|Lisa Macuja (left) in Leningrad in 1982|
Vim Nadera: How supportive was your family? What makes you excel in school and in other endeavors?
Lisa Macuja-Elizalde: My family had always been very supportive of everything I did. As kids, all of us siblings were encouraged to pursue our dreams. Of course, when I first announced to my Dad that I wanted to become a professional ballerina, he and my grandparents had reservations. They wanted me to go to college after high school and become an accountant – or at least get a degree leading to a more “stable” career. Excelling in school and in whatever we put ourselves into was a given. My parents were very strict about always doing our best and getting good grades. All of us were achievers in school and extra-curricular activities. We were rewarded for good grades and achievement with trips to the bookstore, money for spending on ourselves or for saving in the bank, and a lot of praise. My parents would attend my dance recitals and were always there for me. I think it was the overall positive reinforcement and family dinners when we would sit down for a meal and be able to share all our thoughts and ideas. I am very fortunate that I continue to have that kind of support up to today. My parents are actively helping me run Ballet Manila and the Ballet Manila School. My mom is treasurer and over-all “mother” to all the artists and staff. My dad is the president of the BM Foundation and is a “father figure” to all the artists and staff as well. And my Dad has all my archives and records. He knows how many “Swan Lakes” I’ve performed, with whom and where, even better than I do!
VN: Who are your idols and influences?
LME: Yoko Morishita and Maniya Barredo have both become my idols when I was a teen. It was after watching them dance live that I decided I wanted to become a professional classical ballerina also – just like them. Two major influences would be Felicitas Radaic, my first ballet teacher and school director in the St. Theresa’s College School of Dance, and Tatiana Udalenkova, who is like a second mother to me and was my classical ballet teacher in the Russian Ballet Academy for two years. I also lived with Tatiana and her family as sort of like an “adopted daughter” in a Russian family for two more years. But I will have to say that my parents Cesar and Susan Macuja are the strongest driving forces behind me — the way they brought me up and the way they continue to support and guide me throughout my entire professional and personal life. They are my pillars of strength and guidance!
VN: From being a young Dance Theater Philippines’ soloist, you became the Kirov Ballet’s principal dancer? How did you adjust at a very young age?
LME: I just stuck to a routine. I would take class, rehearse and perform. I would try to calm my nerves. And basically, whether it was a performance in Russia or a performance in the open-air stage in Rizal Park, I would just do my best and give it my best shot. I didn’t really adjust because ballet class, rehearsals and performances onstage, touring all of this was part of my life since I was a teenager.
VN: How did you survive Russia — personally and professionally?
LME: The hardest year of my entire life was my first year in Russia. This was in the early Eighties during the Cold War. I was living in a dormitory with 16 other girls. I was homesick. I had to learn a new language, to adapt to a new culture then at the same time attend my Russian language and ballet technique classes from 9am to 9pm. I also had to rehearse. In between, I took care of my personal chores like cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and on top of it all, try to make my allowance last the month. I was constantly cold because of the freezing climate of St. Petersburg. And the ballet training was very intense and completely new in technique and style than what I was used to back home. I would wait every Sunday for a call from home or call my parents from the post office at 4 roubles per minute. I would write long letters by snail mail and wait to receive letters from home. It was tough. I got sick at one point and had to be confined in a Russian hospital. I also got injured and wasn’t able to do my final exams. Whenever I remember that first year in Russia up to now, I shudder. But, admittedly, it was the year when I decided that I wanted to stick it out and make the most of that wonderful opportunity.