Jessa Balote: Ballet Manila's real-life Cinderella

Jessa Balote: Ballet Manila's real-life Cinderella

A former scavenger in Tondo, Jessa Balote's life changed when she became a scholar of Ballet Manila's Project Ballet Futures in 2008. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Michele T. Logarta

Prizewinning ballet dancer Jessa Balote, 18, once regarded the world of ballet as rarified space. 

Mayayaman ang mga taong sumasayaw ng ballet. Hindi ko alam na pwedeng pumunta dito ang mga tulad kong mahihirap.” (The people who dance ballet are rich. I didn’t know that poor people like me could come here too). By “dito” (here), she means Ballet Manila where she is a company artist and is one of its rising stars.

Christmas came early for Jessa who received her Aliw Award as Best Classical Dancer last November 30 during rites held at Dusit Thani Hotel. Photo courtesy of Jessa Balote

Balote was named the 2016 Aliw Awards Best Classical Ballet Dancer recently.

Of this new laurel, she says, “Hindi ko po akalain na makukuha ko po ang  Aliw Award at ang laki po ng pasasalamat ko sa Itaas dahil binigyan Niya ako ng maagang regalo at maging sa mga teachers ko sa ballet, sa aking mga magulang na laging nandiyan para suportahan po ako sa lahat ng ginagawa ko. Ang saya-saya ko po.” (I didn’t expect to get the Aliw Award. I am deeply grateful to God because He gave me this early Christmas gift as well as to my ballet teachers and parents who are always there to support me in all that I do. I am so very happy.)

Jessa has been called Ballet Manila’s Cinderella who got pointe shoes instead of glass slippers and went on to become a princess. She became a scholar of BM at the age of 10 and life was never the same since then. 

Her mentor and idol Lisa Macuja-Elizalde is among the people Jessa dedicates her Aliw Award to. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

In a congratulatory post on Facebook the day after Jessa received her award, BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde relates the young girl's journey in dance. “She was one of 40 children given ballet scholarships in 2008 under our Project Ballet Futures program. She has worked hard on her ballet training and kept her grades in school. She has been a company artist in Ballet Manila for four seasons now. And yes, she used to be a scavenger – harvesting anything that was sellable from the garbage dumps! I salute you, Jessa! Congratulations on being awarded the Best Classical Ballet Dancer in the 2016 Aliw Awards last night. You are an inspiration to us all!”

Jessa grew up in the slums of Tondo, in Aroma, a compound of buildings originally meant to be serve as temporary housing and where many make a living out garbage.  She too used be a garbage picker, tagging along with her parents.  

She hasn’t left this place; it is still her home where her parents and siblings live. Today, her parents run a sari-sari store, taking their turn in tending it, while also taking care of Jessa and her five siblings whose ages range from 24 to 17. “Minsan, hatid-sundo po ako ni Mama. Si Papa sa bahay lang nagbabantay.” (Sometimes, Mama brings me and fetches me from BM while Papa stays at home.)

Jessa is a scholar of the Philippine Christian Foundation. It was through PCF that she found her way to BM. 

She recalls the time when ballet auditions were held at her school: “Nabigyan ng pagkakataon ang school namin na magkaroon ng audition. Aral lang ako nang aral. Pero tinulak ako ng kuya ko. Sabi niya, 'Jessa, mag-aral ka ng ballet.' Sa pagkakalaam ko, ang ballet ay pagbabaliktad ng buto. Sabi ko, 'Hala kuya, hindi ako pwede.'” (An audition for ballet was held in our school. All I did was study but my older brother pushed me. He said: 'Jessa, you must study ballet.' I didn’t know what ballet was except that you turned your bones this way and that. I told my brother: 'Oh no, I can’t do that.')

But in the end, she did go to the audition with 49 other aspirants. To her surprise, she was among the 25 selected to try out again at the BM studio where Lisa and the other teachers – including BM co-artistic directo Osias Barroso – assessed them. 

