Jamil Montibon: Making the most of another chance in ballet

Jamil Montibon: Making the most of another chance in ballet

One of the high points of Jamil's career so far was being given the chance to perform Sari't Bahag with fellow former Ballet Manila scholar Jessa Balote, taking over the roles previously danced by Osias Barroso and Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.

By Jv Ramos

Ballet Manila’s Jamil Montibon is no stranger to the camera, as his life story is essentially a modern take on the rags-to-riches tale. Born into a neighborhood wherein one’s survival depended on what he collected and sold from a trash dump, this young man changed the direction of his life when he became a beneficiary of the Project Ballet Futures (PBF) scholarship program of Ballet Manila.

Jamil now has greater motivation to keep working hard, having just become a father to baby girl Chloe. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Hailed repeatedly as a success story and a source of inspiration for others, Jamil’s journey and the many ways the media has retold it have made audiences focus on the happy ending. Inreality, this danseur’s story is far from over. It has not been all smooth sailing either.

Hanggang ngayon, nahihirapan pa rin ako aralin ang mgasayaw (Until today, I still find it difficult to learn the dances),”admits Jamil, who first held the barre when he was already 14. Now in his early twenties, other than getting used to wearing tights daily, not much has changed about his relationship with the dance form.

Kabado pa rin po ako hanggang ngayon. Tuwing naririnig koang ting-ting sa backstage at pati na rin pag kumanta na ng ‘Bayang magiliw…’ naiisip ko, ‘Hala! Ayan na!’ at kinakabahan na talaga ako (I still get very nervous today. Whenever I hear the bell backstage and people start singing the national anthem, I think, ‘Oh no! The show is about to start and I really get nervous.).”

Never the boy wonder who could effortlessly jump from one level to the next, Jamil says his struggles in ballet don’t just consist of the small things he earlier mentioned. Aside from trying to keep up with complicated choreography and dealing with anxiety, his journey has involved dark chapters – extended periods when he completely turned his back on ballet.

Jamil (fifth from left) performs in Swan Lake. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Tama, sumuko rin ako. Noong una, sumuko ako dahil sa hirapnito; tapos sumuko ako dahil nawala lang talaga ako sa buhay (That’s right, there were times when I gave up on ballet. At first, I gave up on it because it was just too hard. Then, later on, I turned my back on ballet once more because I lost my way in life),” he candidly shares. “Hiyang-hiya po ako noong second time.”

Though embarrassed, Jamil summoned the courage to send a message to Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde via Facebook. Not an hour passed, he recalls, when he got a reply from her.

The prima ballerina, who had chosen Jamil to be part of PBF, expressed nothing but genuine excitement at his interest to return. In fact, when her “prodigal scholar” showed up in the studio the following day, the young dancer recalls that the only question she had for him was, "Bakit ka pa nakatayo lang diyan, Jamil? Kunin mo na ang ballet equipment mo, at sumali ka na’’ (Why are you just standing there, Jamil? Go get your ballet equipment and join the class.)

Jamil is paired with Leanna Villanueva in Aria, a choreography by Martin Lawrance. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Nang sinabihan ako ng ganu’n ni Ma'am Lise, nagtuloy-tuloy na po ang pagseseryoso ko dito sa company (When Ma’am Lise said those words, I decided that I was not going to stop my ballet training this time around and that I would finally take it seriously)," Jamil puts forward.

Asked what pushed him to be more committed to his training, Jamil shares his personal reflections during his return. “Naisipko po kasi noon na baka itong ballet ang magbigay sa akin ng magandang buhay. Naalala ko kasi ang buhay ko noon sa lugar namin, wala talagang mangyayari sa iyo. Naisip ko rin nabaka ito na ang last chance na ibigay sa akin. Natakot na rin poakong magkamali ulit, dahil di mo alam kung may second chance ka pa (I realized at that time that maybe ballet is my ticket to having a better life. Back then, I remembered what my old days were like – where I lived, there really wasn’t a future for anyone. I also became conscious of the fact that this could be the last chance I would be given. So I was afraid of making another mistake because you never know if a second chance will still come."

Due to his renewed disposition about the craft, Jamil progressed in ballet and was included in more and more performances. Eventually, he landed a major role in a ballet choreographed by Jojo Lucila, an assignment that he didn’t expect would lead to his advancement in the company.

Last July, Jamil was part of the Ballet Manila delegation to the Karmiel Dance Festival in Israel. The group also had the opportunity to visit important sites in the Holy Land.

"Sari’t Bahag po ang sayaw na ito. Ito po ang pinaka-lead role na sinayaw ko, at pati na rin ang pinaka-memorable. Sinayaw po ito nina Sir Shaz (Ballet Manila co-artistic director) at Ma’am Lise dati, so napaka-big deal po ito sa amin ni Jessa Balote na scholars pa lang noon (Sari’t Bahag is the biggest role I’ve done so far and also my most memorable. Sari’t Bahag was once danced by Sir Shaz and Ma’am Lise, so it was a big deal for Jessa Balote and I to be picked to dance it since we were just scholars.”

He recalls that training for the role was one of his most challenging times in the company. Physically, he had to be stronger because the number called for him to execute demanding movements and lifts. In addition to the daily ballet classes, he started lifting weights to keep a trimmed physique and build stamina. Though the preparation pushed him to his limits, Jamil says there was a positive outcome to it.

Sulit naman ang lahat kasi nga na-promote ako pagkatapos.”(Everything I had gone through was worth it because I was promoted afterwards).

Jamil underscores that despite everything, he’s very blessed to have been discovered by the company as a teenager. “Magandaang nagagawa ng ballet sa akin. Ang gustong-gusto ko, lalo nasa BM, ay ang pakikisama ng mga tao. Ang mga sinayaw namin sa Iconic. Feeling ko talaga na nagawa ko lang ang mga iyon dahil sa tulong ng ibang tao. Tuwing nahihirapan ako, lagingmay handang tumulong dito,” Jamil says, referring to the company’s season-opener that involved two different repertoires on two weekends. (Ballet has done wonders for me. What I like most, especially in Ballet Manila, is the camaraderie. You saw what we performed in Iconic? I don’t think I could have successfully danced all those numbers if it weren’t for the help of others. Here, whenever I find things difficult, people are always ready to help out.)

Jamil was interviewed by Vice President Leni Robredo on her radio program about being featured in her office's initiative, the Istorya ng Pag-asa series.

Asked if he can offer any words of advice to aspiring ballet dancers, he replies with a chuckle: “Ang masasabi ko lang ay huwag nila ako gayahin.” The young father is obviously referring to his old self – the scholar who took opportunities for granted, who was sidetracked by vices, who frequently arrived late for classes, and who would immediately choose comfort over hardship.

After clearing his throat and putting more thought into the topic, Jamil finally offers: “Alalahanin nila na laging may tao nahandang tumulong. Sipagan nila, huwag sumuko at dapat ‘Uhhhh’ lang lagi.” (Remember that there will always be people who are willing to help you out. Word hard, never give up and just always go ‘Uhhhh!’)

By “Uhhhh”, Jamil means to always have a warrior’s mindset. “Kailangan ready kang harapin ang kahit ano.” (You have to be ready to face anything.)

Ballet Manila company artist Jamil Montibon has long left his scavenger days behind, finding salvation in dance. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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