The heritage house, the choreographer, and the ballet

The heritage house, the choreographer, and the ballet
The living room of MiraNila features a library and an amazing winding staircase. —PHOTOS BY LIANA GARCELLANO

Archivist Purissima “Petty” Benitez-Johannot and her team have been looking after Helena’s house, cataloguing its contents since 2018. The house on Mariposa, Qùezon City, is MiraNila, ancestral home of the Benitez family; Helena is Helena Z. Benitez—educator, former senator, and founder of the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU).

Helena was Petty’s Tita (aunt)—a niece of her father, Tomas Benitez—whom she knew to be a shopper and collector. MiraNila is replete with 4, 500 books and more than 2, 000 pieces of original furniture and paintings collected by Helena’s parents, Conrado and Francisca Benitez—respectively an educator and constitutionalist, and a suffragette and cofounder of PWU, the first university for women in Asia established by Asians.

Helena expanded her parents’ collection, adding her Murano glass, Chinese ceramics, Wedgwood, and celadon that she bought during her travels.

This recent afternoon we’re at MiraNila’s dining room after visiting the living room and library. Among the Chinese ceramics in one of the display cases is a stray palayok (pot) that Petty says is the oldest in the collection—think Tabon-cave old—which was gifted to Helena by archaeologist Robert Fox. Tellingly, the room holds other treasures, namely the Lalique chandelier and two Sheraton-style altar tables appraised by Leon Gallery as “the most valuable [objects] in the room because of [their] good condition.”

A tour of the heritage house is part of the press conference organized by the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines (ARDP) to announce its performance of “Carmina Burana” on June 14 and 15 in the Samsung Performing Arts Theater at Circuit Makati.

How are MiraNila, choreographer Alice Reyes, and her ballet piece “Carmina Burana” connected? It may appear tenuous at first glance, but MiraNila’s history throws light on the strong, nostalgic link binding the three.

No demolition

It was foresight on Helena’s part when she established the Benitez-Tirona MiraNila Foundation. She saved her own house from demolition, which seems to be the default modus operandi of the government vis-à-vis heritage buildings. The foundation also gave access to scholars, tourists, the curious, and those simply wanting to bask in the ambience of serenity and history of a Commonwealth-era home.

Together with MiraNila’s loyal household staff and experts, Petty and kin have kept their aunt’s house in order. In an interview with in 2019, Petty said she and her sister Bebet (McClelland) “culled down the contents of the house to about 2,000 objects” from July to December 2018.

Per, the heritage buildings that were unable to dodge the wrecking ball include the Avenue Theater by Juan F. Nakpil, the Mandarin Oriental hotel by Leandro V. Locsin, and the Jai- Alai building. The 104-year-old Sta. Mesa Fire House on Magsaysay Boulevard is next on the chopping block, but its demolition has been suspended. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) is looking into whether the Manila government acquired the proper permits despite the building being more than 50 years old.

Under Republic Act No. 10066, or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, structures dating at least 50 years old should be conserved and protected from any modification or demolition.

MiraNila is demolition-proof, having been declared a heritage house on April 7, 2011, by the NHCP. However, Petty explains, any changes to the property cannot exceed 30% except for the garden, which is not covered by the citation.

Back stories

MiraNila chapel
It’s a private chat with God at the chapel.

The main house is a stone’s throw from the chapel, which was constructed in 2006 and emerges at the end of the path from the main gate. Religious or not, one is drawn to the stained-glass depiction of the Holy Family made by the German manufacturer of art glass, Robert Kraut.

Walking towards the house, Petty points to a himbabao tree and tells us that Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was “happy to see it in Manila.” It’s one of two on the property. Cuisine-wise, himbabao is an ingredient in the Ilocano dish dinengdeng, Historically, the tree was where Conrado Benitez and Dr. Y.C James Yen of Taiwan discussed establishing the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), the first nongovernment organization in the country, at the height of the Hukbalahap movement in 1952.

“PRRM aimed to develop self-reliance and self-government at the barrio level, explains Petty. “Its original board members included Conrado Benitez, Gil Puyat, Salvador Araneta, then secretary of commerce, Paul R. Parrette of Philippine Manufacturing Corp. and Albino Z. SyCip of China Bank Corp, and, later on, Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales and the ‘doctor to the barrios’ Juan Flavier. Helena was its board chair until her demise.”

