Emma Harris embraces new ballet experiences in her mother’s homeland

Emma Harris embraces new ballet experiences in her mother’s homeland

Emma loves dancing the classics and enjoyed being the Lead Algerian in Ballet Manila’s recent production of Le Corsaire. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

By Jv Ramos

How Emma Harris got into ballet had to do with her mom making her and her sister try all sorts of activities until they found something they really liked. Born to an American father and a Filipino mother in the United States, Emma started taking ballet classes at age three, and as far as she can remember, there was never a time when she didn’t find it enjoyable.

As a young girl, she didn’t mind spending her after-school hours in the studio. As a teenager, she was willing to do home-schooling and then move far from home to avail of the best ballet training. “I was twelve when I wanted to start taking ballet seriously. I watched the San Francisco Ballet perform The Nutcracker and that just inspired me,” the twenty-year-old ballerina shares. “Being from a small town, we didn’t know what step to take, so I was only able to train seriously when I was 14.”

Emma’s training for the professional world began with the summer intensive of the City Ballet School in San Francisco, where she would spend three more years. This was followed by moving to New York to further her training. And when her ballet mentor in the transferred to the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, Emma didn’t hesitate to move again.

Though it wasn’t until five years ago that she first visited the Philippines, Emma Harris feels right at home now that she’s working with Ballet Manila as company artist. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

How did Emma end up in Ballet Manila then? Her connection to the company actually started five years ago, when she visited the Philippines for the first time. Never one to waste time, she decided to squeeze in ballet during her family’s two-month vacation.

“A family friend happened to know Ma’am Lise [BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde] and of course, Ballet Manila. So when I got here, I took private lessons with Ma'am Lise and that just left a very good impression on me. I remember thinking, after we left the Philippines, that I'd like go back someday and dance with Ballet Manila."

So, when it was time for her to leave ballet school and move on to a professional company, Emma did reach out to the company that made a lasting impression on her. “I contacted Ballet Manila, but they told me that they didn't have any room. So, I just thought that it wasn't my time yet and that I’d try again in the future."

Her life as professional ballerina, therefore, began in Europe, where she spent a year with the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company. In the Netherlands, she experienced dancing in Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote with the main company, and with the junior company, she went on tours and performed contemporary pieces that merged ballet and hip-hop.

Despite her interesting experiences in Europe, Emma made sure not to miss Ballet Manila’s open auditions last April. Having been trained in the Vaganova method since she was 14, she proved that she would fit well with the company and was offered a professional contract by Ballet Manila. “Since my contract in the Netherlands only ended in June, my contract here began in July.”

Emma (second from left) dances in Fur Elise, a choreography by BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde which was featured in the BM season-opener Iconic 1.0. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

She continues, “Coming here felt like coming back home really, and that’s because of the company’s strict training. I’m very glad that I got my Vaganova training back here, because in Amsterdam, I felt kinda lost in my way of dancing. It was such a big company, so everyone had a different style. Here, everyone follows the Vaganova technique.”

Asked what her first day in Ballet Manila was like, Emma replies that it was actually the company’s day off, so she got surprised. An even bigger surprise awaited her on her real first day.

"It was during the time when they were preparing for the American Stars Gala. They revealed to me that I going to dance Swan Lake for a show that was happening in a few days!” she recalls. “I got shocked. I knew Swan Lake, but I had not danced it since I was eleven. So, in my first week here, I was thrown immediately into my first show. I definitely didn't expect that, but it was a nice surprise. And it helped that everyone was really helpful.”

Another thing she remembers was having to adjust to the studio. “The first time I lived alone was when I was in New York, so living here, far from family, wasn’t something new. Plus, I have an aunt here who’s been really helpful. The biggest change for me was the open studio. In my first week, it was hard for me to finish class, because I had trouble breathing.”

Now used to Ballet Manila’s open studio and its “always be ready to perform” ways, Emma has been enjoying special moments with the company. “My first week or the time I was immediately thrown into a performance is my favorite memory here, but I’ve also enjoyed every performance I did with the company after that.”

In the Ballet & Ballads show in Pangasinan, Emma helps interpret Dive as pop crooner Bugoy Drilon sings the song live. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Among these performances, of course, are the grand offerings, such as Iconic 1.0 and 2.0, wherein she got to dance some of Ballet Manila’s most remarkable pieces, and Le Corsaire, wherein despite feeling under the weather, she was able to make it to the theater and perform with the girls. “That every role is important is one of the things that Sir Shaz [BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso] said, which really struck me,” she relates, noting that dancers should fight what their bodies are feeling for the show to go on.

“While I do love what we perform at the Aliw Theater, I also enjoy the shows that we do outside.” Here, Emma is referring to the company’s Ballet and Ballads series, which is grounded on its founding principle, which is to bring ballet to the people. For this series of performances, the artists of Ballet Manila travel to schools in Metro Manila and to various areas in the country where access to ballet may be quite limited.

She comments, “Ballet and Ballads is really fun to do. I like seeing the kids' reactions, and I think that it's also very inspiring. I really enjoy all the noise the crowd makes and the energy they give me when I dance.”

The ballerina analyzes that the setup of Ballet and Ballads, which usually involves big crowds in alternative performance spaces, such as parks and covered courts, makes good training. “If you can play in all sorts of places in front of different crowds, then you’ll just be fine in the theater.”

Fresh from a visit to her home country and still jet-lagged, Emma has fearlessly jumped into the rehearsals for the recently concluded Ballet and Ballads in Pangasinan and La Union and for the company’s upcoming full-length ballet, Cinderella, which was choreographed by Lisa Macuja-Elizalde herself. 

Once enrolled in the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, Emma (right, in Bam Damian’s Sotto Voce) has the Vaganova training in common with Ballet Manila artists. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

“I’m really excited to be one of the stepsisters” the ballerina raves. "I've never been able to play an evil character, so it's interesting to dive into that. Plus, I really love acting, so it would be fun to do it."

Emma reveals that when she was a teenager, she had seen the San Francisco Ballet and the Kirov Ballet’s takes on the fairytale. “Yeah, I do love the story of Cinderella, and it’s really interesting to see its different versions.”

Regarding what she thinks the company’s offerings so far, Emma is thankful that she’s with a company that mounts classical ballets, which she prefers over contemporary. “But I also love watching contemporary works,” she claims. 

“Here, for example, I like anything done by Sir Gerardo [Francisco, Ballet Manila principal dancer] and those by Sir Bam Damian as well. Bam Damian’s Sotto Voce, a very emotional piece, is something that I really love to dance. And his El Adwa is just beautiful to watch.”

Clearly still having the same enthusiasm for ballet as she did as as young girl, Emma will surely encounter more nice surprises and exciting performances with Ballet Manila.

“To make it in ballet, first you have to know if you really love it,” she puts forward. “Then, be determined. Don’t give up no matter what!”

Emma can’t think of a career she’d rather have than dancing. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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