Czarina Villegas: From ballet fan to ballerina

Czarina Villegas: From ballet fan to ballerina

Czarina Villegas will always be that little girl fascinated by the ballet, transported to a world of princesses. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

By Susan A. De Guzman

Czarina Villegas appreciates the pure joy that comes from experiencing a full-circle moment. For this was precisely what she felt when she performed for the very first time with Ballet Manila – the same company she had avidly watched for many years as a little girl back in Iloilo.

Dancing in La Bayadere as part of the corps de ballet in 2006, she was overwhelmed by a rush of emotions as she stepped on to the stage at Aliw Theater. “Mangiyak-ngiyak ako, kasi... wow, andito na ko. Wow, nakasama ko si Ma'am Lisa sa isang stage (I was almost crying because... wow, I'm here. Wow, I'm on the same stage as Ma'am Lisa),” Czarina remembers.

Czarina (right) backstage with the other “Blue Ladies” of Martin Lawrance’s Rebel (from left): Henriette Garcia, Marika Añonuevo, DoHyun Choi, Abigail Oliveiro and Joan Emery Sia. Photo by Violet Hong

“Ma'am Lisa,” of course, refers to Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, the prima ballerina who fired up Czarina's childhood dreams. Thanks to her grandmother who suggested she be enrolled in ballet at the age of four, she got an early start in dancing. And thanks to her mom who never missed watching any ballet show in their hometown, she grew to love ballet too. Seeing dancers twirl in their tutus transported her to another world filled with princesses. She says she was never bored with ballet; in fact, she craved for more.

Czarina recalls that whenever Ballet Manila had an engagement in Iloilo, she would always be in the audience. “Sobrang fan ako ng BM. Basta wala po akong absent! (I was a big fan of BM. I was never absent from any of their shows)!” she shares. Fortunately for her, Nila Claravall-Gonzalez, who owns the ballet school she attended, knew Lisa, so Czarina would even get the chance to go backstage after the show to get the dancers' autographs.

The card that Czarina gave BM in 2001 partly reads: “Thank you for sharing once again with the people of Iloilo City a night of exquisite dancing. May God reward you for your generosity. BRAVO! We look forward to more Ballet & Ballads in the coming years.”

One time, she recalls, she walked in on BM pioneer Eduardo Espejo while he was still removing makeup from his face. Though slightly flustered, the young girl still managed to ask for an autograph as she handed him her ticket.

Akala niya Czarna 'yung name ko, kaya 'yun ang sinulat niya. Sumunod na 'yung iba, 'yun din ang sinulat (He thought my name was Czarna, so that's what he wrote. The others followed suit and wrote the same),” Czarina laughingly relates. But even with the error in the spelling of her name, that ticket is among the ballerina's treasured keepsakes.

Though she continued conscientiously with her ballet classes – every Saturday as a four-year-old, then thrice a week as she made it through high school – she never actually dreamed she could join Ballet Manila one day. But she did think ballet could be a career for her when she started joining competitions.

Ballet Manila is now like a second home to Czarina (leftmost). She admits to feeling intimidated when she first came to the BM studio as she says all the dancers there were so good. Photo by Joan Emery Sia

Then a series of unplanned things happened. Upon a friend's suggestion, she applied for and was given a scholarship at the College of Saint Benilde. There, she would eventually finish a degree in arts management. Somewhere in all this, she bumped into Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias “Shaz” Barroso by chance, who asked her if she wanted to take classes with the company in its Pasay studios. Deep down, she really wanted to, but she was apprehensive about it.

“I was intimidated kasi ang gagaling nila. Kasi galing ako sa probinsiya, hindi pa ako nakalabas sa shell ko (I was intimidated because the dancers were so good. Because I came from the province, I still couldn't get out of my shell),” she says.

Overcoming her fears, however, she did try out and started taking class with BM. Before she knew it, she was being given a certificate as a full scholar. But things didn't come that easy for her. Following BM's Vaganova method meant a major adjustment because it was far different from the technique she had grown up with. Years after taking those initial classes with Ballet Manila, she feels Vaganova has been a big help, molding her into a stronger dancer.

The lithe and lean Czarina loves the classics, especially those laced with tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Giselle. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

She even got to take class with Lisa's Russian mentor, Tatiana Alexandrovna. “Takot na takot ako. Prangka siya. (I was so scared. She was very frank.) She would really correct you. She was direct to the point,” shares Czarina who says it was a true privilege to be taught by the person who trained Lisa Macuja for years in St. Petersburg.

Czarina loves the classics, especially those laced with tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Giselle. “Swan Lake was my greatest fulfillment in corps work,” she points out. “Ang hirap talaga, nakakangawit. (It's difficult, you get numb). But you get through it with training, stamina and the right mindset. Kung feeling mo pagod ka na, 'wag mong isipin na pagod ka na. (If you feel tired, don't think that you're already tired.)”