Nagulat ako. Unexpected talaga. Kasi hindi ako flexible habang 'yung iba ang lambot ng katawan. Ako hindi.” (I was really surprised. It was truly unexpected. Because I wasn’t flexible while the others were.)

The day after the second round of audtions, Jessa learned she had made it and started training immediately. She spent mornings at school and nights at BM, six days a week.

   Through intensive training under such teachers as BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso, Jessa has become a full-fledged ballerina. Photo by Gerardo Francisco

Through intensive training under such teachers as BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso, Jessa has become a full-fledged ballerina. Photo by Gerardo Francisco

In the beginning, Jessa was ambivalent about ballet. 

Hindi ko talaga gusto. Bakit kami napunta dito?” (I didn’t really like it. Why were we here?)

The teachers were very strict, she says, and they would tell the pupils to persevere.  “Ginawa ko ang best ko kahit mahirap at umiiyak na ako kasi hindi ko kaya ang steps.”  (I did my best even if it was difficult and I would be in tears because I couldn’t learn the the steps.)

Despite the difficulties, Jessa made sure to maintain her good grades. “Hindi ko hinayaang bumagsak.” (I didn’t allow my grades to go down.)

Jessa turns emotional when she recalls her first time to perform on stage, a contemporary piece danced to the APO's bouncy ditty Doo Bidoo. “Nakasuot po kami ng colored T-shirt at pants.”

Later, Jessa explains the tears. 

Kaya po ako umiyak, dati po kasi may field trip po kami sa Aliw Theater at ang palabas po ay Pinocchio at first time ko po makakita sa buong buhay ko na may ganu'n po palang sayaw. Kasi kadalasang nakikita ko lang ay mga contemporary dance lang po.  Ayun, natuwa po ako at hindi ko akalain na makakasayaw ako sa stage kung saan dati ako nanood. Ngayon, ako na ang pinapanood ng maraming tao. At kaya po ako naiyak, kasi ang laki ng pagbabago... dati wala akong alam sa pagsasayaw at hindi ko alam na may talent po pala ako.”

Jessa (rightmost) together with (from left) Jasmine Pia Dames, Jessica Pearl Dames and Tiffany Chiang-Janolo perform the Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake in last October's The Swan, The Fairy and the Princess. Photo by Stan de la Cruz

(The reason I cried was because I remembered we had a field trip to Aliw Theater and we watched Pinocchio. It was the first time in my life to see that there was that kind of show. More often than not, I have seen only contemporary dance. I was so happy and I never expected that I would one day be able to dance on the stage where I once watched a show. Now, it is me that people were watching. I cried because a lot has changed in my life. In the past, I didn’t know anything about dance. I didn’t know that I had talent.)

Backstage in Vietnam last June, Jessa joins fellow dancers (clockwise from back left) Dawna Mangahas, Rissa May Camaclang and Joan Emery Sia for a quick snap before their Sayaw sa Pamlang number. Photo from Joan Emery Sia's Facebook page

Jessa's talent has received validation here and abroad. She has toured with BM to Hong Kong, Macau, Korea and Vietnam. She also performed in London as a representative of her school, PCF.

Nakakatakot sumakay ng eroplano. Hindi ko akalain na makakalipad ako ng ibang bansa. Ang bata ko pa. Meron palang ibang paraan para lumipad sa ibang bansa.  Para sa akin, 'yung may mga trabaho lang. 'Yun pala pati ang mga sumasayaw nakakalipad.” (It’s scary to ride the airplane. I never thought I would fly to other countries. I am so young still. I didn’t know that there were other ways to travel. For me, only those with jobs could do that. It turns out even those who dance can fly.)

She participated in the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong three times and was named Finalist in the Junior B Division (2012), Fifth Place in the Junior B Division (2013) and Fourth Place in the Pre-Senior Division and Pas De Deux in 2015. She was also a finalist in the Junior Division of the 2014 CCP National Dance Competition.

