After USA IBC, fearless Nicole Barroso ready to experience more in ballet

After USA IBC, fearless Nicole Barroso ready to experience more in ballet

Dancing as Gulnara in the full-length Le Corsaire has been on Nicole’s list since she first took on the role in a recital piece three years ago. During Ballet Manila’s season launch last August, she performed the Pas d’Esclave with Elpidio Magat as Lankadem. Photo by Stan de la Cruz

By Jv Ramos

The amount of sweat and tears she shed and the countless moments of frustration she felt in participating in the USA International Ballet Competition last June led Nicole Barroso to believe that it would be the climax of her 2018.

But after she had gone through the entire process – which resulted in her taking home a Jury Encouragement Award, getting job offers from two American companies and receiving her promotion to Ballet Manila soloist – she labels the prestigious competition as just the starting point of many more ballet milestones for her.

"Grabe po talaga 'yung Jackson. Ibang level po talaga ito," sums up the ballerina, who finally had the opportunity to sit down and share her experiences in the competition months after having returned home. (Jackson was really something. It was really on a different level.)

At 16, Nicole Barroso still can’t believe that she’s been promoted to soloist – the result of her outstanding performance in the USA International Ballet Competition where she reached the finals and was given a Jury Encouragement Award. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Already a two-time silver medalist at the Asian Grand Prix and a first placer at the CCP Ballet Competition, Nicole says the USA IBC was a completely different ball game for her. “Doon, na-feel ko talaga na hindi perfect ang body type ko. Marami sa kanila ay matangkad, [may] long legs at maputi.” (In Jackson, I really felt that I didn't have the perfect body type. Many of the competitors were tall, long-legged and fair-skinned.)

Instead of giving in to intimidation though, this Ballet Manila baby chose to put on her game face and give her all in every round of the competition. "Ganyan po kasi talaga ako; hindi ako natatakot. Gusto kong lumaban, lalo na kung may nakikita akong magaling. Lumalaban ako hindi para maging katulad nila. Gusto kong tumaas ang standards ko sa sarili.” (That's just the kind of person I am; I am fearless. I want to fight, especially when I encounter dancers who are exceptional. I fight not because I want to be like them. It's more of I want to raise the standards I have for myself.)

The teenager's decision to present the best version of herself certainly paid off. After Round 1, apart from finding out that she was advancing to the contemporary round, she also received an apprenticeship offer from the Atlanta Ballet, which BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde countered with a promotion.

"Doon po ni-reveal ni Ma'am Lise na magiging soloist ako in the upcoming season, na sasayawin ko si Gulnara sa Le Corsaire. Umiyak po talaga ako nu’n!" (That’s when Ma’am Lise told me I would be promoted in the upcoming season, that I would be dancing as Gulnara in Le Corsaire. I really cried then!)

Nicole believes that it was Gerardo Francisco’s Fuga, which was created on her and partner Joshua Enciso, that pushed her to the final round at the USA IBC in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Richard Finkelstein/ USA IBC

Torn between her desire to take her talent abroad and her dream to dance Gulnara in a full-length company production, she sought the advice of Katherine Barkman, a senior competitor in Jackson who has spent the past three years with Ballet Manila as principal dancer. "Hindi ko po talaga makakalimutan ang sinabi ni Ate Katherine sa akin nu’n. Sinabi niya sa akin na it doesn't matter what I choose. Sinabi niya na kahit saan ka man pumunta at tatamad-tamad ka lang, nothing will happen to you.” (I'll never forget what Katherine told me that time. She told me that it doesn't really matter what I choose. She told me it wouldn't matter where I go, if I end up just being lazy, nothing will happen to you.)

Realizing that it's her hard work and dedication that would really determine her success, Nicole embraced the offer that involved more opportunities for her. "Naisip ko po talaga na I needed to stay in BM a little longer for the growth.”

Nicole stresses that despite being a junior dancer, Ballet Manila has already entrusted her and many of her hardworking peers with iconic roles. She, for instance, experienced being Kitri when the company joined a dance festival in Vietnam where she and her Jackson partner Joshua Enciso, performed an excerpt from Don Quixote. In that event, she was even given an award as Best Dance Artist.

Moreover, at the young age of 13, Nicole was cast as Gulnara in a number for the BM school recital three years ago.  

"'’Yan po ang pinaka-unang lesson na natutunan ko sa Jackson -- 'yung how blessed I am (That’s one of the first things I learned in Jackson – that I really am blessed to be in BM)," puts forward the ballerina. "Marami sa kasama ko ay nagka-klase lang at nag-jo-join ng mga competitions kung mayroon. Tapos ako, marami nang opportunities ang nadaanan. Suwerte po talaga ako dito.” (Many of the dancers I was with could only take regular classes and join competitions if there were any. And then, with me, I’ve already had so many opportunities. I’m really lucky to be with BM.)

