Alfren Salgado: Learning life lessons in ballet

Alfren Salgado: Learning life lessons in ballet

At the Ballet Manila dressing room in Aliw Theater, Alfren reflects, “In ballet, you learn not just about dance but about life.” Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Susan A. De Guzman

Alfren Salgado is a Ballet Manila baby. This was where he learned his first tentative ballet steps at age 15 and where he has matured to become the dependable soloist that he is today. Looking back at the past eleven years, he marvels at the progress he has made since he decided that dancing ballet was what he wanted to do.

Nagsimula po ako na tagahawak ng baso, tagabigay ng props sa stage. Masasabi ko pong lumaki ako sa full-length ballet. Sa Swan Lake, nag-umpisa na torotot boy, naging corps de ballet, naging Rothbart, hanggang sa naging Siegfried. Sa Don Quixote din po – una muna Seguidillas, naging matador, tapos nag-Basilio (I started as someone who just held the glass, who would give props on stage. I can say that I've grown in full-length ballets. In Swan Lake, I was first a trumpet boy, then a member of the corps de ballet, became Rothbard until I became Siegfried. In Don Quixote too, I was initially in Seguidillas, then became a matador, then finally Basilio),” he shares, understandably with some measure of pride.

Soloist Alfren Salgado – seen here in Bam Damian's Reconfigured – says that what he gets in return for dancing is priceless. It is a happiness deep inside that he can't quite describe. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Going into ballet was never in his plans. He was more into hiphop and streetdance as a teenager. But he has his older brothers to thank for paving the way for him in ballet. In 2004, Harold and Nazer Salgado were scholars with Ballet Manila, themselves recruited by another dancer, Manny Febra. One day, Alfren recalls, his brothers brought him along to BM's studio in Pasay and it was there that he saw what ballet was like for the very first time.

Seeing his two brothers in class, along with the other students, what struck Alfren most was how gracefully and elegantly they moved. But it was in watching Princess of the Moon, Ballet Manila's free show at Star City, that something clicked in his mind. “Ito po 'yung unang ballet na napanood ko. Ang ganda po ng kuwento, ng sayaw, 'yung buo po. Sobra akong na-amaze. Naisip ko, parang gusto ko ring mag-ballet (This was the first ballet performance that I saw. It was so beautiful – the story, the dance, the whole thing. I was so amazed. I thought I'd also like to dance ballet),” he relates.

In 2005, Ballet Manila announced auditions for scholars. It didn't take Alfren much convincing to give it a try. Fortunately, the Salgado brothers had supportive parents who didn't mind that their sons were in a field more associated with women than men. Alfren says it was an advantage that Nazer and Harold had been there before him. “Impluwensiya na rin po nila. Pinag-i-split ako ng mga kapatid ko, pinag tu-turn nila ako (It was also their influence. They would let me execute splits, they would ask me to turn out my feet),” he says laughingly.

While still an apprentice, Alfren was entrusted to be among the dancers to perform a new choreography by Bam Damian. Called M.A.Z.N., the number is actually named after the two pairs of dancers on whom it was created – Mylene Aggabao, Alfren Salgado, Zaira Cosico and Nazer Salgado. Intended to highlight the strengths of the four dancers that inspired the movements, M.A.Z.N. is an intense choreography best appreciated when seen live on stage. Performing alongside principals and a soloist, Alfren felt that he had become a full-fledged dancer then.

Bam Damian's M.A.Z.N. is titled after the initials of the four dancers on whom it was choreographed, including Alfren (partnering Joan Emery Sia). Photo by Ocs Alvarez

But Alfren counts one performance as the most memorable of his career because of the many challenges it posed. It was 2011 and Ballet Manila principal dancer Rudy De Dios was to partner Lisa Macuja-Elizalde in Bam Damian's pas de deux of Romeo and Juliet. But then Rudy had an injury, so Alfren was named as his replacement – with a mere four days to go before the show.

Kabadong-kabado po ako, kasi si Ma'am Lisa ang ka-partner, may kissing scene, at sa CCP Main Theater pa. Sobrang pressure kasi first time to dance with the prima ballerina, tapos boss mo pa (I was so nervous because Ma'am Lisa would be my partner, there would be a kissing scene, and it was to be in the CCP Main Theater. There was so much pressure because it was my first time to dance with the prima ballerina, who also happens to be my boss,” Alfren describes of that nerve-wracking time.

Usually, he says, a dancer would get a month's rehearsal for a new piece like this so that he could get the feel of the role. “Kung anu-ano po ang iniisip ko – kung ano ang gagawin ko, paano 'yung character; 'yung partnering po ang hirap (A lot of things were running through my mind – what I had to do, how to interpret the character; partnering was quite complicated).”

But Alfren can smile now in relief that he managed to surpass the unexpected challenge. “Okay naman po, sa awa ng Diyos. Naka-survive naman po (It turned out well, with God's help. I survived),” he assesses.

In Carmen, Alfren gets to dance as Escamillo. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

He is grateful because he learned a lot from Lisa from that experience – staying true to the character, projecting a range of emotions from sadness to being in love, even helpful tips in partnering.

