The fall and rise of Abby Bonifacio

The fall and rise of Abby Bonifacio

Abby Bonifacio insists that her love for ballet hasn’t changed even after breaking her leg while dancing. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Susan A. De Guzman

One moment, Abby Bonifacio was leaping joyfully in mid-air. Then there was a loud crack and the next thing she knew, she was a heap of white lace and tulle on the floor.

It was a ballerina’s nightmare come true.

With her thrice-a-week, two-hour physical therapy sessions, Abby promises she will be back in the studio one day soon. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Abby had broken a bone in her left lower leg. But what probably made it worse was that it happened in mid-competition, in a packed theater. The music strangely enough played on as the shocked audience saw an equally stunned Abby attempt to get up, fail, motion for assistance from the wings, and – after what seemed an interminable time – finally carried off the stage.

A month after that incident at the CCP Ballet Competition, Abby can recall the events of that November night in great detail almost dispassionately. But when she gets to that part about being taken off stage, her voice cracks. “That’s when I started crying,” shares Abby, who is on the verge of tears as she retells the moment. It wasn’t out of pain, she says, but more for sadness at not being able to finish her dance and the thought that she had disappointed her mentors who by then had rushed to her side.

Abby is grateful for the help that came her way then – from ballet teacher Jeffrey Espejo who, seeing her injury, had the presence of mind not to move her but instead carried her; to Ballet Manila production manager Eric Añonuevo who instantly scrounged around backstage for a piece of wood that could be used as a splint for her leg. Hearing words of comfort from BM artistic directors Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso reassured her that things would be okay.

On the way to the hospital, Abby had another worry on her mind: “I told my mom, ‘I have a 7 a.m. bio exam tomorrow.’ She told me not to think about it anymore.”

That school exam and many others would indeed have to wait. Abby can only imagine how she must have looked when she was brought into the emergency room. “I was still in tutu, I was still in makeup, my hair was all done, I was crying. Everyone was looking at me,” she remembers laughingly now.

An X-ray showed that she had a closed tibial fracture. The doctors told Abby and her mom that she was still fortunate that the bone had not broken through the skin, otherwise things would have been more complicated. “It was more of a numb feeling. But I knew a part of my leg was not connected,” she sums up of her condition then. Her leg was put in a temporary cast until it was operated on two days later.

Abby says she felt good as she danced the first few steps of the 2nd Shades Variation from La Bayadere during the CCP Ballet Competition. Photo Kiko Cabuena courtesy of CCP

That first night, as she lay in her hospital bed, Abby was in touch with her friends in Ballet Manila via cell phone and Facebook. “Very comforting talaga sila, their words were very heartwarming. Rissa May (Camaclang) kept me updated about the competition. I was sad about what happened, but when I learned that Nicole (Barroso) and Brian (Sevilla) won, gumaan ‘yung loob ko (a load was taken off). I felt better after that. I wanted to speak to them, to congratulate them, but it was already late. Nakatulog naman po ako (I was able to sleep somehow).”

The following day, Abby set the tone for how she would deal with this setback. Taking a photo of her left hand on which was scribbled the word “TRUST” and her leg in a cast in the background, she posted on Instagram and Facebook: “Initially, I wrote this down on my hand with an eyeliner as a reminder to trust myself and my abilities while I was on stage. For the few seconds of dancing my variation, I remember feeling joy and pride of just being able to dance and be a part of the competition. In that first diagonal, I was enjoying the experience and I am very thankful for that. 

“Now, this reminder on my hand stands for something else. As what my mentor said before the performance, everything happens for a reason. I just need to trust in that reason, trust in God's plan, trust in the doctors and in the operation and trust that I will come back walking, running, jumping and dancing again.”

Messages of support from her friends and family steadily poured in, encouraging her to be strong, telling her how they believed in her and hoping for her speedy recovery. Visits from well-wishers, especially her fellow dancers from BM, buoyed Abby’s spirits. She especially appreciated the advice of those who had been injured before, including Alvin Dictado and Joan Emery Sia.

At the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong, Abby (front, center) poses with fellow competitors in her age category. It was her first time to join a ballet competition. Photo courtesy of AGP

Alam ko naman po na it’s easier to be depressed, lalo na if you’re a dancer with a broken leg, so you have to fight it. It already happened so you need to do something about it. I wasn’t able to control what happened, but I could control what would happen next.”

