Twinning around: Manila transplants ‘Abwin-Gobi’ talk about the BM dancer’s life

Twinning around: Manila transplants ‘Abwin-Gobi’ talk about the BM dancer’s life

Godwin Merano and Abigail Oliveiro enjoy a friendship forged in ballet. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Jv Ramos

The world of ballet consists of many narratives that have to do with transplants or individuals who have made that difficult choice of moving away from home so that they could pursue a life of dancing.

Though common, we, as members of the audience, never get sick of hearing such stories and even become invested on what will happen next: Did X dancer find a home in the company he or she picked? How many roles and seasons has X dancer gone through now? Have the parents of X dancer witnessed how much their child has evolved within the company? Will X dancer settle here in the Philippines after his or her career? The list just doesn’t seem to end and neither does our strong hope that things would fall into place for these brave souls.

Abi didn’t hesitate about moving to the Philippines from Australia because it meant being able to dance. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

In the case of Ballet Manila dancers Abigail Oliveiro and Godwin Merano – transplants who have proclaimed themselves as twins despite the obvious differences in their dance approaches and styles, preferences in clothing and food, and temperaments – the chapters they are currently living (individually and jointly) are as interesting and as colorful as those months leading up to their joining the company.

Singapore-born and Australia-bred Abi, who joined the company almost three years before Godwin did, began her BM journey in late 2013 – when she was actually on the verge of giving up ballet. “I was on my way back to Melbourne from Singapore, thinking that was it, that my days of dancing were done,” shares the soloist with heartfelt honesty.

At that time, Abi was already readying herself to go back to school – an agreement she had with her mother if no dance company offered her a job. But, before her holiday ended, prima ballerina Lisa Macuja – who had seen her compete in the Asian Grand Prix – serendipitously sent her an email, inviting her to be part of BM.

“I called my mom immediately and said that I was going to accept the offer and move to the Philippines. I didn't even remember what the email said, honestly. But I didn't care! Someone wanted me and I will get to dance!”

With the “different aura” that the BM dancers displayed at the Asian Grand Prix playing in her head, Abi could not be dissuaded from transplanting herself on foreign soil. “Even when my mom showed me photos of the Philippines from Google, I just said that I’m going,” Abi laughs as she reminisces about her major decision. “Now that I think about it, I have no idea how I got here on my own. I came here with very little money as well, because I wanted to make it on my own.”

Although he misses his mom in Canada, Godwin is happy that he’s pursuing a dance career in Manila. Photo by Ernest Mandap

While Godwin is no stranger to the Philippines, having been brought up here until the age of six, his road to BM was just as tough as Abi’s. Like his twin, Godwin underwent many auditions to the point that it made him exhausted and discouraged about pursuing ballet. “I wanted to take a break after that (auditioning phase) because it was getting too hard,” he echoes. “So after being in Amsterdam for a year, I decided to go back to Canada.” It was back home when Godwin decided to go on vacation in the Philippines.

Little did he know that this breather from dancing would actually pave the way for his professional career. “My mom was just like, ‘Since you're not doing anything, why not take classes?’ She pointed me back to BM! And there! The rest is history!” (Godwin notes that the first time he encountered BM was back in 2008. His mother, whom he considers his number one supporter and dream enabler, brought him to Aliw Theater and even scored him a photo opportunity with the country’s prima ballerina).

“Mine was more ingrained in me,” comments Godwin when asked how BM found him. “Being a Filipino po, I already knew of Lisa Macuja through my mom at a young age. My mom told me all about her – that she's the prima ballerina of the Philippines. So when I decided to take ballet on as a profession, my mom led me to her company.”

Abi and Godwin make a sinister pair in Swan Lake, she as Odile the Black Swan and he as the sorcerer Von Rothbart. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Though it’s these common experiences that have naturally brought them together, the two dancers claim that the “Abwin-Gobi” bond is nurtured by the “different kind of conversation” they create within and beyond the studio. (They have playfully fused their names twice over, in the same way that showbiz couples or love teams are rechristened by their fans.)

Gushing, Abi describes what Godwin’s presence does for her professionally. “Having someone (around) who’s even taller and who has such beautiful lines, this actually inspires me on certain days when I don’t feel long, tall and just feel ‘yuck.’ To watch someone who knows how to work his legs – and Godwin really knows how to work his – it inspires me. Watching him makes me know what I want to feel when I dance. And it reminds me that tall dancers dance beautifully, too.”

Self-described “twins” Godwin and Abi performed together in Cinderella. Abi took on the title role while he played a flamboyant designer. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Apparently, the feeling is mutual and is even carried over to their moments on stage. Godwin reveals that he always looks forward to his scenes with Abi because she brings out the best in him. (Most recently, Abigail was Odette/ Odile to Godwin’s Rothbart in Swan Lake.)  “Abi is the whole package. I have nothing bad to say about her dancing. Also, she’s such a hard worker. She really is one of the most inspiring people in the company.”

