Rissa May Camaclang: A scholar dances her way to success

Rissa May Camaclang: A scholar dances her way to success

Ballet Manila company artist Rissa May Camaclang never thought she would be a ballerina, but now says this is all that she wants to be. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Mary Ann R. Mandap

At nine, public school student Rissa May Camaclang unknowingly stumbled into the world of dance. She has stayed on to become one of Ballet Manila’s most successful Project Ballet Futures scholars and the youngest artist accepted into a professional company in the Philippines when she was just 14.

Rissa May danced as Mercedes in Ballet Manila’s recent production of Don Quixote, opposite Francis Cascaño as her Espada. Photo from Rissa May Camaclang’s Facebook page

At 17, Camaclang says she never thought she’d be where she is now. At a young age, she remembers scattering powder on the floor and gliding around the room like the figure skater she would see on television. In school, she would perform folk and modern dance in various programs. But the thought of becoming a ballerina didn’t occur to her.

But fate intervened in 2008. At that time, BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde – who wanted to make ballet education accessible to more people, especially those with modest resources – formally launched Project Ballet Futures. PBF is a dance scholarship program aimed at providing free ballet education to public elementary and high school students.

Camaclang, then a third grader, joined an audition conducted by BM representatives at her school, the Gotamco Elementary School in Pasay City. Though she had no expectations, she was among the 40 students from different schools chosen to undergo ballet classes. From that number, 20 would be named as scholars.

Rissa May (center) was among the dancers featured in Paquita, excerpted in BM 2.0, Ballet Manila’s 20th anniversary show in 2015.

“There were two eliminations in four years. During the first round, many quit or were eliminated. In the next round, only 11 kids reached Level 3. Then, there were only two left: Jessa (Balote) and I,” Camaclang recalls.

Balancing regular school and ballet school wasn’t easy and there were times when Camaclang would wonder why she was doing this. Ballet training was also physically demanding, challenging her even more. But she persevered and in the years that followed, the results began to show.

Camaclang and other BM scholars are trained in the rigorous Vaganova method. In addition, they are required to maintain their academics in school. She admits that she almost quit ballet once but followed her mother’s advice to continue her schooling in dance. “Mother knows best talaga,” she smiles.

Sultry and stunning in the ethnic-flavored Sayaw sa Pamlang, a choreography by Agnes Locsin

By age 11, she had so fallen in love with ballet that she decided that she would like to be a professional ballet dancer in the future. “I was happy with what I was doing,” Camaclang says of that major decision. She loves that ballet develops the body and the mind and nurtures the intellect while requiring tremendous discipline and dedication.

After winning the third prize in the Junior Category of the CCP Ballet Competition in 2014, Rissa May (second from left) celebrated by eating fried chicken.

In 2013, together with PBF scholar Jessa Balote, Camaclang underwent intensive training for five months in preparation for the Asian Grand Prix competition in Hong Kong. “It was a time of many firsts for me. My first time to go abroad, to ride an airplane, to compete in an international competition and to be away from my family,” she recalls.

Though very apprehensive, especially when she finally went onstage, Camaclang just gave it her all. When the winners were being announced, she didn’t realize at first that it was her number that was being called. Still bewildered, she went up the stage to claim her prize.

Up in the air, doing the Gypsy Dance, also in Don Quixote (2017). Photo by Konrad Ong

“I was shocked to win silver. All the stress, exhaustion and hardships I underwent were wiped out when I was called onstage to receive the award. I was just grateful that I was able to fulfill BM’s expectations,” Camaclang notes. The 14-year-old subsequently bought a cellphone with her cash prize as a treat to herself.

Teacher Jonathan Janolo (middle) captioned this photo with scholars Jessa Balote and Rissa May on his Facebook page this way: “Years ago they got introduced to their first pliè! Yes, malaki na sila! (They are big now.)”

Shortly afterward, Ballet Manila promoted the teenage prodigy, thus becoming the youngest artist accepted into a professional company in the country. Aside from her Asian Grand prix silver medal finish, she also received a bronze medal at the first Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) National Ballet Competition in 2014 and landed in fifth place, Junior C Division, at the 2015 Asian Grand Prix.

After the CCP National Ballet Competition, Camaclang remembers that she celebrated quite simply. This time, the young girl who was craving for fried chicken then, just satisfied her hunger at the KFC branch across CCP, along with her father and sister.

The ballerina, who is turning 18 in May, wants to eventually dance her dream role, Carmen, and to nurture young talents. “I want to inspire dancers the way I was inspired by Ma’am Lise (Macuja-Elizalde), Sir Shaz (Barroso), Teacher Eileen (Lopez) and Teacher Jay (Janolo),” she says.

Now full-time into ballet, Camaclang lives by BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso’s credo – something she also wants to pass on to students she may teach in the future: listen, remember, apply and treasure.  

Carmen is one of her dream roles, says Rissa May, who does the iconic pose of the ballet character in this picture. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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