Alicia Garcia Reyes is among the recently proclaimed National Artist by President Benigno Simeon Aquino 3rd on June 20.
Besides being the driving force that propelled contemporary dance performance and appreciation among Filipinos, the striking 72-year-old is also responsible for initiating the professionalization of dance arts in the country, with her persistence in raising funds for her company, so that BP performers can become full-time dancers with decent earnings.
“Before BP was established, there were only part-time dancers because they needed day jobs. Dancers would be teaching, writing, or working in the bank and could only rehearse after 5 p.m.,” she recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine in a one-on-one interview at the Ballet Philippines Dance and Music School in SM Aura Tower, Taguig City. “Of course, you can’t be professionally adept as dancers and meet standards with that kind of set-up.”
Through BP, Reyes started providing salaries for dancers. “It was BP that started it all so that dancers can just be dancers and grow in their craft. As a result, they could be in the studios rehearsing, working 10 hours a day, every day. Sometimes they’d even rehearse on Saturdays and Sundays because there aren’t many studios around.”
She rightly prides herself in showing dancers that they can become professionals. “If there’s something I did for dancers here in the Philippines, it would be that they can live as dancers. That even if they are never really paid well, they can sustain a decent lifestyle.”
Road to National Artist
It was as early as 2013 that Reyes heard through a very dear friend—a “little bird” as she called him—that she was to be given the highest artistic award in the country.
“It was an amazing stew of emotions, and I couldn’t quite believe it,” was her initial reaction.
With grace and humility, she added, “Frankly, I never really thought about being a National Artist. It was always about doing what you are supposed to do, then the emotional compensation. And then all these other things would come naturally.”
Since the inception of BP in 1969, Reyes has danced and roamed around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) for 20 years, collaborating with the biggest names in the industry to produce a diverse repertoire of highly acclaimed works from classics such as Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, to modern Filipiniana pieces like Amada, Itim-Asu, Bayanihan Remembered, and Mga Babae.
“For some reason, you go on and continue to work along with National Artists and all these other icons, and through the years you don’t realize that you’re at that stage already,” she contemplated.
Truly an inspiring and influential artist who opened Filipinos to the modern dance genre, Alice Reyes swayed to the beat of her life, seizing opportunities and taking bold chances—making her the “demanding” yet caring mother of Philippine contemporary dance.
As the eldest daughter of Filipino folk dancer Ricardo Reyes and Philippine Women’s University (PWU) voice teacher Adoracion Garcia, the young Alice Reyes would wake up to the sound of the piano or to the singing of her mother’s students, which included formidable names such as former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
With such artistic parents, Reyes and her five siblings were heavily exposed to music, dance, and even visual arts. At the early age of four, she began dancing with her father and touring the Philippines for father-and-daughter performances.
While she went to school in then-Maryknoll College in Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City, she would quickly head to PWU after class for painting lessons.
By the time she graduated high school in the same institution, she was already training with Helena Benitez’s Bayanihan Dance Troupe.
She studied at the PWU for a couple of years so she could join intensive trainings and meet the demands of the dance group, which was at the time about to embark on their very first international tour in Brussels.
“That was my life. I went to school in Maryknoll and went straight to PWU for painting lessons. My mother was a wise woman, because all that exposure came to be used professionally. She made sure that all of us were not just focused on one art form, but we always sang, we went to museums, we painted, and read, read, and read.” the multi-faceted artist narrated.
A diversion from what she would eventually become, Reyes took History and Foreign Affairs still at Maryknoll, and went as far as finishing her post-graduate degree at the Ateneo de Manila University.
“When you are young, sometimes you have a misguided notion of what you want to do. I took up Foreign Affairs because I thought then I wanted to be a diplomat. But eventually I gave in to the inevitable [of becoming a dancer],” Reyes quipped.
But while she studied languages, foreign policy, international studies, anthropology and the like, she also worked as choreographer for three different weekly television shows handled by Lyn Madrigal and Nelda Navarro. She even taught History for two years after college, before embarking on a lifetime career as a professional dancer.
