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November 29, 2022

Making space in the ballet repertoire for non-European cultures

Alexa Capareda's “Maria and the Mouse Deer" is rooted in Filipino culture and lore. It will be premiered by Ballet Austin II.

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With a life in ballet, dancer and choreographer Alexa Capareda has long found fascination with the narratives of story ballets. Most specifically, she finds fascinating how tales from around the world bear commonalities, from the animal characters that take on human qualities to the morals, lessons, and values such stories impart.

Growing up in the Phillipines, Capareda, who is the rehearsal director for Ballet Austin II, trained in ballet and modern dance. Yet the folktales of her own culture were never part of the classical ballet repertoire.

Alexa Capareda
Alexa Capareda

“It never felt like ballet wasn’t for me to own,” she says. “But I do see how much space there is for stories from other cultures.”

Now Capareda is filling that space.

Ballet Austin II is set premiere her “Maria and the Mouse Deer,” a 45-minute ballet designed for youth audiences. It runs Oct. 15-23 at Ballet Austin’s AustinVentures Studio Theater.



“Maria and the Mouse Deer,” has a universal message of caring for the earth and its creatures. But it is born of Philippine culture and lore.

Capareda grew up in the town of Los Baños, Laguna at the foothills of Mount Makiling, an inactive volcano that is home to a dense forest. The mountain’s shape resembles the profile of a woman lying down, and according to legend, its forest is inhabited by a fairy spirit, Maria Makiling, who protects the forest animals and the townspeople who live in the foothills. She is a common subject in Filipino culture.

Alexa Capareda
Costumes for bird characters reference traditional Filipiniana dress with its distinctive butterfly sleeves. Photo by Anne Maria Bloodgood.
Alexa Capareda
The Mouse Deer, left, faces off with the Crocodile. Choreography Alexa Capareda sketched animals of her native Philippines from which the costumes were then developed. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood.

And so in her ballet, Capareda fused the Maria myth with the Southeast Asian ‘trickster tales’ of the clever mouse deer. Maria Makiling joins forces with her animal and bird friends to save their forest and persuade the townspeople to protect the environment.

Capareda integrated Philippine folk dance with ballet steps and set her choreography to traditional Philippine music. Animal characters represent endangered species of the Philippines: the big-eyed tarsier, a forest primate; the tamaraw, a dwarf buffalo; and the tiny mouse deer, the smallest hoofed mammal in the world.

“The core of the story — protecting the environment — is something anybody can access,” says Capareda. “At the same time, the ballet introduces Filipino culture.”

Nearly every aspect of the ballet is the product of Capareda’s creative talents. She designed the costumes, and drew the images of animals that fabricators used to craft the elaborate headpieces for animal characters. Likewise the set design is also based on her sketches of Philippine flora, like the rainbow Eucalyptus tree.

Alexa Capareda
Alexa Capareda’s drawing of a mouse deer, l
Alexa Capareda
Alexa Capareda’s drawing of a mouse deer, left, and a tarsier, both endangered species native to the Philippines.

“Maria and the Mouse Deer” is the inaugural work in Ballet Austin’s recently launched Fables of the World series, an initiative to create a new ballet for youth and families that share stories from various cultures, particularly non-Eurocentric cultures. The series arose from discussions between Capareda and Michelle Martin, Ballet Austin’s associate artistic director. Both wanted to address ballet’s signature repertoire and its Eurocentric origins built on European folk tales and stories — “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” — and set to music by European composers.

“There’s room for so much more in the ballet repertoire,” Capareda says.

Capareda’s and Martin’s initiative attracted important notice. The development of “Maria and the Mouse Deer” received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, as well as support from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Moody Foundation.

The ballet will stay in Ballet Austin II’s repertoire, and plans to offer it to other companies around the country are already underway.

Earlier this year, Capareda’s short dancework “Filipino Suite,” also a commission for Ballet Austin II, premiered.

Beyond Ballet Austin, Capareda has a very busy career performing with and making dances for many modern dance and theater companies including  Frank Wo/Men Collective, ARCOS, BLiPSWiTCH, and choreographers Jennifer Sherburn, and Magdalena Jarkowiec. She’s also collaborated with sound artists Steve Parker, Brent Baldwin, Henna Chou, Lynn Lane, and visual artists Tom Suhler and Susan Scafati.

But for all her creative endeavors, “Maria and the Mouse Deer” holds a special pride of place right now.

Says Capareda: “The more you can see yourself in something, the more you can make it your own.”

Performances of “Maria and the Mouse Deer” are 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15-16, and Oct. 22-23 at AustinVentures Studio Theater, Tickets: my.balletaustin.org


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzinhttps://sightlinesmag.org
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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