From Malaysia to the Philippines, Kong Ke Xin pursues her love for ballet
By Jv Ramos
Like many ballerinas, Ballet Manila company artist Kong Ke Xin, in her early years, had no clue that regularly attending dance classes would eventually evolve into a profession. Born and raised in Malaysia, she expressed an interest in ballet at a young age.
"At four, my mother brought me to a ballet studio. She asked me if I wanted to dance," narrates the soft-spoken teenager. Inspired by watching her mother Lim Sek Mei, a commercial dancer by profession, at work and the way the girls in studio were elegantly moving, Ke Xin immediately knew that she wanted to try ballet. Sek Mei would enroll her daughter a year later, thus starting the young girl’s pursuit of ballet.
"What I liked most about it [attending ballet class] is getting to listen to the music in the studio and being with friends," notes the dancer, who initially just saw it as a leisurely activity. It was only eight years after, when Ke Xin had begun attending classes at the City Ballet Academy in Kuala Lumpur, that her outlook changed.
According to the ballerina, the academy — owned by artistic director Lu Wit Chin and his wife, principal Priscilla Yong — made her take ballet seriously. Her mentors there made her see the dance form’s potential and were determined to transform her into the best dancer she could be. Soon, Ke Xin met Manila-based Malaysian ballerina Violet Hong, a former BM company artist, who had been invited by the academy to conduct classes and train their students for competition in 2015.
"That's how I came to know about Ballet Manila," Ke Xin explains. Noticing how effective Violet's training was, the teenager knew that she'd have to go through it on a regular basis, and the only way to do so was to go to Ballet Manila. Determined to grow more, Ke Xin flew to the Philippines earlier this year to join the company's summer intensive program.
"I found the classes here to be very challenging. During my first day, I couldn't keep up!" she admits. This 17-year-old recalls that she was so intimidated by the way the ballerinas moved in a similar manner so effortlessly, which made her question if she could actually go through the seven-week workshop.
Never one to give up, though, she trained herself to be like the rest, which resulted to her finishing the summer intensive and receiving a contract from Ballet Manila. Since Malaysia doesn't have a professional ballet company, Ke Xin knew that she'd have to go back to the Philippines and stay here for a longer period if she wanted to embark on a dancing career.
"At first, it was hard to convince my mom. She thinks that the Philippines is dangerous, because of what’s in the news." But once Ke Xin explained how essential Ballet Manila was for her growth and spoke of how welcoming and helpful the people from the company were, Sek Mei saw that her eldest child would be pursuing her dreams in a safe environment. The ballerina comments, "I think we actually got closer when we separated... She messages me every morning and at the end of the day greets me good night. My mom doesn't really say much, but I can feel that she really cares for me."
How have the past months been for this young ballerina? Apart from learning how to do laundry, grocery-shop, cook and live away from family, Ke Xin is adjusting to the very packed schedule of Ballet Manila. "I'm still surviving," she laughs. "Here, I really need to be tough and responsible. I actually just had a talk with Abi [Abigail Olivero, principal dancer] after class. She told me that I have to be strong in BM because no one is gonna babysit you. That you need to pick up and grow up fast here."
And so far, picking up and growing up fast is exactly what Ke Xin has been doing. She's gotten used to attending daily classes and juggling rehearsals for multiple shows, learned how to dance as part of the corps de ballet without losing sight of her personal goals, and most importantly, to think on her feet to help put on the best possible show.
When her White Swan performance for a BM school recital was brought up, Ke Xin reveals that she had a booboo during that time. One of her pointes came loose in the beginning, so throughout the performance she kept pushing her foot into the loose shoe to secure it. Despite her struggle, no one in the audience seemed to notice her issue. As for her fellow dancers, they just attributed her shaking to jitters.
After her participation in Le Corsaire last October, Ke Xin is now prepping for Ballet Manila’s Christmas shows and learning her role in Cinderella, the company’s third offering for the season. In this beloved fairy tale, she has been cast as the Fairy Godmother, a role which BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde herself not only choreographed but danced when the ballet was first shown to the public in 2016.
"I actually didn't know that the original Fairy Godmother was Ma'am Lisa until someone told me recently." This revelation made her question if a ballerina such as herself with very little experience was deserving of the role, and, of course, it made her very nervous.
"I'm even nervous about it during rehearsals. During our last rehearsals, I kept looking at Sir Shaz [Osias Barroso, BM co-artistic director] to see if I was doing it right. All he said to me was, 'Why are you looking at me?'... Yes, I know that he's one of those who will really help me and make me tough, but I can't help but feel nervous."
To fight self-doubt, the ballerina is exposing herself to more materials, including Disney’s animated version of Cinderella, that would help her embody the Fairy Godmother, which is really a great opportunity for any young ballerina. In addition, more than the role being about landing an iconic part, Ke Xin is excited to be part of a magical production. She expresses, "I do like Cinderella. I love fairy tales. I love the magic they have, because you can't get that in real life."
Asked what she would like to receive if she had a Fairy Godmother, Ke Xin brings up what she holds very dear. "I just want my family to be healthy and happy. One of the things I really miss about Malaysia is being with my family and seeing my grandparents every day."
When it comes to ballet, she wishes to continue her journey with the company, and maybe become a soloist eventually. "That’s my long-term goal… What made me choose ballet [above other dances] is I like the challenge of it and I like dancing on pointe. I still remember the first time I danced on pointe, it was really exciting to stand on one's toes.”
This excitement of hers fades from time to time though, especially when she experiences pain and finds many blisters on her feet. “I ask myself, 'why am I doing this?'... But whenever I remember the joy of dancing, I don't think about the pain anymore. Besides, ballet, I think, is what makes me unique and special. Other people cannot do what I do," she shyly says.
Asked for advice she can impart to aspiring ballerinas, this Malaysian dancer simply draws from her own experience. She intones, "Keep believing in yourself and always work smart... Also, don't give up too easily because good things take time."
Brave, realistic and hardworking, Ke Xin would surely grow more as a dancer and as a person with Ballet Manila.