In last June's Dance.MNL festival, BM's corps was widely praised for their grace and precision in executing their movements. Czarina was one of the ethereal wilis who – though they may have been “just” in the sidelines – made their mark with audiences that showered them with cheers and applause.

Asked what important reminders they got from Lisa and Shaz about dancing as a wili, Czarina replies, “Learn your part well. If everybody masters her part to perfection, you will be in synch with everyone else to be able to dance in perfect unison no matter how many you are in the corps.”

An outdoors enthusiast, Czarina can’t seem to resist making ballet poses even while on a vacation. Photo from Czarina’s Facebook page

While she is a great fan of the classics, it is the contemporary piece Love Beyond Goodbye by Manny Molina that Czarina regards fondly. As an understudy, she recalls that she was in the sidelines together with another dancer, just enjoying herself rehearsing the steps, when they were suddenly told they would be the ones dancing after all. “Du’n ako na-discover talaga. 'Yun 'yung big break ko. (I was really discovered there. That was my big break.) After that, I was promoted to demi-soloist.”

Now, as a company artist, lithe and lean Czarina just continues to savor what she's doing. For Ballet Manila's upcoming production of Cinderella, she has been tapped to dance as a stepsister in some shows in tandem with Jasmine Pia Dames. (The other pair of stepsisters will be played by Tiffany Chiang-Janolo and Violet Hong, with ballet master Jonathan Janolo as the “mother” to all four.)

Together with Jasmine Pia Dames (center), Czarina plays stepsister to the hapless Cinderella (Dawna Reign Mangahas) in Ballet Manila’s forthcoming production of the beloved fairy tale.

Since she tends to be reserved and is quite soft-spoken, Czarina may seem like an unlikely choice to dance an aggressive character. She says she will probably play it naughty, not mean.

Anyway, as the youngest and the only girl (with brothers ten years and eight years older than she is), Czarina reveals she was actually makulit (mischievous) even as kid. “Sa aming tatlo, parang ako raw 'yung lalaki. I would make funny faces at them. I would get their bikes,” she says of her antics.

Her slight frame and reserved demeanor might belie it, but Czarina can be adventurous at heart. She enjoys outdoor activities such as swimming, kayaking and mountain hiking. Lately, she's been trying to learn surfing during trips to Baler with friends. Still on her off-hours, she catches an occasional movie and likes hanging out at what she describes as “hipster” and artsy places such as Cubao X in Quezon City and The Collective in Makati.

In 2012, Czarina had the scare of her life when, during a solo in Don Quixote, something seemed to snap in her left knee. She still managed to finish the dance. But afterwards, when she tried to stretch, it felt like it was giving way. She was brought to the hospital, her leg placed in an immobilizer. She was diagnosed with ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury, common to dancers and athletes. After three weeks, she underwent surgery. She had no choice but to refrain from dancing for six months.

“That time, feeling ko, di na ako makakabalik sa pagsayaw. Pero sabi ko rin, baka test lang. Kung gaano ako ka-passionate sa dance. (I felt then that I might not be able to return to dancing. But I also said, maybe this is just a test. How passionate I am about dance.)”

Czarina (third from left) joins the other girls in an excerpt from La Bayadere, as presented in BM 21, a prelude to the company’s all-classics 21st season. Photo by Konrad Ong

A determined Czarina vowed to get better. And indeed, she was able to dance again. She says she is sometimes wary her knee might give way again but she pushes on, past the fears. Like what she tells her students at the BM school when they have a misstep: “You fall, you get up, you continue dancing. Just enjoy.”

At 28, she feels she only has a short time left to keep performing so she is making the most of it. Her secret wish before she retires is to dance Sayaw sa Pamlang, a Ballet Manila favorite, which is inspired by the singkil. “Kasi 'yun 'yung nakikita ko nu'ng bata pa ako eh. I'm fascinated with the movements. I like the role of the strong princess,” she says.

Czarina is happy nevertheless for she has already gotten to a place she never expected to reach. She remembers the feeling when several of Ballet Manila's pioneers reunited to celebrate the company's 20th anniversary. “Starstruck pa rin ako sa kanila. (I was still so starstruck by all of them.) One time, they just watched the show. I told another dancer, “Dati ako 'yung nanonood sa kanila. Ngayon, sila na 'yung nanonood sa akin (Before, I would be the one watching them. Now it was them watching me,” Czarina says, still quite unbelieving that it had actually happened.

It was another full-circle moment that Czarina – the Ballet Manila fan who metamorphosed into a Ballet Manila dancer – will definitely hold dear to her heart.

Czarina is pleasantly surprised upon being shown a thank-you note she had written to Ballet Manila in 2001 after watching their performance in Iloilo. The card is part of the BM Archives collection. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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