Jessa has been described as having nerves of steel when in competition. 

She remembers her first time to compete: “Ang lakas ng tiwala ko sa sarili ko. Pero nu'ng nakita ko 'yung audience, umpisa pa lang ng music, pagpasok ko, ang lakas ng kaba ko. Nawala na ang kaba after at na-enjoy ko na. (I was confident. But when I saw the audience and the music started, I was so nervous when I entered the stage. But soon after, I was calm and began to enjoy the dance.”

Aside from her recent award, Jessa also received the 2013 Aliw Awards Discovery of the Year.

In Giselle during last June's Dance.MNL festival, Jessa (front, left) was part of the much-applauded Ballet Manila corps that portrayed the lovelorn wilis. Photo by Konrad Ong

Jessa has performed countless times with BM. To date, her important roles include those in Bloom (4 Women), La Bayadere (2nd Variation), Sari’t Bahag (female lead) and The Nutcracker (Little Masha).

She is thrilled – and always grateful – that she is now given roles that “Ma'am Lise” did in the past. Her teachers' trust in her is what motivates her to do her best, Jessa says.   “Ang taas po ng tiwala nila sa akin. Hindi ko hinahayaan 'yan.”  (They trust me so much.  I appreciate and value that very much.)

Although she would be happy to do any role that is assigned to her, she picks out the Black Swan in Swan Lake as her dream role. 

“Black Swan po kasi parang du'n po maipapakita ko kung paano po ako lumalaban sa anong hirap ng aming buhay. (I want to do the Black Swan because it is through this role that I can show how I have struggled against the hardships in our life.)

Jessa (center) soars in a number presented during World Ballet Day on October 16, alongside Nicole Barroso (left) and Jasmine Pia Dames. Photo by Stan de la Cruz

What Jessa likes when she's dancing is having the chance to portray a character far different from her own. “'Pag nasa bahay ako parang natural na tao lang at kapag sumasayaw sa stage ibang tao na po ang nakikita nila, ibang Jessa.” (When I am at home, I am like every other person but when I am dancing on stage, people see a different person, a different Jessa.)

Looking back to what she was eight years ago, she turns pensive. “Grabe ang pagmamahal ko sa BM. Ayaw ko na pong umalis. Ang laki ng pagbabago... pati 'yung tulong sa pamilya ko hindi inaasahang mabibigyan ko sila ng surporta. Ang laki ng pasasalamat ko kay Ma'am Lise, sa mga teachers ko.” (My love for BM is deep. I don’t want to leave. My life has changed so much. I never thought I could help my family. My biggest thanks goes to Ma'am Lise and my teachers.”

Jessa's mother Anita Balote often accompanies her in going to the Ballet Manila studio from their home in Tondo. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Jessa's fairy-tale story has been well-publicized in both local and international media. Though she would rather maintain a low profile, this shy and soft-spoken young lady also wants her story to inspire others.

Sa dami-dami ng nag-interview sa akin, nahihiya pa rin ako... kasi po para sa akin, kaya nila ako ini-interview ay para sa mga batang katulad ko na hindi inasahan namapupunta sa ganito. Isa ako sa mga bata na nagnanais na makapunta sa ganitong lugar kung saan mararamdaman ang saya. 'Yung lungkot mawawala. Kahit po siguro paano, nakakapagbigay ako ng inspirasyon sa mga bata.”

(Even if I have been interviewed many times, I am still shy... for me, the reason they interview me is for the children like me who didn’t hope to see their dreams come true. I am one of those children who dreams of coming to a place like this where they can experience happiness and sadness goes away. Somehow, maybe I am able to give inspiration to children.)

Jessa Balote is a beneficiary of The Atty. and Mrs. Julio S. Macaranas Jr. Scholarship Fund and PCF. She is in Grade 10 now. She is looking forward to pursuing a college education. She wants to earn a degree in Education and become a teacher one day.

Shy and softspoken Jessa wants to inspire children with her story. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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