Ballet Manila's jester Alvin Santos takes a final bow

Ballet Manila's jester Alvin Santos takes a final bow

Alvin says his colleagues will most likely miss his naughtiness. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Jv Ramos

Those who have consistently followed Ballet Manila know Alvin Santos as any of these characters: as the charming wooden puppet who, after a series of naughty and good deeds, is magically transformed into a real boy in Pinocchio; as the interruptive, bouncy yet endearing Jester in Swan Lake; and, more recently, as the loyal servant in Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna, who tirelessly introduces each royal member and lures everyone to the fictional setting of Berbanya.

To his colleagues, however, this male dancer is all those characters rolled into one. Alvin is the young teenager who never danced, but upon entering BM, wondrously transformed his life and became an accomplished danseur. He, too, is the real-like jester who can easily inject laughter into any serious or depressing moment. And, most importantly, he's been a very loyal member of the company. Since he was 13, Alvin has been religiously waking up to dance ballet and his enthusiasm for it has been inspiring other boys to do the same.

Retiring soon, after BM's 22nd performance season – or his 20th year with the company – Alvin sits down and reveals the unforgettable moments in his fruitful career. "Wala talaga akong background sa sayaw bago mag-BM (I really had no exposure to dance before BM)," he begins. "Napunta lang ako dito dahil sa isang ka-tropa. Pinakita niya sa akin ang souvenir program niya at nakita ko doon ang litrato ni Ma'am Lise (BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde) na laging nasa TV noon. Na-curious tuloy ako, so tinanong ko ang kaibigan ko kung nagbabayad siya para mag-ballet. Nang nalaman ko na sila ang nababayaran para sumayaw, sinabi ko na ipasok niya ako.” (I ended up here in BM because of a friend. He showed me his souvenir program which had Lisa Macuja's photo in it. I would always see her on TV that time. I got curious, so I asked my friend if he had to pay to dance ballet. When I found out that he was the one receiving money, I asked him to bring me to BM)."

When Alvin was given the lead role in Pinocchio in 2002, he researched and rehearsed so he could portray it accurately. Since then, he has danced as the puppet-turned-boy numerous times.

Being completely clueless about the dance form, Alvin admits that he was quite weirded out when he first encountered BM’s power duo, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso, which involved an assessment of whether or not his body type was cut out for ballet.

"Tinignan ako ni Sir, tapos, kinapa ang paa ko. Tinignan niya siguro kung kahoy ba ito at kung pwede pang-Pinocchio (Sir Shaz studied my body from a distance, then he inspected my legs. He must've checked if these were made of wood and if I was capable of being Pinocchio)," says the soloist, poking fun at that key moment in his life. "Tapos, ayun! Nagulat sila sa toe point and flexibility ko, so bigla akong sinabihan na start na daw ako ng Monday (So there! They got shocked with my toe point and natural flexibility, so they told me to come back and begin class the following Monday).

"Noong nag-start lang ako mag-class, dito ko naintindihan ‘yung advantage ng flexibility ng katawan ko.” (It was only when I began taking class that I understood the advantage of my flexibility.)

Despite this given leverage, Alvin wasn't exempted from the birth pains of a danseur. He recalls, "Sobrang sakit noong mga unang classes ko. Parang ayaw ko na ngang bumalik! Tapos, puro bata pa ang mga kasama ko. Tapos, naka-tights ka pa! Sobrang nakaka-ilang! Doon ko nasabi na grabe talaga itong ballet. Ang hirap!” (My first classes were very painful. I almost didn't want to come back. Then, my classmates were all kids. Plus, I was wearing tights! I felt very uncomfortable! It was then that I realized that ballet is really hard!)

What made Alvin’s early years in ballet even more colorful was that due to his age and potential, he was exposed to all levels of ballet simultaneously so that he could catch up with the other boys. On Saturdays, he would have one-on-one classes with Osias Barroso whom everyone knew as Teacher Shaz. The latter would teach Levels 1 through 3 in the morning, and Alvin would proceed joining the company's Boys Class in the afternoon.

Taking on the all-male contemporary piece Reconfigured, by Bam Damian

"Lupaypay na talaga ako pagkatapos (I was really dog-tired after)," recalls the soloist. "Ngunit hindi ako tumigil. Nakikita ko kasi ang mga malalaki nang danseurs. Pinangarap ko na sana balang araw, maging katulad ko sila.” (But I continued dancing. That's because I would always see the elder danseurs. I dreamt that one day, I would dance as well as they did.)