MiraNila tower
The tower offers a view of the garden and a respite from the heat.

Petty urges us to go up the tower before heading to the press conference. Keeping one’s hands free is prudent so one can grasp both handrails of the three flights of stairs from the second floor. For the steep climb, one is rewarded with a vista of the sprawling garden, a cool breeze, and a furnished tower room that’s a good nook to read in or to hide from the world.

MiraNila tower room
The furnished tower room is a cozy hideaway.

“To keep the house alive,” as Petty puts it, MiraNila partnered with The Blue Leaf, which operates The Gallery MiraNila that does events catering, and the boutique luxury accommodation The Henry MiraNila Suites. Patisserie Bizu has also opened Bizu MiraNila Café on the premises.

Art Deco house

MiraNila was built in 1929 by Cornelio Pineda, master foreman of Pedro Siochi & Co that also worked on the Manila Metropolitan Theater, Rizal Memorial Sports Coliseum, and Manila Post Office. Gregorio Melchor Paredes, painter-sculptor and Francisca Benitez’s cousin, was the architect-consultant who oversaw the house’s sculpture and design of architectural details.

The bucolic hilltop of San Juan overlooking Manila was MiraNila’s original location. It got its name, as the story goes, when someone from the tower exclaimed, “Mirar Manila!” (Look, Manila!) while viewing the city’s landscape. Eventually, the Spanish phrase was whittled down to MiraNila, and it became the name of Conrado Benitez’s house.

“MiraNila is an Art Deco house because of the transoms, but it’s a conservative house,” says Petty.

Its library specializes in reading materials from the Commonwealth era up to the end of martial law and books on culture and the arts. Archival books are on the first floor; the main stack and request area are in the reading room on the second. On the first floor of the library are paintings of the three constitutionalists—Higinio Benitez (1898 Malolos Congress), his son Conrado (one of the “seven wise men” of the 1935 Congress), and Conrado’s son, Tomas (1971 Congress)—and photographs, such as Conrado’s group picture with his teammates and coach Oscar Knudson circa 1906-1911. Conrado was captain of the University of Chicago’s water polo team, a considerable feat for a comparatively diminutive athlete back then.

The furniture in the library is likewise historic, having been “made by the prisoners of Old Bilibid prison on Oroquieta Street,” according to Petty.

She adds: “José Abad Santos, [a former chief justice of the Philippines] and Conrado’s best friend, encouraged prisoners to do craft work. He also had the women prisoners in Old Bilibid transferred to Mandaluyong.”

At home in MiraNila 

Petty makes it known at the press conference held in the pavilion that Alice Reyes is no stranger to MiraNila: “Alice has had a long history with MiraNila. She was a pioneer dancer of the Bayaniban troupe [and] danced the tinikling with her father when she was 16.”

My imagination goes into overdrive: The teenager Alice is running up the winding staircase to see Helena—Tita Helen to her—and, coming down, stops midway at the oil portrait of Francisca by Eli Gajo.

She’s relaxing underneath the himbabao tree in the side garden. Did she know the story of MiraNila’s gardener being a Japanese sleeper agent in the Benitez household?

“After the RCA Tower was bombed, the gardener told Francisca to move out because they were going to take over the house,” narrates Petty. “Francisca refused and moved into the garage. The Japanese planted 16 mines around the house [which] didn’t go off. The US infantry decommissioned them. But the house of Abad Santos was blown up.”

Petty says that the Abad Santos house was rebuilt in the 1950s and that the entire family lives in the five-hectare property near MiraNila today.

I imagine Alice in Helena’s bedroom on the second floor looking at Helena’s pastel-on-graphite-paper portrait by Anita Cruz Magsaysay (later Magsaysay-Ho) before gazing out the window.

“Anita and Helena were high school classmates at PWU. The portrait has been in Helena’s bedroom since the time she received it,” says Petty.

Did Alice look at the Abad Santos house back then, which was visible from the second floor? Did she know that the Benitez family named my old high school, Jose Abad Santos Memorial School (aka JASMS), in honor of him? A picture of Abad Santos circa 1930s is displayed at the Quezon Corner outside the master bedroom that, Petty says, “Fernando Amorsolo used,” or “a copy of it as a guide for his portrait of Abad Santos [displayed] at PWU.”