Unexpectedly, Nicole (second from right) was given a last-minute Jury Encouragement Award at the USA IBC. Celebrating with her after the awarding program were (from left) partner Joshua Enciso, BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, BM guest principal dancer and Jackson senior silver awardee Katherine Barkman and BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso.

Nicole adds that when she finally processed that she was going to dance Gulnara in a full-length production of Le Corsaire, she had goosebumps all over. "Pagkatapos ko kasi sinayaw si Gulnara sa recital, ang dami kong naging wishes. Una na siyempre ay ang masayaw ang role ni Gulnara nang full length... Sinabi ko rin na sana may mag-choreograph ng piece kagaya ng MAZN [a contemporary piece created by Bam Damian especially for four BM dancers] para sa akin. At ito na nga! Unti-unti nang nagkakatotoo ang lahat.” (After I danced Gulnara for a recital, I was wishing for so many things. Of course, the first was to dance Gulnara in a full-length production… I also told myself that I’d like for someone to choreograph a piece like MAZN especially for me. And that’s what’s been happening. One by one, everything seems to be coming true.”

What's worth mentioning is the MAZN-like piece that Nicole was entrusted with became an audience-favorite in Jackson.  From the first beat to the last, the viewers gasped and clapped at every unusual move she and Joshua did in Gerardo “Geri” Francisco's Fuga. "Sobrang blockbuster po itong piece. Naging usap-usapan po ang Fuga pagkatapos ng Round 2. Opo, pagkatapos ng sayaw, na-feel po namin talaga ni Joshua na sasayaw kami sa finals.” (Fuga was such a blockbuster! Everyone kept talking about it after Round 2. Yes, after we performed it, Joshua and I felt that we’d be dancing in the finals.)

"Iba po talaga ang Fuga (Fuga was on a different level)," the ballerina continues to gush. "Rehearsal pa lang, alam na namin ni Joshua na special ang piece na ito. Sobrang intense at mabigat ang feeling nito. Very thankful po ako na ibinigay ang piece na ito sa amin ni Sir Geri. Fuga ang dahilan kung bakit ako pumasok sa finals.” (During rehearsals, Joshua and I already knew that there was something very special about this piece. It’s really intense and has a heavy theme. I’m very thankful that this was given to us by Sir Geri. It’s the reason that I was able to make it to the finals.)

Taking a souvenir shot in their tutus before Ballet Manila’s Must Dance recital in December 2015: Nicole (as Le Corsaire’s Gulnara) poses with Marinette Franco (left) and (back, from left) Abigail Bonifacio, Denise Elizon and Kayla Coseteng.

Flash forward to the time when Round 3 wrapped up, and the list of awardees was announced. When Nicole found out that she didn't place or qualify for any of the special awards, she was brokenhearted. "Nalungkot ako kasi alam kong binigay ko ang lahat (I felt really bad because I knew that I gave it my all)," expresses Nicole. "Nang sinabihan akong ‘it's okay,’ ang sabi ko sa sarili ay ‘it's not okay.’ Every four years lang po ito nangyayari, so gusto kong may mauwi ako, gusto kong maging proud rin sa akin ang Pilipinas. So, nag-wish ako na sana may mangyari talaga.” (When people comforted me by saying 'it's okay', I told myself that 'it's not okay.' Jackson only happens every four years, so I really wanted to bring something home; I wanted to bring pride back to the Philippines. So, I really wished that something good would happen before heading home.)”

Probably because she was brimming with positive vibes, something good really did happen. Before the awarding ceremony, Nicole had a surprise meeting with Joffrey Ballet director Ashley Wheater. Saying that he had enjoyed her performances in the competition, Wheater added that he would like to see her grow as an artist of the Chicago-based company. (Joffrey Ballet, by the way, is home to former Ballet Manila principal dancer Christine Rocas where she has performed the lead in such productions as Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, and in a host of contemporary pieces.)

"Tinanong agad ni Sir Shaz [BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso and Nicole’s uncle] kung first company, at kinonfirm po niya, oo. Nagtinginan kami ni Sir Shaz agad, and sobrang happy ako na supportive siya sa offer... Hindi po akong nahihiyang sabihin na gusto ko mag-abroad. Marami pa po kasi akong gusto ma-experience sa ballet.” (Sir Shaz asked if the offer was for the first company, and he confirmed that it was. Sir Shaz and I immediately looked at each other with excitement, and I was really happy that he supported the idea of me joining... I'm not ashamed to say that I want to go abroad. There's really so much that I still want to experience in ballet).

