Lisa Macuja-Elizalde: The Life and Musings of a Ballerina

Lisa Macuja-Elizalde pauses to reflect on the trials and triumphs that have marked her life.
IMAGE Sara Black

If her parents had their way, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde would have been an accountant. It’s an image easy enough to summon: with bookishly patrician features straight out of the Meiji period, she could have become the poster child of Sycip Gorres Velayo & Co.—just add the horn-rimmed glasses.

However, she dispelled all notions of this alternate universe by languorously stretching out a leg while seated on a chair. “See this?” she asks, pointing to a scar on her left ankle, which is now stationed impossibly high over her head. Like a prizefighter, she goes on to enumerate her litany of injuries: stress fractures on both legs, tendonitis in the left ankle from decades of performing relevé, and a partially ruptured plantar fascia on the right foot (the latter two required surgery). Her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Antonio Rivera, quips that to make medical conventions more interesting, he should present a chronological exhibit of the typical injuries of a prima ballerina. For her, steroid shots, anti-inflammatories, and extra-strength painkillers were par for the course. But Lisa Macuja, CPA, really could have been her destiny.

Lisa began dancing fairly late. Eight years old is considered ancient nowadays for motivated girls who wish to embark on a serious ballet career. Lisa’s mother began her own lessons at six but had to abandon them at 13 because the papal nuncio had belatedly decreed this centuries-old artistic dance form to be indecent (and that Catholic schools should forbid their students from engaging in such scandalous exhibitionism).

Her mother, in subsequently more tolerant times, took young Lisa to ballet recitals, hoping to enkindle in her eldest daughter the flame unfairly extinguished during her spell. Lisa’s grandparents also routinely made their grandchildren listen to Tchaikovsky. “Basically,” she says, “it came naturally for me to enroll in ballet class when I was in Grade 2.” Although freakishly flexible even as a child, she “horsed around” during classes. Surprisingly, she was “the headache” of her teacher because she was difficult to discipline, she says. With the typical child’s abandon, she would swing on the wall-mounted ballet bars as if they were the rust-covered monkey bars at the neighborhood park. She didn’t take her classes seriously.

That all changed when she turned 14, after a hiatus from ballet. She realized she missed the rigors of precise repetition, the thrill of limbs able to execute what the mind commanded, maybe even the aches that accompanied such masochistic devotion. The turning point came when she watched, mouth agape, a Swan Lake performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines by Yoko Morishita, the prima ballerina from Japan who had danced with the great Nureyev.

Lisa dances in The Nutcracker. She is reprising her signature roles one last time, which will culminate in a final performance in 2014.

Mentally and emotionally, she finally committed to her craft, training from 5:30 to 9 p.m. each weekday, and a grueling seven hours on weekends. 

“I wasn’t the child prodigy. I wasn’t the ‘It Girl,”’ says Lisa, but still she stood out. Even back then, in the scuttlebutt-fuelled world of ballet, where networks and connections can decide your trajectory, Lisa Macuja already heard the murmurs and whispers. Why was she being groomed to be the anointed one when there were many who believed they had worked just as tirelessly?

Simply put, she was entirely willing to take a final, unnerving step. Now in her late teens, she understood her voyage must necessarily take her to the USSR. Remember, this was during the Communist pre-glasnost years.

Lisa, in 1982, entered what is now called the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, as a scholar of the USSR Ministry of Culture.

 She would graduate top of her class, but then her world would turn bleaker than an icy Russian snowstorm. After her state examinations in 1984, Oleg Vinogradov, the artistic director of the Kirov, invited Lisa to join the company, the first foreign soloist to receive the honor.

With classical ballet teacher Tatiana Udalenkova of the Kirov Ballet; As Masha in The Nutcracker with the Kirov Ballet, 1984.

At the end of September, a little over a month before she was to perform her first solo role as a member of the Kirov, Lisa walked back to her dormitory after another demanding day of rehearsals and noticed the Philippine consul waiting at her doorstep; he had traveled by train from Moscow to meet her. How thoughtful, she remembers thinking—he must have come bearing gifts. They climbed up the four flights of stairs to her room, and she realized something was terribly wrong when he advised her to sit down. “Your brother died,” he told her. In her shock, she assumed it was Joly, a student activist during the latter Marcos years. When told that her younger brother Jerry, who was a lock to be the valedictorian of his batch, had died after a bus plowed into his car along EDSA, she began to scream his name. Soon after, the consul accompanied her to the nearest post office, and after the usual interminable wait, Lisa was finally able to call her mother.

Her parents advised her to stay in St. Petersburg and concentrate on her upcoming Giselle performance. Perhaps finding solace in the familiar physicality of ballet rehearsals, Lisa was slowly able to cope with her ineffable grief. Tatiana Udalenkova, her classical ballet teacher at the academy and compassionate mother figure, took Lisa into her own home and helped her heal.

In 1986, after two successful years as the principal dancer of the Kirov Ballet, Lisa Macuja came home, where she became the first artist-in-residence of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. She established her own company, Ballet Manila, in 1995.

Fred J. Elizalde and his wife, Joan Gatlin, were well-known patrons of the arts who would bring their young daughter Sasha backstage after Lisa’s concerts. Moreover, Lisa’s father was the president of Star Parks Corporation, which was under the FJE Group of Companies. She recalls it was during a photo shoot in October 1996 when her beeper went off with a message to return the call of Fred, by now a widower.

 She did and was invited to dinner at Prince Albert at the InterContinental Hotel in Makati City. “Why would Tito Fred invite me to dinner?” she asked her parents upon returning home that day.

Later, she learned that the media mogul whose Manila Broadcasting Company owns over 500 radio stations throughout the Philippines, the largest network in Asia, had made a list of potential future wives. While she was not the first among the candidates he dated, he obviously made up his mind that night. “It was not a romantic date for two,” Lisa remembers. “It was a huge table with 14 other people.” Only midway through the dinner did she suspect a courtship, admittedly a peculiar one was at hand.

You have lovely hands, she remembers him saying. Then, after hearing it one too many times, he told her, “Will you stop calling me Tito Fred? This is a date.” His last words to her that night were: “When you get home tonight, tell your parents my intentions are honorable. I’m old and set in my ways, and I know what I want,’” says Lisa. By the first week of December 1996, Fred had proposed to Lisa. By June the following year, they were married.

 It was a romance between polar opposites. He rarely followed the rules; she lived as regimented a life as can be imagined. “In a way, he was an authority figure because he was considerably older than me. He really knew which buttons to push,” she laughs. It touched her deeply that Fred promised to support her dancing and her ballet company. But she also, of course, heard the murmurs and whispers about the 24-year age gap and his sizable wealth. No stranger to tattle aimed at her, Lisa easily tuned it out.

Fred and Lisa have two children of their own—Michelle, called Missy, and Manuel. “Missy is a perfectionist. When she decides on something she wants, it’s like she has horse blinders on. I wonder where she gets that?” Lisa laughs. “And very grade-conscious, too. Again, I wonder where she gets that? Manuel is the complete opposite, a very relaxed, happy-go-lucky, and affable chap!” Missy has already decided on a career in ballet. Understandably, Lisa is ambivalent about her daughter’s plans, acutely aware of the tribulations that await her.

Lisa with her two children.

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