“Carmina Burana” showcases the Alice Reyes dancers’ versatility and the company’s repertoire.

By no stretch of the imagination can Alice Reyes not be into dancing. It’s in her blood. Her parents. according to my research, were a musician and an artist, and her aunt founded a dance company. Although Helena is gone, Alice is back at MiraNila, reintroducing one of her major ballet pieces, “Carmina Burana.”

“This is a sort of a homecoming,” Alice says at the press conference. “MiraNila was magical. I used to come visit Tita Helen. It’s nice to see that the staff is taking care of the house.”

“Carmina Burana” celebrates life and love.

“Carmina Burana” is ARDP’s second show for the season after “Rama Hari. It’s set to the cantata of German composer Carl Orff with the same name that’s based on a compilation of poems by the Goliards called Codex Burana. The poems, written from the 11th to the 13th century, touched on worldly pleasures, i.e., drinking, gambling, lust, and love-making, says

The ballet is about a community experiencing the joys of life, drinking, and love through the exuberant, erotic, and pagan movements of the dancers. The show will also feature the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philippine Madrigal Singers, and soloist Lara Maigue.

Forming the program’s first part before the main ballet are “Dugso” (The Offering); “Summer’s End,” and “After Whom.” “Dugso” is “a remounting not done in ages,” Alice says of her collaborative piece with National Artist for Music Ramon Santos that premiered in 1972, and that drew inspiration from a dance with the same name performed by the tribes of Bukidnon in Mindanao.

“Summer’s End” is a piece by Alice’s friend Norman Walker that premiered in 1980. ARDP president Tats Manahan describes it as a sweet, whimsical pas de deux about a couple who fall in love in the summer.

Augustus “Bam” Damian III’s 2005 piece “After Whom” is, quips Manahan, “a strong, energetic piece.”

Adds Alice: “Everyone’s on pointe shoes, women wear shorts, and men wear skirts.”

Preservation mode

Petty and Alice are clearly on the side of art preservation as against demolition and oblivion. MiraNila has been thriving under Petty’s administration, and she’s steadily looking at how to get the heritage house firmly onto the people’s radar. For now, there are the MiraNila guided tours—available by appointment—and a concert scheduled in November at the music alcove underneath the winding staircase.

“It’ll be a small event because the first floor can only hold a number of people. The Steinway piano is under restoration at the moment,” says Petty.

On Alice’s part, her company has been staging classic ballet pieces that serve two purposes. The first is to showcase her dancers who, in her assessment, are “well-rounded and can tackle everything and anything.”

“We’re a company that has repertoire [and] the ability to stage Filipino classics,” she declares.

Regarding the second purpose, Alice hopes that staging the classics will catch the attention of the government enough for it to invest in ARDP and other companies, to help preserve those very classics. Her perennial bugbear, as she points out, is that when a performance is done, it’s done.

“No one can [restage] Agnes Locsin’s ‘Engkantada’ or Bam’s ‘After Whom!'” she exclaims.

Comparatively, preserving ballet performances isn’t a problem in America and Europe—”they’re better at it,” Alice says, so much so that young Russian dancers, for example, can watch old ballet productions.

That heritage buildings and works of Filipino choreographers are constantly teetering on the line between survival and permanent cessation is a misfortune. Old buildings and classic dances are historical testimonies to a country’s past lives and achievements that serve as guides for future generations to map out their course. To banish them into oblivion leaves everyone, particularly the youth, who are already bereft of history lessons in school, truly bereft. 

Fortunately, Petty Benitez-Johannot and Alice Reyes are maintaining the balance between preservation and development by keeping the past abreast with the times: MiraNila serves as a lesson in Philippine history, and “Carmina Burana” provides a glimpse of timeless Filipino grace, versatility and creativity.


For tickets to “Carmina Burana, call TicketWorld (0917 550 699710999 954 5922), CCP Box Office (tel. 8832 3704), and ARDP (Viber: 0967 153 6173 | e-mail: [email protected]).

To tour MiraNila, contact Delia Pineda at tel. 8722 0243 | 0945 487 6827 or e-mail: [email protected].

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