After her first taste of Gulnara in 2015, Nicole is congratulated by artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.

"Nang nangyari iyon, na-satisfy na po ako. Naisip ko na kahit hindi ako nag-place sa Jackson, uuwi pa rin ako with something – ang contract from Joffrey. Opo, willing daw po sila maghintay sa akin nang isang taon.” (When that meeting happened, I became satisfied. I thought that even if I didn't place in Jackson, I'd still be bringing home something – a  contract from Joffrey. Yes, they said they’d be willing to wait for me till next year.)

Little did Nicole know that a job offer wasn’t the only thing she'd be taking home. During the awards, she was unexpectedly called onstage to receive a Jury Encouragement Award, a recognition that's usually given to just two competitors (one of whom was Philippine Ballet Theater’s Veronica Atienza). This year, Nicole turned out to be the recipient of a third one.

"Hindi po sila nagkamali sa results na nauna (No, they didn't make a mistake in the results)," clarifies the teenager. "Wala po talaga ako sa cut. Kaya po ako nagkaroon ng Jury Encouragement ay siguro dahil sa aking heart. Doon po nanggaling ang extra points.” (I really didn't make the cut. The reason they awarded me the Jury Encouragement is probably because I gave heartfelt performances. That's where the extra points came from.)

After her memorable experiences in Jackson, Nicole hit the ground running when she came back to Manila. "Nag-rehearse po kami ni Joshua para sa Pulso Pilipinas [a gala featuring rising dance artists in the Philippines, held at the CCP]. Iyon po ang maganda dito sa BM, pagbalik mo, may gagawin ka na agad.” (Joshua and I immediately rehearsed for Pulso Pilipinas. That’s what’s nice about being in BM, when you return, you already have something to do.)

Pulso Pilipinas was then followed by a company tour to Israel last July, a preview for the press where she danced Gulnara with principal dancer Elpidio Magat in August, and Ballet Manila's double season-opener, Iconic 1.0 and Iconic 2.0, by September.

Though very tight and demanding, the schedule of the company is something Nicole fully embraces. “Tsine-cherish ko na po ang mga moments ko dito, kasi pagdating doon, hindi ko alam kung ano ang mayroon. Pero excited po ako sa mga changes na darating, pati na rin sa growth ko.” (I’m cherishing my moments here, because when I’m there, I don’t know what would be in store for me. But I’m excited for the changes that will come, and my growth.)

Fearless and eager to learn, Nicole says she’s looking forward to growing more in ballet. Photo by MarBi Photography

In the meantime, Nicole is enjoying the process of learning the full role of Gulnara. One thing that this ballerina is looking forward to is sharing the stage with the company's principal dancers. Once again, she'll dance with Elpidio as Lankadem, the slave trader; and Katherine Barkman and Abigail Oliveiro will alternate as Medora, who is best friends with Gulnara.

"I'm happy that I'll be able to be Gulnara to both of them... Malaking inspiration po sila sa akin (They're a big inspiration for me). They inspire me in different ways."

Nicole points out that though she has attained a handful of goals she set for herself as a 13-year-old dancer, she still has much to learn now at 16. In order to keep doing so, she is proactively open-minded. She listens to her peers, takes note of her artistic director's corrections, and allows herself to be inspired by many things.

"Don't waste a day," underlines the teenager when asked what advice she'd like to give younger ballerinas. "Di dapat lumilipas ang araw na wala kang na-a-achieve, kahit maliit na bagay lang iyan.” (Don't let a day pass without achieving anything, even if that thing is just a small goal.)

But like many other dancers in BM, Nicole also believes that there are no small things in ballet. The simplest of corrections make one a better dancer each day; ballet recitals prepare one for the professional world; competitions regardless of scope and outcome make one stronger; and finally, mastering the garland girl role in Le Corsaire is essential to nailing the role of Gulnara.

"Dapat kahit garland girl ka lang, gawin mo na nang maayos (Even if you’re just the garland girl, you should dance the part the best way you can)," says Nicole, who’s speaking from experience. "Kung di mo kasi magawa nang maayos ang mga minor roles, paano na kaya kung sasayawin mo na ang mga soloist roles?” (If you aren't able to dance the minor roles well, what more when you’re assigned to dance the soloist roles?)

With that attitude, combined with her relentless passion and her willingness to continue learning and working hard, this ballerina will go far in ballet for sure.

Nicole considers herself blessed for the many opportunities that Ballet Manila has given her. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

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