Tiffany Chiang-Janolo: Shining through

Tiffany Chiang-Janolo: Shining through

Ballet Manila soloist Tiffany Chiang-Janolo reflects on her many struggles to make her dreams come true. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Giselle P. Kasilag

There is a strength deep within Tiffany Chiang-Janolo that shines through her petite frame and beautiful face. It is mature, feminine and can only come from years of struggle, self-discovery and the celebration of her passion. The last can be summed up in one word: ballet.

It was a passion that began when Tiffany was four years old. When she was brought to a class by her mother upon the recommendation of a family friend, the shyness melted and the studio became her haven.

“I loved it straightaway!” she declared. “Mum didn’t think I’d let go of her leg but I just walked straight in and joined the class!”

Within a year, her teacher saw the potential for a professional career in the future. But it wasn’t until Tiffany turned 14 that she made a conscious decision to seriously pursue dance.

“My Dad wanted me to learn a musical instrument so I learned the violin. And I did ballet. But when I got to 14, it was too hard to do both so I had to choose. I chose ballet. I just loved ballet! It wasn’t even a choice!” Tiffany admitted.

Upon joining Ballet Manila in 2009, Tiffany immediately found herself dancing a solo in Don Quixote. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

So she applied to the Australian Ballet School and the New Zealand Ballet School. She was accepted by both and opted for the first – one of only 10 girls and 10 boys to be accepted from all over the country. She trained for three years then packed her bags to begin the arduous process of auditioning for a position in a professional ballet company.

“I went to audition in Europe. My first audition was in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I lined up and there were hundreds of people in front of me. It took two hours just to line up to give my CV. Then it took another few hours before I could do the audition. In the audition were about 50 people at a time and they would only choose one. They would cut people at the barre, like, ‘Plie! Thank you.’ It was very difficult. They were looking for a certain look. In a lot of places I was told that I was too small,” shared Tiffany.

She stayed in hostels and other similar accommodations that her meager budget could afford. It was an exercise in research, planning and scheduling. She searched for companies holding auditions and checked out the schedules, determined the best area to serve as base where she could be at a reasonable distance to these auditions and then found a cheap yet safe place to stay, only to do this all over again the following week after a series of rejections.

She did it all on her own for four months at the age of 18.

Taking on the role of Imelda Marcos in Martin Lawrance’s Rebel tops the list of Tiffany’s most memorable performances. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

“It was mentally exhausting! You’re not wanted anywhere. It’s hard. And if you get that job, you got to think: can I live here? You want it so bad and you don’t think about that and then you have to think, can I live here, on my own, in a foreign country where I can’t speak the language? How much am I going to earn? How much will it cost me to rent an apartment? It’s a lot!”

Her family became a source of strength. Though they were so far away, constant communication and support helped her cope with the emotional stress that she was experiencing.

“There was this one time in London when I arrived at midnight and I couldn’t find the hostel! I was walking up and down the street and I could not find it! I ended up calling Mum. She asked, ‘Where are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m in London but I can’t find the hostel!’ And she said to just book room in another place… 'I’ll pay for it, I don’t care as long as you tell me you’re safe!’ And that’s what I did. I never did find the other place. Sometimes, Mum would look back on the whole experience and say, ‘How did I let you go?’ When you’re there, you do it.”

Reflecting on her experience, Tiffany added, “Okay, so that experience didn’t work out for dance but I really grew as a person. I saw the world. It was really an amazing experience! When I look back on it – what I saw and what I did and how I coped – I don’t know how I did it!”

She returned to Melbourne without a contract but still determined to establish a career in ballet. Teaching became her next option. It wasn’t the plan but a friend asked her to help out at a school for two weeks. Two weeks became two years.

Technically challenging – dancers’ code for hard and painful – is how Tiffany describes the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Another favorite role, she performed this for the first time in 2014 and again in 2016. Photo by Konrad Ong

For two years, she simply taught kids to dance. On the third year, she found an open ballet class for professional adults. She began attending classes when a friend, Mary, posed an innocent question that got her thinking: why aren’t you dancing? 

Realizing she wasn’t ready to give up on her dream yet, Tiffany shuttled between teaching and taking classes for a year. And when she felt ready, she braced herself for another round of auditions – and possibly more disappointments.

“The plan was to audition throughout Asia,” said Tiffany. “But the Philippines happened to have an audition that came up first. The audition was in a week and I had to decide if I would get on that plane and go. And Mary said, ‘It’s time. You got to go. You got to try!’ So I went.”

This time, she returned to Melbourne with a contract from Ballet Philippines (BP) and only two weeks to settle her affairs. She was needed back in Manila where a dancing career was waiting.

She danced with BP for a year. At that time, the company was more focused on contemporary choreography. Being classically trained, she found herself struggling to adapt and longing for the traditional roles that she trained for. During a collaboration with Ballet Manila, she saw artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde perform for the first time and was thoroughly impressed.