As Reyes tested other career options, fate eventually stepped in to lead her back to dance through a prestigious scholarship. She was presented with the rare opportunity to go through extensive dance training under Hanya Holm in the United States, which she eagerly accepted. It was then she earned her Master of Arts in Dance with the Sarah Lawrence College scholar-ship program.
While in the US, she was also awarded two other grants from the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund and the Music Promotion Foundation of the Philippines, which further helped her steel her dancing career. She was schooled and trained by prominent dancers and choreographers such as Bessie Schoenberg, Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Merce Cunningham, Henry Danton, Robert Joffrey.
“It was when I was awarded the first scholarship that I decided to pursue dancing. It was like an open door and I went through it because that’s what you do. So I went to various theaters, studios and met and trained with wonderful dance teachers,” Reyes narrated.
“My formal training in the US gave depth to my artistry. I was exposed to what had gone on in the past, learning the classics as well as working with men and women who spent their lives dancing and creating what was to be called modern dance,” she shared.
The wise and whimsical dancer took her three-year experience abroad as a gift that gave her historical weight, artistic depth, and the chance to work with the pioneers of different dance forms.
Seizing the moment
Once confined to classical and folk dances, Reyes returned to the Philippines armed with the knowledge and experience of a new dance style now known as contemporary dance.
Eager to share it with other Filipino dancers, she re-acquainted herself with local performing artists who were also friends and colleagues from her earlier years in the Bayanihan.
“I never really dreamed of hitting it big. My goal was just to learn as much as I could, with the vague notion of returning to the Philippines and sharing what I know. But living abroad and becoming famous was never my intention,” the premiere performing artist said.
Coincidentally, her homecoming took place around the time the CCP was inaugurated on September 8, 1969. The first production to grace its stage was Golden Salakot: Isang Dularawan, a musical by National Artist for Film, Lamberto Avellana. The massive CCP Main Theater had all 1,821 seats full on opening night, which was attended by the who’s who of Philippine society, including then California Governor Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. Somewhere in the balcony was the wide-eyed 27-year-old Reyes who marveled at the newly built theater. What she saw gave her the inspiration for her next endeavor.
“When I came back and saw what Mrs. Marcos had built, I was really impressed, but I thought it did not have anything in it. There was no company, no orchestra—it was an empty stage with a staff trying to put up a program of performances on stage. When I saw the theater on opening night, it was then I realized I should really offer and present something specific to the CCP.”
Without hesitation, Reyes asked permission from former CCP artistic director Lucrecia Kasilag to stage what conceptualized as the Alice Reyes First Modern Dance Concert. With the help of former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza who was also a former Bayanihan colleague, she raised a P12,500 budget and worked with dancers from various schools to stage her Master’s thesis, Amada, her modern dance interpretation of Nick Joaquin’s “Summer Solstice.”
“Everything was new. People didn’t know what it was but they raved about it and became the show was very successful so we had to repeat performances. Then Lito had us touring all over the country with the same production, and by summer we came back to the still-empty halls of CCP,” the dance master recalled.
Offering a dance workshop then came to mind, and she discussed the idea with her colleagues Eddie Alajar and Tony Fabella.
“You could teach classical ballet while I teach modern dance and composition,” she told them.
Thus was born the first CCP Summer Dance Workshop that began with 400 students, and later on evolved into the CCP Dance Company, before becoming what is now known as Ballet Philippines.
Starting out with a short season of three performances, the company gained experience, drew in bigger audiences, and learned from their mistakes, while slowly adding on more and more productions in the years that followed.
“It was about seizing the moment. I did what I thought what could possibly be done at the time. The CCP management was looking for presentations to fill the empty stage. I also believed in starting small, and I only promised what I can deliver,” she declared.
Of her works, she is personally proud of Amada and Itim-Asu for its portrayal of a woman’s strength in a historical setting. She shared that her works are inspired by artistic pieces—may it be a painting, song, or story—that has deeply moved her.
“My art is not to be described, it’s to be seen. If I am able to describe it then that means that my art is a failure. I like doing different things from the classics to Filipino works,” she shared.