Arts & Culture

Get to Know the American Ballet Stars Dancing in Manila This Weekend

The one-night-only American Stars Gala hosted by Ballet Manila is making history with its lineup of dancers.

“When I curate a gala, I don’t want it to look like a competition. I want it to look like a celebration of these different dancers showing off different facets—not just of themselves, but of this big repertoire,” Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde says about the upcoming staging of the American Stars Gala.

The local dance company has flown in five ballet stars from the prestigious Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet to dance on one stage with its own resident guest artists and homegrown talents in what's shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime show.

The gala on Saturday, July 7 at the Aliw Theater, is a fundraising effort for Ballet Manila’s Project Ballet Futures scholarship program. The evening’s repertoire will consist of classic numbers from the likes of Swan Lake and Giselle as well as contemporary pieces. The show is directed by Macuja-Elizalde and Boston Ballet’s own George Birkadze.


Get to know more about the concert’s headliners below:

Lia Cirio

Fresh from winning the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts Award, Cirio was invited to join the Boston Ballet II at the ripe age of 16. She’s now a principal dancer at the Boston Ballet and has founded a company alongside her brother, Jeffrey, called the Cirio Collective.


Half-Filipino, Cirio says this is an emotional trip, as this is her first time in the Philippines. She looks forward to the show on Saturday, since she will be reunited with a few distant family relatives, all of whom she’s never met.

Most memorable ballet role: Nikia in La Bayadere. It was my first full-length role as a principal dancer so it was very special and I relate to that character a lot because of her soul and her heart. It’s exotic, too.

Advice for aspiring dancers: Don’t compare yourself to other dancers. You are special and you bring something to the table that no one else can.

If I wasn't a ballet dancer, I would be… I feel like art is always around me so maybe a fashion designer. But I can’t imagine myself as anything else.

Hannah Bettes


Boston Ballet second soloist Bettes has a number of awards under her belt, including the gold medal from the Youth American Grand Prix in 2011. She once even had the chance to perform at Buckingham Palace. Bettes joined Boston Ballet in 2014 and was promoted to second soloist just last year.

Most memorable ballet role: I performed in a pas de deux in William Forsythe’s Artifact and that was something special to me because of its process. I think I grew a lot as a dancer and as a person.

Advice for aspiring dancers: Have the ability to be honest with yourself and don’t wait for the person in the room to tell you what’s good or bad but know for yourself what you need to work on. It goes hand in hand with perseverance.

A dancer’s life: I always tell people being in ballet is like a Ph.D. program. You’re just in some kind of doctorate program that never ends. That’s how much work it is.


Yuriko Kajiya

Jared Matthews and Yuriko Kajiya

A principal dancer at the Houston Ballet, Kajiya began training at the age of eight and moved from Japan to China to study at the Shanghai Ballet School. Later in her career, she joined American Ballet Theater’s Studio Company and worked her way up to soloist in 2007. She started working with Houston Ballet in 2014 and was promoted to principal dancer that same year.


Most memorable ballet role: Giselle and Butterfly—characters from two ballets we will be performing in this gala. I think I speak for most ballerinas when I say Giselle is very special to all of us. It has the human character in the first act and then in the second act, the dancer transforms into the ghost. Butterfly, too, since it’s a mix of Japanese culture and American, which is something that’s close to my heart.

A dancer’s life: As a dancer, you don’t really stop. Even if you have a class scheduled at 10 a.m. and you finish by 7 p.m., you still continue your training before and after. There’s the cooldown, the therapy, the massage, yoga—it’s nonstop.

Jared Matthews

After growing up in Houston, Matthews has been touring the world to perform on its many stages. Like Yuriko, he joined the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company and was promoted to soloist by the main company in 2007. The David Howard protégé joined Houston Ballet in 2014 as first soloist and was later promoted to principal dancer after various well-received performances.


Most memorable ballet role: Growing up, I was the only boy in my [dance] class. The only person I could really look up to and watch a lot of video footage of was [Mikhail] Baryshnikov because he had so much stuff out there at the time. To do Albrecht from Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera House and put on the same costume and production that he had done was very special for me.

Advice for aspiring dancers: Perseverance trumps talent. You have to put in the work and grind it out.

A dancer’s life: What’s great about our career is that you meet new people and it takes you all over the world. We’ve never been to Manila, so it’s great that we get to dance, get to be in this wonderful place, and experience this culture.

Katherine Barkman

Katherine Barkman with fellow Ballet Manila resident guest artist Joseph Philipps

Barkman traded in her life as a competitive dancer in Pennsylvania for a professional career in Manila. After a string of wins in international competitions, Barkman moved halfway across the world at the invitation of Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and is now a resident guest artist at Ballet Manila.

Most memorable ballet role: Last season I got to debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and it was a dream role that I wasn’t expecting to do so soon. It was a transformative process.

Advice for aspiring dancers: You have to be fearless. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake or make the wrong decision. Make choices not out of fear but out of excitement and love for what you’re doing.

A dancer’s life: When you sign up as a ballet dancer, you sign up for this life. You’re a ballet dancer off stage and onstage. There are certain things that you have to sacrifice whether it’s leaving your family to pursue your career or not being able to take a vacation for a long time. There’s a big commitment but at the same time, that commitment’s not such a bad thing when it’s for something you love.


Junxiong Zhao

Zhao who was unfortunately absent from the interview with Town & Country, is a principal dancer in Boston Ballet. After moving from his native China to work with a couple of American ballet companies, he found himself recruited by the Boston Ballet. Some of his most notable achievements include the Choreographic Prize at the 2015 International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize and the senior silver medal at the World Ballet Competition in 2012.


After the gala, Macuja-Elizalde confirms that Ballet Manila is flying to Israel to perform its rendition of Ibong Adarna. Before the opening of the company’s 23rd season in September, seven Ballet Manila finalists will compete at the Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition in August.  

Catch the American Stars Gala on July 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aliw Theater. Tickets are available at

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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Features Editor
Hannah is originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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