Pursuits

How the Local Art Scene Can Move Forward, According to Sofia Zobel Elizalde

Elizalde believes that developing arts and culture means providing equal opportunities for everyone, especially the underprivileged.
IMAGE KYLE FROMAN / COURTESY OF VISIONS AND EXPRESSIONS
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Last year, Sofia Zobel Elizalde, founder of STEPS Dance Studio, collaborated with American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Stella Abrera to present an evening of ballet for the benefit of Ayala Foundation’s flagship education program, CENTEX. This year, the tandem is at it again and will be presenting yet another night of classical ballet performances. 

Abrera will be back this November and she's bringing along a few friends from ABT—principal dancer James Whiteside and the ABT Studio Company. The show will be under the direction of Abrera's husband, Sascha Radetsky.

Given the overwhelming success of last year’s event, Elizalde thought, 'How can we move forward?' Town&Country caught up with Elizalde, along with Joana Duarte, Ayala Foundation’s Senior Director for Social Development, to discuss the importance of art and how we can shape its narrative to shape our country’s future.

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Setting a vision

“I always say, we believe in giving equal opportunities of education to everybody, no matter where you come from. I mean that’s the dream and that’s the goal,” Elizalde said. 

The After-Hours program of CENTEX-STEPS was a result of the lack of an arts program in the CENTEX schools (located in Tondo, Manila and Bauan, Batangas). This initiative is part of the venture’s vision of a country wherein arts are easily accessible by anyone and everyone. Duarte echoed Elizalde’s sentiments, “Our big goal, really, is for the Philippine education system to start teaching a different way. A little bit more creative, a little bit more brain-based. Much more [of the] arts.”

Photo by BILL COOPER, KYLE FROMAN / COURTESY OF VISIONS AND EXPRESSIONS.
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Rearing the next generation of artists

“It’s a real pleasure to work with them because I think it’s actually an honor and a pleasure to work with any young student who has dreams. And, you know, we’ve been there before and if we can share any pieces of advice that can help them succeed, why not?”

The After-Hours program maintains around 50 students per year. Despite the relatively large number, Elizalde is seen as the mother hen of the bunch. She often checks up on them—whether it’s dance-related or academics-related—and develops close relationships with all her students. The studio really is one big family, and Elizalde says that this kind of guidance is needed for younger artists to be able to discipline themselves and to discern their futures.

Photo by COURTESY OF AMERICAN BALLET THEATER.
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Learning holistically through art

Although it’s said that people are either left-brained or right-brained, Elizalde and Duarte ascertain art is for everybody because it isn’t just a form of self-expression. Art is a way to develop holistically. Elizalde said most of the CENTEX-STEPS scholars are those who win academic awards.

“You know art is so important in a child’s life because everybody needs their outlet [so] they could express themselves—painting, music, dance, movement—these are all wonderful ways [through] which children can express and say what they want to say in different ways,” Elizalde said.

“I think both disciplines go hand in hand [dance and academics]. It just makes them higher achievers,” she added. Thus, immersing in art doesn't just help students awaken their creative senses but it hones other important life skills, too. 

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Engaging in cultural dialogue 

“It’s always good to see what other people are doing. So when we bring in artists like this it allows the local audiences to see what these companies are doing and it gives them a vision of what they can strive for, or they might even say ‘hey we’re doing okay,’” Elizalde said. “It just gives them a benchmark, and it’s always good to do an exchange. Always good to be exposed, always good to do an exchange—it’s healthy and it's educational.”

When asked about her opinion on the current state of the local art scene, Elizalde said it has become “more progressive” because of the influx of newer, fresher dance companies. As in all industries, though, there is always room for inspiration. Thus, looking to other countries could refresh artists and expand their horizons.

Duarte said a show as first-rate as this “levels up” the playing field, and many students find these international-level shows so aspirational. For example, the two fondly talk about Marcelino ‘McCoy’ Libao, who wasn’t a CENTEX scholar but a star STEPS student. He was part of the Hamburg Ballet company and is every STEPS student’s idol. Other outstanding students are Elwince Magbitang and Raye Vince Pelegrin, both CENTEX scholars who were granted scholarships to the prestigious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Of Dance.

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Photo by COURTESY OF VISIONS AND EXPRESSIONS.
Elwince Magbitang
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Paying it forward

“The beauty in all of this is I have yet to meet a Filipino [who] is not willing to give back. And so, they become ambassadors of the Philippines. And, after 25 years of doing this, I’m at a stage now where I’m seeing all these dances from my school come back and want to give back in a certain way,” Elizalde said.

As enabling as this beautiful community is, what keeps the love for art flowing is generosity. Elizalde calls on artists and other professionals to give back in any way possible, such as teaching and mentoring. That way, the spirit remains alive. This especially helps in addressing the lack of opportunities for the less privileged.

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Duarte added a big part of the CENTEX program is training teachers. Next year, they will be making the arts program available to the Batangas school through the Stella Abrera Dance and Music Hall. Once they find the right teachers, those kids will get to experience the joy of dancing as well. “I'm hoping that this whole thing that we're doing becomes an inspiration for others —other dance schools, other art schools—to pair up with public schools because there's so much that we can do,” Duarte said. 

Ultimately, what the local art scene needs isn’t a push but the right initiatives with good intentions. This will propel the scene forward and nurture the next generation of artists, but most importantly, preserve the richness of Philippine art.

Ayala Foundation Inc. Senior Director for Social Development Joanna Duarte and Committee chair for the benefit performance and founder of STEPS Dance Studio Sofia Zobel Elizalde.
Photo by COURTESY OF VISIONS AND EXPRESSIONS.
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Catch Stella Abrera, James Whiteside, and the bright young stars of the American Ballet Theatre Studio on November 7 and 8, 2019 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater. Tickets will be released starting September 1 on TicketWorld Manila.

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Nicole Cruz
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