Similarly, he enjoyed working with Bam Damian. “Hindi ka lang niya tinuturuan ng steps, pati partnering, pag-express ng sarili. Na hindi ka lang basta ballet dancer sa stage, 'yung pa'no ka maging totoong tao, na natural ang galaw (He doesn't just teach you the steps, but also partnering, expressing yourself. That you are not just a ballet dancer on stage, but also how to become a real person, who moves naturally).”

Dancing the full-length Swan Lake in 2014 made it relatively easy for Alfren to do its Act 2 recently, even with just a day's notice. Photo by D. Trinidad

Recently, another challenge came his way when he was given just a day's notice that he would be doing Act 2 of Swan Lake for The Swan, The Fairy and the Princess because the male lead, Mark Sumaylo, was indisposed. Thankfully, he had danced the full-length version with the same partner, Abigail Oliveiro, two years ago. So his body and mind were able to adapt quite easily, with him recalling what he had done before. “Puwede palang biglaan, kasi naaalala mo na (I realized it could be done instantly, because you're able to remember it),” he claims.

Nothing about ballet is easy, Alfren admits. What may appear effortless onstage takes countless hours in the studio, honing one's body to be able to execute precise movements or a complicated series of steps. Though he says he gets physically tired, it has never gotten to the point that he thought of quitting.

Alfren will be seen next in Cinderella, a new Ballet Manila production that uses the choreography of Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso.

Ito 'yung passion namin. Gusto kong sumayaw; gusto namin 'yung ginagawa namin (This is our passion. I love to dance. We love what we are doing,” he notes. “Priceless po kasi 'yung natatanggap namin pag sumasayaw kami, lalo na pag solo. Sobrang saya po, kahit ang effect sa min nu'n, pagod. Ang saya deep inside, especially pag binigyan ka ng magandang role kasi hindi naman po lahat nabibigyan ng ganu'ng pagkakataon (What we get in return for dancing, particularly solo, is priceless. There's so much happiness even if it means exhaustion for us. There's a happiness deep inside especially when you're given a good role because not everyone is given that chance).

The hardest thing about ballet, Alfren confesses, is thinking of the day that he would eventually have to stop dancing. Saying that male dancers have a shorter career span than women, it is a reality that he will eventually have to face. “Pero ayoko pang isipin (I don't want to think about it).”

Indeed for now, he is just enjoying the dancer's life. It has become an almost daily routine for him to wake up early, cook breakfast, prepare his ballet gear and head to the studio for company class and rehearsals. At day's end, he is too tired to do anything else except take a meal and then sleep. Then the cycle begins again.

On weekends, this young man indulges in interests outside ballet which, come to think of it, are quite contradictory to each other. On one hand, he is a jogger who enjoys doing his runs in the CCP/ MOA area. On the other hand, he is adept in cooking and ticks off local dishes such as menudo, sinigang, tinola and adobo as his specialties. He and his girlfriend, fellow Ballet Manila dancer Violet Hong, also like going on food trips. While Violet manages to maintain her lean figure, Alfren mock-complains that he's the one who has to be conscious about not putting on extra weight.

Partnering Joffrey Ballet's Christine Rocas in Romeo and Juliet at Dance.MNL. Photo by Glyszah Marie Garcia Ching

Alfren counts his blessings that he belongs to a company where dancers are given many opportunities. He himself has been able to join BM's performance tours in Korea, Singapore and Macau. He has also been sent to compete in the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong where, in 2013, he emerged as the silver medalist in the pas de deux division.

On a personal trip to Malaysia, he realized what an advantage BM dancers have over aspiring dancers there. Those who pay for thrice-a-week classes, even if they get good enough, rarely have that opportunity to practice their craft. Watching a ballet show there featuring the Singapore Dance Theater, he recalls how the audience went into a frenzy as the dancers went on stage. Apparently, it was the first such show they were seeing in three years. Asked by a dancer there how many shows he gets to perform in in Manila, Alfren says he was almost embarrassed to answer that it could total to up to 250 a year.

Sana 'yung generation ngayon alam kung ga'no sila kasuwerte sa BM. May theater, maraming opportunities, binibigay lahat ng time, money, food, equipment... sa ballet shoes at pointe shoes pa lang, ang mahal mahal na. Sana ma-appreciate nila kung anong meron sila. Kasi sa iba, gaya nu'ng nakita ko sa Malaysia, sobra po akong na-touch. (I hope the young generation of dancers realize how lucky they are with BM. We have a theater, many opportunities; we are given time, money, food, equipment, even just the ballet shoes and pointe shoes, they're so expensive. I hope they appreciate what they have. Because with others, like what I saw in Malaysia, I was so touched.”

Having experienced it for himself, Alfren urges those interested in pursuing a career in dance to consider ballet seriously. “Hindi lang sila matututo sa sayaw, mas marami silang matututunan sa buhay. Kung pa'no umarte, umiyak, masaktan. Lahat nandito. Matututo ka ng respeto sa tao, respeto sa art (They will learn not just dance, but so much more about life. How to act, cry, get hurt. Everything is here. You will learn respect for other people, respect for the art). To be mature. To respect your colleague, your partner, your boss. To listen to the advice of your teachers and your seniors,” he enumerates.

Asked for the most important lessons his mentors Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso have given him, Alfren sums it all up quite simply: “Love the art. Don't give up your passion. Be a good person.”

These are things, he says, that he strives to live by every single day.

Alfren loves ballet so much that he vows to continue dancing as long as he can. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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