When not dancing, these two transplants can spend hours and hours talking about almost everything. From serious matters, such as being away from their family and friends, to simple ones, like if chocolate goes well with peanuts, Abi and Godwin never get bored of where the conversation goes.

“With him, we don't have to necessarily see things the same way. There are times when we don't really see eye to eye but we're okay with that,” explains Abi.

“She understands and she listens. She doesn't judge and when she does, I appreciate that!” quips the tallest dancer in BM. “I'm younger, so I need that kick in the butt sometimes.”

Abi adds, “We appreciate the blunt honesty in our friendship.”

At present, the twins are excitedly preparing for their villainous roles in the company’s upcoming production of Snow White.

In Lisa Macuja-Elizalde’s Snow White, Godwin and Abi play alter-egos – the latter as The Evil Queen and the former as The Witch. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Abi, who will play the evil queen, claims that she’ll be performing a task that’s very new to her. “Villain roles are usually done by men here in BM, so I'm very excited,” she puts forward. “All the other characters I've done before, I've drawn a lot from personal experience. There's no personal experience I can draw from for Snow White's evil queen. When Ma'am Lise described her, she said that she's evil, jealous of Snow White and is angry most of the time. But then, she also has this strong woman aspect. She seduces the huntsman to try to make him do her bidding. I'm really excited to get creative about that. This is the time for me to paint a picture on a blank canvas.”

Godwin, on the other hand, will be playing an evil figure for the third time in just a span of two seasons with BM. “I play the evil witch. I really think that Sir Shaz (Osias Barroso, Ballet Manila co-artistic director) and Ma’am Lise are trying to say something about me,” the danseur jokes. “But, you know, every villain role I’ve played is different.”

For instance, unlike in Swan Lake, where the antagonist Rothbart did not have much of a back story, in Snow White, more details are provided about the witch, which allows Godwin to explore and enjoy executing the choreography more.

Third time the villain, Godwin jokes that maybe the co-artistic directors of Ballet Manila are trying to tell him something. Photos by Jimmy Villanueva

Abi makes a comparison between the choreography of the main characters and the evil alter-egos. “The choreography for the evil side is kind of different from Snow White, the Prince and the huntsman. Those have quite the classical approach. Ours is a little bit more neo-classical. It’s not as strict so I find it easier to manipulate the steps to tell the character’s view or intention.”

“I like the choreography of Ma’am Lise,” says Godwin. “From Cinderella, I think Ma’am Lise has really explored Snow White. The dance vocabulary is everywhere. It’s wonderful!”

To dive more into the popular fairy tale and to see how similarly or differently these transplant-tandem would react, we challenge them: What would you ask the all-knowing mirror in Snow White, if there was one in real life?

“That’s a very good question,” they both react, as their eyes meet – an action that is immediately followed by resting their backs on the red sofa, as they look up to the ceiling for answers. 

After a short moment of silence, Abi finally answers: “I’m not sure if I would ask the mirror anything about myself, because I like the spontaneity of life; I like to take things as they come. But if the mirror was all-knowing, I would really want to ask what my parents were like when they were younger.”

From raging about melted ice cream to being curios about her parents' youth, Abi's spontaneity makes for a surprising villain in Lisa Macuja-Elizalde's Snow White. Photos by Jimmy Villanueva

While Godwin is intrigued by Abi’s curiosity, he prefers to use the enchanted mirror to discover more about himself. He expresses, “At this given point in time – maybe I’ll change my answer when you ask me again after a few months – I’m going to ask the mirror to replay all the things that I’ve done wrong throughout the day. I’m really trying to be careful of things I do and say. It’s a form of self-improvement.”

“And, what would trigger your rage, in the way that the evil queen rages?” we ask. Once again, our two subjects have different replies to the fairy tale-related question. Ever-optimistic and peaceful, Abi goes, “I get upset more than I do get mad. But if there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s the sight of melted ice cream!”

Surprised with what his twin answered, Godwin jokingly suggests, “We should have a session wherein I can give you some of my rage, Abi, because I admit, I have a lot! But to answer the question, what really gets to me is dishonesty. I don’t like it when people lie, especially when I could already see the truth.”

After laughing at Godwin’s experiences wherein the salesperson claimed that the item he’s looking for is unavailable when really it is, Abi shares the same sentiment, “He’s right. That can be upsetting.”

Though brief, this encounter with Abwin-Gobi underscores that despite their many differences, there’s no denying that these two transplants push one another to become better – a chemistry that makes their already elegant performances even more delightful to watch.

When not dancing, these two transplants can spend hours and hours talking about almost everything. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

G-nie Arambulo captures Snow White

G-nie Arambulo captures Snow White

Ballet Manila in ASEAN closing program

Ballet Manila in ASEAN closing program