Alvin paints a picture of what his life was like as a BM scholar. "Dati, may mga Concert At the Park pa ang BM at pinapanood namin ang mga shows na ito.” (Before, BM still had the Concert At the Park shows and we would really watch those). While watching, or more accurately, praising the more seasoned danseurs of the company, he and his fellow scholars would call out, "Hoy! Akin yan (Hey! That's mine)!" It was basically their way of expressing which variations they wanted to dance themselves in the future.

"Ano ang pinili ko noon? Siyempre, ang kay Sir Shaz. Ang galing niya talaga eh!” (What did I choose back then? Definitely, Sir Shaz's variations. He was very good!) Naturally, actualizing this dream of his took time, for aside from going through physical challenges, Alvin also had his periods of doubt.

He muses about the time he found out he was going to be given the lead role in Pinocchio. "Noong sinabi sa akin ni Sir na gusto niya akong i-cast bilang Pinocchio, sinabi ko: 'Bakit ako? Nandiyan naman ang mga company dancers. Four years pa lang ako nag-ba-ballet at di pa ako ganu’n kagaling!' Ang sabi lang ni Sir ay ako raw ang nakikita niyang babagay sa role.” (When Sir Shaz told me he wanted to cast me as Pinocchio, I questioned, 'Why me? There are so many company dancers who could do it. I'd only been here for four years and I'm not yet that good.' What Sir told was that I was the one he saw who's fit for the role.)

Alvin (seventh from left) was part of the delegation that represented Ballet Manila at the Aberdeen Youth Festival in 2004.

Determined to make the most out of the opportunity, then 17-year-old Alvin watched all film and stage adaptations of the beloved children's tale just so he could accurately portray the puppet-turned-boy. "Nagulat sila noong rehearsals. Sobrang kuhang-kuha ko daw ‘yung character. Pero challenging pa rin sa akin!” (They got surprised when we began to rehearse. They said I was really able to portray the character. But it was still challenging for me!)

He confesses laughingly, "Isa sa mga na-enjoy kong parts sa Pinocchio ay kapag lumalabas ako ng stage, kasi nga nakakapagpahinga ako (One of the most enjoyable parts in Pinocchio were those instances when I'd exit from stage because I would get to rest)."

That feeling, of course, changed when he spent more years training with the company. Knowing that he had become more capable, Alvin soon relished every moment in the spotlight. He lays down the difference of portraying Pinocchio as a company scholar in 2002 versus being a more experienced dancer in later years. "Kung nag-enjoy ako noong unang Pinocchio ko, mas nag-enjoy talaga ako the second time. Mas gamay ko na kasi ang sayaw at mas nagawa ko na ito nang tama. Mas nabigay ko ang todo ko.” (If I enjoyed my first time as Pinocchio, I enjoyed it more the second time around. I was already familiar with the steps and was able to do them even better. I was able to give it my all.)

Alvin stresses how much he has evolved as a danseur: "Noong una, kapag may mga pirouette, hindi mo talaga alam kung saan ako dadamputin. Super nakakahiya! At least ngayon, nag-improve na ako. Hindi na ako masyadong kinakabahan kapag maraming turns ang choreography. Dati, ang sinasabi ko, 'Di bale na akong patalunin nang patalunin. Huwag lang akong ipa-turn nang marami.'” (Before, whenever I would do a pirouette, you never know where I'd end up. It was very embarrassing! Now, at least I've improved. I'm not that nervous anymore when the choreography entails a lot of turns. Before, I would always say, 'I don't care how many jumps I'm asked to do, just don't ask me to do turns.'")

Still recovering from an injury, Alvin was photographed walking wistfully on the stage of  a Russian theater during a Ballet Manila tour. He was surprised when he was told he would be allowed to dance in one of the shows. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

He also notes that when he had matured as a dancer, the only moments he considered as bad were those times when he couldn't dance due to an injury. "’Yun lang talaga ang nakakapag-down sa akin. Noong kami'y nasa Russia, at sinurprise nila ako na sasayaw ako, naiyak talaga ako sa saya.” (Not being able to dance is the only thing that depresses me. When we were in Russia, and the company surprised me that I was going to dance with them, I really cried out of happiness.)

Other than those periods of recovering from an injury, Alvin sees the last 20 years as truly enjoyable and fulfilling. Aside from being able to perform in productions, he has done quite well in competitions. In 2003, he became a finalist in the Asian Pacific International Ballet Competition. A decade after, he became a semi-finalist in the 2nd Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition.

The Jester is a character Alvin is comfortable playing, as he likes to joke around in real life. He danced the role in Swan Lake in 2014 (left) and 2017.

But asked for his best moments during his two decades with BM, Alvin claims, "Lahat! Nagustuhan ko talaga ang lahat! Ang mga performances, ang mga tour at pati na rin ang mga lokohan namin.” (Everything! I really enjoyed everything! The performances, the tours and all our crazy moments.)