Since joining Ballet Manila, Tiffany has taken part in a variety of productions including the contemporary piece Bloom by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo by Ocs. Alvarez

When her contract ended, she headed for the studios of Ballet Manila and auditioned. Things unfolded quickly from there. She soon found herself dancing Amor in Don Quixote in 2009. Finally, everything was falling into place. And just like those tough nights in Europe, it was her family who sustained her through the many changes happening all at once in her life. Her mother and aunt flew in from Australia to watch her make her dreams come true.

By the end of the year, she was dancing in Alamat: Si Sibol at si Gunaw. She jumped from just teaching and taking classes to performing on stage three times a day. Dancers of Ballet Manila average over 200 performances a year. Life was about to become very hectic for Tiffany.

“At that time, I really didn’t think about it. I was just so excited to dance,” she admitted, laughing out loud. “I was accepted somewhere, I was dancing, I was so excited! In fact, I didn’t even think that three a day was a lot. It didn’t matter that I was tired. I was just happy to dance! It didn’t matter what I would get – whether it was with the corps or a solo – I was just grateful.”

On tour in Korea, the girls of Bloom take a quick “groupfie” in the dressing room. In the photo with Tiffany are, from left, Joan Emery Sia, Jasmine Pia Dames, Jessa Balote and Abigail Oliveiro. Photo taken from Tiffany’s Facebook account

She has also performed contemporary pieces such as Ilsa-Dyur by Augusto “Bam” Damian which she described as a very challenging piece. It was originally choreographed for Ms. Macuja-Elizalde and principal dancer Rudy De Dios.

Performing Imelda Marcos in Martin Lawrance’s Rebel, however, tops the list of her most memorable roles.

“I think that’s my ultimate! That role was by an international choreographer and it was created on me. It was amazing. I loved that role! The first time, I had to research on the role, the character, the EDSA Revolution. The second time around, I felt I could extend on the role. I knew the steps, I knew how I felt, I knew how I would interpret. I felt I could explore and try to improve on how I portrayed the role. And it wasn’t far apart so the movement was still in my body.”

Another memorable role was as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Suddenly flashing a child-like smile, she admitted to being a huge fan of Christmas which made performing this classical role a joy. It being technically challenging only served to spark a strong desire within Tiffany to conquer the role. She also noted that the music is so inspiring, and the costumes just so beautiful that they add to the magic of performing the role.

Apart from a dancing career, Tiffany also found her Prince Charming – Jonathan Janolo – in the Philippines. Photo provided by Jonathan Janolo

Technically challenging, however, is considered as dancers’ code for hard and painful – physically painful. And like all dancers, Tiffany is no stranger to pain – icing her feet and legs every night to ensure that she can stand on her toes come morning. Though she looks petite and delicate, her core is solid. Ballet is not for the weak.

“It’s really a passion,” she replied when asked how she could love something that brings her so much pain. “Dancing is our passion. It’s like we can’t imagine that this is our job – that we get paid to do what we love. Yes, I’m in pain right now but when I get through that, it’s an achievement. I made it! If the audience loves it, that we can give them a good show, they enjoy it and we enjoy it. Then that makes it worth it!”

But Tiffany didn’t just find a career in the Philippines. She also found her real-life Prince Charming in Jonathan Janolo – a former dancer and now ballet master for Ballet Manila. They struck up a friendship that eventually led to the altar.

“Jay is so easy to talk to. He took me out for the first time and we just talked for hours and hours! It was just so comfortable. And he’s always so funny. He’s always inspiring me. He’s always there for me. It’s not always easy. I’m in pain and he’d tell me that I can do this. Or he would put it in a different perspective. He’s a very calm person.”

Having found her own prince, Tiffany is happy about stepping aside and letting others find theirs – especially on stage. This November, Ballet Manila will be staging Cinderella with choreography by Ms. Macuja-Elizalde and her co-artistic director Osias Barroso. Tiffany is excited to take on the role of one of the wicked stepsisters.

In Ballet Manila’s next production, Tiffany will be playing a wicked stepsister together with Violet Hong to Abigail Oliveiro’s Cinderella.

“I have not done this role before so it’s going to be a challenge!” she exclaimed. “It’s actually hard to have to do a step and make it look comical or funny. I think it’s going to be awkward at first. I’ll probably look at videos on YouTube as well just to see and compare how others have done it before. But it’s going to be exciting! As Jay said, it’s one of those roles that really teaches you to come out of yourself and do things that you would not really ever think you’re going to do on stage.”

Indeed, coming out of herself has played an important role in Tiffany’s career. Whether it’s about letting go of her Mum’s leg to join a ballet class, traipsing all over Europe for a series of heartbreaking auditions or jumping into a plane to come to the Philippines, she has knocked on and pushed open so many doors to follow her dreams. And that dream can be summed up in one word: ballet.

Coming out of herself has become a recurring theme in Tiffany’s career. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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