Complicated love, complicated ballet: Soloist Mark Sumaylo on ‘Aria’

Complicated love, complicated ballet: Soloist Mark Sumaylo on ‘Aria’

For soloist Mark Sumaylo, one of the dancers featured in Martin Lawrance’s Aria, each ballet piece is a chance to express what else he can give as a performer. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Jv Ramos

The long list of characters that soloist Mark Sumaylo has portrayed makes it difficult to imagine that this enthusiastic performer once disliked to dance. He, in fact, proactively avoided it, despite having a father who was fond of dancing.

“’Yun ang naging unang exposure ko sa dance. Si Dad sumasayaw ng hip-hop dahil gustong-gusto niya si Michael Jackson (That would have to be my first exposure to dance. My father danced hip-hop because he was a super fan of Michael Jackson),” shares the danseur.

But the father’s interest wasn’t passed on to the son. As Mark would relate, “Noong high school ako, hate na hate kong sumayaw. So ang ginawa ko, sumali ako sa sports club, sa volleyball team, para exempted ako sa P.E. Hindi ko talaga trip ‘yung sayaw noon (When I was in high school, I really hated dancing. So what I did was sign up with the sports club, with the volleyball team, so that I’d be exempted from P.E. dance class. Dancing just wasn’t my thing back then).”

So, how did our subject move from jumping and tossing balls on a sports court to jumping and twirling ballerinas under the spotlight to tell a story? Mark reveals that what brought him to the world of performing arts was peer pressure. “Napilitan akong sumali sa rondalla kasi sinabihan ako na ako lang daw ang wala doon (I hesitantly joined a rondalla group because someone pointed out that I was the only one who wasn’t a member),” he says, laughing at the memory.

Rehearsing Aria, Mark describes the piece as a look into the complicated world of relationships. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Mark’s road to becoming a Ballet Manila soloist is far from conventional. He became a full college scholar for his rondalla skills; but when the time came to perform, the director didn’t include him in the ensemble and just assigned him to hold the bamboo prop in the background. At first, Mark didn’t mind it for he was a scholar, after all; but later on, he got tired of his inanimate role. To escape such fate, he, with the help of a friend, learned various cultural dances, which freed him from the bamboo duty.

And, when the time came that he lost his scholarship due to a misunderstanding with the director, Mark learned ballet. “May nagsabi sa akin na kung ballet, madali daw makapasok sa scholarship (someone told me that if I knew ballet, I could regain my scholarship),he explains. “So, nag-ballet ako. Sobrang hirap niya! (So there, I took up ballet. It’s was so hard to learn it!)”

Fortunately, Mark had some form of motivation other than doing this whole new dance form out of necessity. Through a video, he got to see what the rigorous practice of ballet could lead to. “Na-in love ako sa ballet noong napanood ko ‘yung Don Q ni Angel Corella (I fell in love with ballet when I saw the Don Quixote of Angel Corella),” Mark says, as if he’d just seen the video of Madrid-born principal dancer performing. “Ayos ito, sabi ko! So ‘yun, naintriga ako na mag-ballet. (This is so cool, I said to myself! And so that’s what intrigued me to pursue ballet.)”

When he fell in love with ballet at 19 years old, there was no looking back. He kept learning until his informal training in ballet was transformed by BM through the hard-to-master Vaganova technique. Today, Mark is one of the much-loved danseurs of BM, and continuously finds himself being assigned iconic roles. After playing Prince Pedro in Ibong Adarna and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake in the past several months, he now finds himself reuniting with British choreographer Martin Lawrance and training for the latter’s most recent choreography for BM entitled Aria.

Mark, who has also danced other works by Martin Lawrence including Rebel (2016, opposite Dawna Reign Mangahas), likens rehearsing with the choreographer to “having a long conversation with someone you like.” Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Aria will have its world premiere in Ballet & Ballads, the production that wraps up BM’s 22nd performance season this February. Infused with music from popular operas to be sung live by classically trained singers, Aria on paper seems to be the most cutting-edge choreography that Martin has done for BM. Its collection of pas de deux and solos take place on a set in which every piece of furniture is integral to the dance. What’s more, Aria – which unveils the stories of three couples – projects, as the choreographer would put it, several individual spaces within one space.

Mark and his partner on and off the stage, soloist Abigail Oliveiro, portray one of the couples; and they are now practicing and polishing steps to execute the choreographer’s vision.  

“First of all, rehearsing with Martin is like having a long conversation with someone you like,” praises Mark, who worked with the guest choreographer in Misfit or Maverick (2014), the full-length Rebel (2016) and Amid Shadows (2016). “The content just flows and the time flies. He's a unique choreographer. Rehearsals are always interesting, it could go anywhere and it's always fun. He brings out the best in the dancer he is working with.”

Martin seems to have succeeded in challenging himself choreographically as well the dancers of the company in Aria. Mark describes, “Aria is sophisticated. The theme of the piece, the stories of each pas de deux or solo are really dependent on how the dancer characterizes it. Aria is like a window into the complicated world of relationships… Martin explained early on that we have a base story; but as we go along, we will see where the choreography takes us and how the story will unfold.”

In Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna (2017), Mark danced as Prince Pedro, the oldest brother with a sinister charm. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

For Mark, every dance is a chance to express what else he can give as a performer. “I challenge myself to find something more in me, to become a better me in every opportunity I have on stage. Dance is hard.”  Indeed, though five years have passed since he joined the company, Mark points out that ballet remains difficult for him to do but he derives immense satisfaction from it.

Curious about where Aria – the making of which, by Martin’s own revelation, has been quite collaborative – has taken Mark, we ask the soloist to talk a bit about his couple story in the choreography. “My understanding of our couple story is that Abi and I are in love and in the honeymoon stage of our relationship. The sweetness and connection are shared by both of us… ‘Melting’ was the adjective from Martin,” he explains. “But there are times that both of us get distracted by other people, but I always have my eye on Abi. Every time it's just us, it's that happy place again, with consequences.”

Can he identify with his character in Aria? Mark replies, “Yes, in a way, I am like my character. I'm overprotective of the one I love.”

With that response, we are further intrigued about what Mark and Martin, along with the other dancers involved in Aria, have in store for the audience. If Aria was a joy to create, then surely, audiences would detect this passion from what they see on stage. Indeed, from the sound of it, this emotionally charged choreography can only be fascinating to watch.

Aria is alluring, tempting and provocative,” the danseur assures.

Mark is happy to be dancing some of ballet’s most iconic roles, including Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake (2017), where BM artistc director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde played the Queen Mother. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

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