Abby has always been a strong-willed girl who pursued her interests with energy and enthusiasm. She was into gymnastics at age seven and continued with it seriously, to the point that she even took up ballet just to become more flexible. Along the way, she fell in love with ballet and by age twelve, she opted to leave gymnastics behind for it.

Seeing ballet performances in her school and videos on YouTube bolstered her decision. She was quite fascinated with the ballerinas who could move ever so gracefully and perform wonderful feats on stage. “I wanted to be as beautiful as them,” she admits. “And it’s true – when you do ballet, you really feel beautiful!”

She started out at Level 1 with Ballet Manila in 2010. Because of her gymnastics background, her progression was quite fast. Among the things she had to learn was how to turn out her feet and to move in a softer manner. She also became more aware of her body as she had to develop it to be lean rather than muscular.

Abby enjoys the repetitiveness of doing daily ballet class. “If you’re an average person, nakakasawa siguro (it might be monotonous), but for a dancer, it’s your foundation. When you do tendu, plié, I feel everyday it’s something different even though they’re the same steps. And when you dance, it’s the same steps.”

Abby (front, center) joins other cast members for Ballet Manila’s Ballet Pinoy production in Star City. Photo by Gerardo Francisco

As in her high school days, life for Abby is a balancing act between academics and ballet. She is now in her sophomore year in UP Manila, taking up Speech Pathology. When she was still in high school at St. Scholastica’s College and had started with ballet, her father Salvador Bonifacio Jr. kept reminding her to keep education a priority. “He would say if I did well in my studies, he’d let me continue ballet. That’s what pushed me to do well in school. In third year and fourth year, he saw that I was putting the pressure on myself, so he said, take it easy na. He saw that I was taking care of my studies.”

Abby’s efforts paid off as she would eventually graduate as class salutatorian. Now, in college, she usually takes 18 units per semester, leaving her enough time to allot to ballet, too. Speech pathology is a new course and profession in the Philippines and one Abby was motivated to take because of her brother Raphael. As a baby, he didn’t talk at the expected age and was soon brought to a speech therapist. Sometimes, Abby would tag along on those visits or take her brother herself. She saw how her brother’s case was closely managed by the therapists. “Na-inspire ako (I was inspired). You really get to change lives.” (Raphael is now ten years old and studies in La Salle Greenhills.)

The year 2016 has been a significant one for Abby. She turned 18 last July and in August, she joined a ballet competition for the first time. The latter was unexpected. Told that she might be part of the BM delegation to the Asian Grand Prix, she was actually shocked. “Because I’m not the type of dancer that stands out in the spotlight. For all those recitals, I only had one solo. When I learned I had a chance, I was really excited. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to do this. I wanted to excel. I was doing my best to show Sir Shaz and Ma’am Lise that I was ready to compete.”

Going backstage after watching Cinderella, Abby has her photo taken with artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde (as Fairy Godmother) backstage. Photo by Mark Sumaylo

She did make the cut to go to Hong Kong for the competition, but Abby is the first to admit her nerves got the better of her. “’Yung solo ko, Gamzatti. I really love that variation. I love jumping, doing the grand jeté. But when I performed it, I didn’t feel like flying. When you’re a dancer, you know naman if you did well or not. ‘Yun ang mali ko sa AGP (That was my mistake in AGP). I learned you have to remember to have fun.”

The chance to redeem herself came at the CCP Competition. After turning in video submissions, Abby was one of the BM dancers chosen as a finalist in the junior category. “I was super happy, so proud of myself. I felt like I was more ready.”

As it turned out, Abby had already been feeling pain in her left leg as early as September. There was a suspected stress fracture. Abby knows now she shouldn’t have ignored what her body was telling her. But she decided to push on, determined to prove herself and to do well in the competition.

After her fall on the CCP stage, Abby recalls thinking she should still maintain her poise and not cry. Photo by Kiko Cabuena courtesy of CCP

Tinitiis ko ‘yung pain (I would just endure the pain). Like I would say I’d rehearse this piece for only two minutes, then I’d rest, then ice it everyday. Looking back, I asked, why did I do that? I was doing something I love, preparing for a competition, that’s why. I remember telling my mom, I’m scared. She asked, Sa competition? Sabi ko, sa leg ko. But it was too close to the competition, so I said after the competition, I would take a rest, take an MRI, bone scan,” she relates.

That day, Abby was able to take dance class. She managed to do her jumps. The competitors were given time to familiarize themselves with the stage. She was psyching herself to have fun, to remember the corrections. Even though she had seen her BM colleagues who danced before her experience some slips, she was in a good state mentally.

