Project Ballet Futures: Sylvia Lichauco advocates Ballet Manila’s ‘mission possible’

Project Ballet Futures: Sylvia Lichauco advocates Ballet Manila’s ‘mission possible’

Jessa Balote, Jamil Montibon and Rissa May Camaclang started out as Project Ballet Futures scholars and are now BM company artists. Photo by G-nie Arambulo

By Jv Ramos

Many are those who want to become ballet dancers. But once circumstances do not go in their favor, they are quick to quit and refer to ballet as just a childhood dream.

Despite having to hang up her ballet shoes abruptly due to the ballet ban in the ‘50s, Sylvia Lichauco refused to completely give up on her dream. Upon realizing that it was too late for her to continue her training, our subject came up with other ways to take part and support the world of ballet and other performing arts.

As a teenage daughter of a diplomat, Sylvia attended every ballet performance and play that she could – a habit that she carried on to womanhood, to motherhood and to this very day. Then, as a mother, she enrolled all three of her kids in ballet classes, hoping that one of them could live her dream.

“No one stuck in ballet though, but that didn’t stop me,” she comments as her eyes twinkle. Here, what she specifically means is she re-directed her efforts. Since she was done tapping her own kin, she expanded her radar and introduced other kids to ballet.

As managing director of Project Ballet Futures, Sylvia Lichauco’s main role is to raise awareness and appreciation for ballet to generate funds for the scholarship program. Photo by MarBi Photography

When Sylvia came back to the Philippines in 2008 after living abroad for a long time, she, for instance, took it upon herself to regularly rent buses to take public school children from Sta. Ana, Manila – where her family lives – to the theater. And, when she saw that some of the children didn’t just want to be part of the audience, she organized classes, which soon led to the establishment of Escuela de Baile, a Sta. Ana-based non-profit ballet school for underprivileged girls and boys.

“Some of them are doing very well. Not only do they know how to dance ballet, they know how to speak, dress and act well in cocktail parties,” expresses Sylvia with great pride. “I’ve seen how the lives of children can totally change when they have a passion for performing arts. I wanted to see more lives changing, so when (Ballet Manila artistic director) Lisa Macuja-Elizalde offered that I work with her, I knew that it suited me.”

By “it”, Sylvia is referring to her role as the managing director of Project Ballet Futures (PBF). Formally launched nine years ago, this scholarship program of Ballet Manila provides free ballet education to public school students with the aim of turning them into world-class professional dancers.

The program stemmed from Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso’s commitment to train young dance talents, especially the underprivileged.

Today, Project Ballet Futures has 17 scholars in this long-term program.

“Of course, PBF is not just about the classes,” underlines Sylvia, whose main role is to raise awareness and appreciation for ballet in order to generate funds for the said program. “It also requires taking care of the dancers’ bodies. So, we are looking at providing food for them daily. There’s the milk and the vitamins. And then, when they’re going to compete in the Asian Grand Prix, we need funds for their passports, visas and travel costs. There, too, is the attire. It really is a lot of work.”

Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso (facing camera) and Jonathan Janolo conduct an evaluation class of potential Project Ballet Futures scholars.

Since assuming her post last July, Sylvia has been simultaneously working on a variety of tasks at PBF. One of the first things she did was to ask the scholars to write something about themselves and their families, why they want to dance, what they have learned with Ballet Manila thus far and what their dreams are. Sylvia says this backgrounder will serve as basis for materials that will be developed to tap potential sponsors.

Getting the word out on PBF’s success stories is something that Sylvia wants to sustain. Original PBF scholars Jessa Balote, Rissa May Camaclang and Jamil Montibon are now enjoying thriving careers with BM where they are company artists, serving as inspiration for others as to what is possible in ballet.

Jessa has received many accolades, including Aliw Award’s Best Classical Dancer in 2016. Her Cinderella story – rising above her dirt-poor background to become a ballerina – has been featured on international media outlets such as CNN and BBC.