This dancer, without any doubt, is the jester in and out of the stage. "’Yun talaga ang maaalala ko rito. Ang sabi ko nga sa kanila na huwag sila mag-aalala. Kapag umalis na ako, wala nang mang-aasar sa kanila!” (It's the crazy times that I'm really going to remember. I would often tell everyone not to worry. Because once I retire, no one will tease them anymore!)

Switching to a more serious tone, Alvin reveals that if BM didn't make him realize the joy in ballet and his place on stage, his life would be completely different. "Kung hindi ako napunta sa BM, kung hindi ako naging ballet dancer, baka nasa Pangasinan ako ngayon at nagtatanim ng kangkong. Malaki talaga ang utang na loob ko sa BM, lalo na kay Sir Shaz.” (If I weren’t in BM, if I hadn’t become a ballet dancer, I would probably be in Pangasinan planting vegetables. I really owe my life to BM, especially to Sir Shaz.)

In Taiwan as a member of the BM delegation to the Ten Drums Festival in 2012. Photo courtesy of Gerardo Francisco

Alvin reveals that aside from taking the chance on him when he was an ignorant teenager and giving him the role that launched his career, Sir Shaz was also the one who helped him return to the stage after his surgery. "Siya pa rin ang tumulong at nagpalakas sa akin. Pangalawang tatay ko na talaga siya. Hindi lang tungkol sa stage ang advice niya.” (It was also Sir Shaz who helped me and made me strong again to go back on stage. He's really like a second father to me. The advice he would offer goes beyond the stage.)

Naturally, he echoes his second father's words when asked what advice he'd give young male dancers. "Huwag kayong tumigil. Kailangan na kapag nadapa ka, dapat mong i-try na tumayo! Tapos, move on! Huwag mong isipin na nangyari ‘yun sa iyo.” (Don't stop dancing. Whenever you fall, you have to try and get up. Then, move on! Don't dwell on what happened to you.)

Injury is actually not the reason Alvin has decided to hang up his dancing shoes. "May edad na ako kasi (It's because I'm already old)," he says, laughing loudly. "Well, parte lang iyon ng reason ko. Pero, nandiyan na rin si Matteo, ang anak ko. Ayokong mag-retiro na hindi ko na siya nakakarga. Gusto ko na habang lumalaki siya, nandiyan na ako sa tabi niya.” (Well, that's just partly the reason. There’s also my son Matteo. I don't want to retire when I'm unable to carry him. I want to be by his side as he grows up.)

Alvin is not just known for his many roles on stage, but for real-life ones which he enumerates:

As one of the Cavaliers in Swan Lake, 2014

The Bully: No, it's not a bad thing! Alvin just has a knack for turning mistakes around. "Dito sa Ballet Manila, kapag nagkamali ka, hindi mo iisipin ‘yon (Here, in Ballet Manila, when you make a mistake, you won't dwell on that)," he claims while sporting a mischievous grin. "Ang iisipin mo ay ‘yung mag-aalaska sa iyo! Kailangan mo ihanda ang sarili mo para doon.” (What you'll worry about is the person who will bully you about that mistake repeatedly. And you have to be ready for that.) Obviously, he's the guy who will endlessly tease his cast mates, regardless of whether they had a stage booboo or not.

Ang Pinakamakulit (The Naughtiest): "Hindi ko i-de-deny ‘yan. At tingnan mo lang, ma-mi-miss talaga nila ako dahil diyan (I won't deny that. And I’m telling you, they will miss me because of that).

Ang Tulogero (The Sleeper): Though he claims that his being a sleepyhead only came around when his son Matteo was born, many say that he's been a Rip Van Winkle ever since he began taking class in the company. This quality of his is a relief for his fellow dancers, for it gives them an opportunity to play a prank on the jester.

All jokes aside, though, this danseur has made his mark not only in the company, but also in the ballet world. For this soloist, the biggest achievement has been getting to dance every variation he "claimed" as a young scholar.

"‘Sakto lang talaga ang 20 years (Twenty years really is enough)," Alvin concludes, sounding very satisfied with all that he has gone through and accomplished. He will still be dancing with Ballet Manila until May, but even as his final bow nears, he firmly says: "Prepared na ako to let go of ballet (I'm ready to let go of ballet)."

After twenty years with Ballet Manila, soloist Alvin Santos – who always has a ready smile, on and off stage – is getting ready to hang up his dancing shoes. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Osias Barroso conducts ballet classes in Taiwan

Osias Barroso conducts ballet classes in Taiwan

This Month in BM History: February 1996

This Month in BM History: February 1996