“Compared to how I felt during AGP when I was about to go onstage, I felt so much better at CCP. Rather than being scared, I was excited to nail my performance. For the first few seconds, it was going well. I was actually having fun onstage. And then on the second diagonal po, I didn’t expect it. Suddenly I heard a crack. Then I fell. In my head, I was asking, why is this happening to me? But at the same time, I told myself, keep the poise, you are still on stage, don’t cry.”

There have been many tears since then. But she was crushed upon hearing her mom Corina blame herself. “Doon ako naiyak (I really cried because of that). She was saying, I shouldn’t have let you compete na lang because she knew I was hurting na; siya na raw dapat ‘yung nagpigil sa ‘kin. Siya pa ‘yung nagsabi na sorry (She said she should have stopped me from competing. She was even the one who said sorry to me). I saw that she was having a hard time seeing me cry every night. And she was the one na ever since that night was with me the whole time. Siya ‘yung kasama kong natutulog sa hospital, nag-aasikaso sa ‘kin (She’s the one who slept with me at the hospital, taking care of me).”

Through it all, Abby says she can never thank her mom enough, and both her parents, for supporting her and for understanding that despite this injury, she will continue with ballet. There was never really a question about that. “Hindi pa rin nag-iba ‘yung love ko sa ballet. Kahit ganu’n ang nangyari. Kaya masipag po ako sa therapy; masipag din po akong mag-exercise at home. Para mas mabilis ‘yung healing process (My love for ballet hasn’t changed. Even with what happened. That’s why I’m diligent in my therapy; I’m also diligent in exercising at home. So that the healing process would be faster).”

Abby posted this picture on her Instagram and Facebook accounts the day after her accident, stressing the need for trust as part of the healing process.

During her operation, a metallic rod was inserted in her leg, from the knee to the ankle. Because she is an active person and because of her youth, her recovery has indeed been quicker than in other similar cases. Post-surgery, she was at first walking with crutches. But in no time at all, she was able to dispense with those. Her attending physician, Dr. Antonio Rivera – who has also worked with Lisa through her injuries over the years – urged her during a checkup just before Christmas to start putting weight on her leg already as that would also spur healing.

In early December, about two weeks after the competition, Abby was already at the Aliw Theater to watch BM’s production of Cinderella where she would have danced as the seamstress. Going backstage afterwards, her mentors and colleagues – surprised that she was up and about, sans crutches – enveloped her in warm hugs and congratulatory words. “It was a welcome change to see them again. For two weeks, I was by myself with my mom, just communicating with them via cell. Feeling mo isolated ka. When you see their faces again, nakaka-miss, nakakatuwa. All the more reason I want to go back,” she enthuses.

At the moment, her thrice-a-week, two-hour therapy sessions continue. In the first few meetings with her physical therapists, Abby’s exercises were mostly done on the bed, lying down or sitting. But as her leg got stronger, she was given more standing exercises and drills that required her to move around more and use her leg. Then as she continually got better, her sessions were moved to the gym area where she has been given more challenging exercises and some involving gym equipment.

At the gym area, there is a small barre that she has used to do some ballet exercises. “It was really fun doing ballet there because the PTs and the interns were so fascinated. Now, I can do light jogging and swimming, and lately, I have been doing a lot of yoga. I have also been doing barre exercises at home to set myself up for when I go back to the studio soon, since Dr. Rivera told me weeks ago that I could join class.”

She is still having trouble doing pliés on her left leg, so she has opted not to resume the classes yet. “He told me that I shouldn’t be worried about the bone anymore because with the rod inside, it is very strong. What I needed to focus on was getting strength back to my muscles around the broken bone. I am up for another meeting with Dr. Rivera soon and he will be doing an X-ray on my leg to see how the bone is healing.”

Despite the many challenges, things are indeed looking up for Abby, who is also about to enroll for the second semester in UP. Soon, she hopes to return to dance class too. She can’t wait till that happens. But she knows, as her parents also keep reminding her, she shouldn’t rush it.

As she continues to be on the mend, she has one goal in mind: “I don’t want to be known as the dancer who broke her leg at the CCP Competition although I am known as that. I want to be known as the dancer who fell in the CCP competition but who is dancing again.”

A determined Abby can’t wait till she dances again. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Susan Macuja: Ballet Manila’s mom for all seasons

Susan Macuja: Ballet Manila’s mom for all seasons

To 2016!

To 2016!