Rissa was the youngest artist accepted into a professional company in the Philippines at age 14. She has competed in international ballet events and won silver in both the Asian Grand Prix and the CCP Ballet Competition.

Jamil – who, like Jessa, comes from a family of scavengers in Tondo – was most recently included in Vice President Leni Robredo’s advocacy Istorya ng Pag-Asa which will likely provide welcome social media exposure for PBF.

Together with Macuja-Elizalde’s executive assistant Dante Perez, Sylvia has also been working on quantifying the actual cost of a scholar’s training for a year. This, she notes, will help them set a financial goal for PBF and develop sponsorship packages large and small. Since the scholars also need milk and vitamins, tapping sponsors who can donate such items in kind may also be considered.

On behalf of PBF, Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde (right) receives from photographer G-nie Arambulo a check representing proceeds from her exhibit that she collaborated on with writer Angela Ureta (left).

Sylvia has also been introduced to BM’s annual ukay-ukay fundraiser for PBF, where Macuja-Elizalde and BM staff donate items such as clothes and shoes for selling. It became a venue for the initial output of Sylvia’s “Ballet to Books” initiative where children’s books are developed based on BM’s season productions starting with Ibong Adarna. Aside from books, themed mugs were sold not just at the ukay-ukay but at every performance at Aliw Theater.

Sylvia is happy to note that there are creative efforts to also raise funds for PBF. She cites the exhibition of advertising photographer G-nie Arambulo last August. A project conceptualized by long-time Ballet Manila supporter Angela Ureta, Alchemy en Pointe featured Arambulo’s photographs of BM dancers, which were offered for sale for the scholarship program’s benefit.

Meanwhile, for BM’s first three season productions – Ibong Adarna, Swan Lake and Snow White – Sylvia invited contacts in the diplomatic circle to watch and get them acquainted with PBF, in the hope of stoking their interest to become sponsors. Sylvia happily shares that the Ambassador of Mexico has already given a donation to the scholarship program.

While it can be challenging, Sylvia believes a streamlined and more focused approach – aimed at both long-time friends and new audiences – can widen the circuit of support for 2018.

She is optimistic that many people and companies out there would be willing to support PBF in the long run. “There’s already research out there that dancing or art makes you smarter. You just have to present that well,” the PBF managing director quips. “If you get me in a room with someone and I have my materials, I will always come out of that room with something.”

PBF scholars are given free ballet education that will serve as the foundation for a solid career in dance. Photo by G-nie Arambulo

This wonder woman explains that most of time, the key to getting people’s “yes” is knowing how to present your case. “If I just offered tickets to Swan Lake to my friends, then they wouldn’t buy because they’ve already seen it many times before,” she explains. “But if I were to say, ‘Can you give me 5k or 10k for children to watch Swan Lake, then there would be a different result.”

Though she is able to find individuals who will readily commit to the PBF cause, Sylvia says she has also faced her fair share of rejections. “That’s part of it. But you can’t just sit around there and cry! You have to keep looking! Even if you only get 10 replies out of the hundred letters you send out, it’s still worth it.”

Sylvia then declares with gusto: “I’ve always been up to the challenge of conquering the impossible!”

So, what impossible thing would she like to achieve for PBF? Sylvia gives a rather touching answer: “I would like some of the new ones in the future to become superstars. But for me, I would like them to be ambassadors too. I want them to be not just good dancers but educated people, who will also become leaders. I would like for them to give back (to the future generations of PBF). I want to see them grow up and have the spirit of volunteerism and nationalism.”

Sylvia Lichauco: “I’ve seen how the lives of children can totally change when they have a passion for performing arts.” Photo by MarBi Photography

Talk about dance: Isadora Duncan

Talk about dance: Isadora Duncan

The choreography of Lisa Macuja-Elizalde

The choreography of Lisa Macuja-Elizalde