Stepping into a principal dancer’s shoes

Stepping into a principal dancer’s shoes

Joan Emery Sia is partnered by Rudy de Dios in Swan Lake (2017). Photo by Ocs Alvarez

By Jv Ramos

The announcement of their promotion as principal dancers had a surreal quality to it – not just because it was unexpected, but also because it was done before a live audience at the close of Ballet Manila’s season-ender, Ballet & Ballads. Days after the surprise revelation, Romeo Peralta, Elpidio Magat and Joan Emery Sia still can’t believe that it had actually happened.

Determined to work smarter, Joan Emery Sia researches on how she can strengthen her body. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

“You know, I still get emotional when thinking about it,” shares Joan who literally fell to her knees when her name was called by artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. “I felt like I won Miss Universe without knowing that I joined the pageant!”

She continues, “It really means a lot. Natatakot din ako na baka next day, dream lang pala siya (I’m also afraid that I might wake up and find out it was just a dream).”

Her male colleagues, on the other hand, are less emotional about the experience. “Siyempre, surprised muna ako (At first, I was very surprised),” reveals Elpidio who laughingly says he next had a worrying thought. “Ang naisip ko after ay: ‘Oh no! More pressure and more responsibilities.”

Romeo echoes that he was just as stunned as the other two when the big moment came, adding, “To be honest, hindi ko na rin siya in-expect (I didn’t expect to be promoted to principal anymore).”

Romeo  Peralta says he kept trying one ballet level after the next that before he knew it, he had already been with Ballet Manila for 17 years. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

As it turns out, this danseur, being the goal-oriented person that he is, once aimed to become Ballet Manila’s youngest male principal dancer. It was a dream inspired by his being the company’s youngest member. This was in 2005 when Romeo was only 17 years old.

“Whenever I’d see the other boys get promoted, naisip ko na gusto kong ma-promote to principal. (I thought that I’d like to one day be promoted as principal). To maybe become like them whenever I’d dance. And then, di ko siya nakuha, so from then on, nakalimutan ko na siya.” (And then, I wasn’t able to get it, so from then on, I forgot all about it).

Still, Romeo gave dancing and the company his all and now, he has attained his forgotten dream out of the blue. He anticipates how things will be like for him when the next BM season opens. “It will be exciting, but the expectations will be greater. Naiisip ko from time to time na the audience will expect me to not make mistakes kasi nga principal na, but I try to stay away from that.” (From time to time, the thought of people not being so forgiving about mistakes, especially now that I’m a principal, enters my head but I try to stay away from that.)

Elpidio Magat has bounced back from a back injury that kept him away from ballet for more than a year. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Joan and Elpidio nod in agreement, knowing too well that a ballet dancer’s success is dependent on a tough mind, as much as a tough body.

“I’m set on working harder, working smarter,” declares Joan, who is determined to make her dancing career last as that of her mentor, prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. “I’m learning how to preserve my body. I know that injuries will come, so I do research to strengthen my core.”

She then dissects for everyone in the room how her mind works:  In a nutshell, everything she does is centered on ballet. “Every day, I think of what activities I must do to have another dancing day. What do I do to avoid injury?”

Marami nga talagang responsibilities kapag principal (There truly are a lot of responsibilities when you’re a principal),” notes Elpidio, the least talkative of the three. (Though this danseur tends to be quiet, it doesn’t mean that his story is less colorful. Clearly born to dance due to the way he effortlessly morphs into any character, Elpidio faced his biggest obstacle in the form of a career-threatening back injury. At that time, many questioned if he could return to dance, and if he did, would he still be as good?)

Paired with Katherine Barkman as Odette in Swan Lake (2017), Elpidio  Magat dances as Prince Siegfried. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

While promotions are commonly associated with one’s future steps, it’s also very much about the past or how one has grown and improved through the years. As it turns out, these three new principals all had shaky beginnings.

For Romeo and Elpidio, it had a lot to do with immaturity. Being tweens when they started in Ballet Manila, they didn’t understand at first the seriousness of the dance.

Ang talagang naaalala ko noong first day ay pinagalitan ako ni Kuya Jeff (Espejo), dahil sumabit ako sa barre (What I really remember from my first day is that Teacher Jeff scolded me, because I swung on the bar),” begins Romeo, who was very much into taekwondo before taking a ballet workshop. “Stretch daw kasi. Kaya ayun, sumabit ako sa barre.” (He ordered the class to stretch. So there, I swung on the barre.)

“Free rides naman sa Star City ang naaalala ko during my days as a scholar (It’s the free rides in Star City that I remember the most as a scholar),” says Elpidio, making Romeo laugh louder.

Romeo  Peralta is captured in mid-air in Swan Lake (2017). Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Oo nga, may mga rides na tayong mga scholars ang unang naka-try (Oh yeah, there were even rides that we, the scholars, were the first to try),” confirms Romeo as he and Elpidio give each other a high five. “But I still remember when Magat was younger. There was a time when Sir Shaz (BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso) would always get mad at him.”

What came out of that particular experience was Romeo’s older-brother tendencies. He took it upon himself to talk to his younger colleague. “Naintindihan naman ni Magat ang sinabi ko, tapos nagawa na rin niya ang pinapagawa ni Sir Shaz. (Magat understood what I told him, and soon was able to execute what Sir Shaz wanted.) He’s grown so much since then.”

As for Joan, who grew up in Cagayan de Oro, her early days with BM were more terrifying than those of the boys. “I remember my first week here as a scholar. We were rehearsing for a production and lagi akong nagkakamali (I would always make a mistake) and I was just a corps girl! And then, one day, Sir Shaz called me into the office. Pinagalitan niya talaga ako. ‘Bakit ka hindi maka-coordinate? (He really was furious with me. ‘Why don’t you have coordination?') 'Why can’t you blend in?’”

MAZN is a contemporary choreography by Bam Damian that has become like a signature piece for Joan Sia and Alfren Salgado. Photo by Jojo Mamangun

That experience was just the first in her string of lows. Joan mentions that there were times when she’d be cast for iconic roles, but she would later be set aside because another girl danced the part better. “That really hurt me, but I persisted… Because all those physical and emotional pains of mine are nothing compared to my love for ballet. I wanted to prove that hindi lang ako hanggang dito.” (I could be much more.)

To be much more is something that the two danseurs can also relate to. For Elpidio, the challenge was fighting fate’s seeming determination to end his dancing days with a back injury. As Joan and Romeo describe it, the natural dancer moved differently when he returned to ballet after being sidelined for over a year. But after more and more classes, he was able to bounce back. “I really admire how Magat was able to do that,” says Romeo. 

As for Romeo, his wanting to become much more than he was came gradually. “I gave ballet two weeks and nang nagustuhan ko siya, sabi ko i-try ko na ulit ang next level (when I realized that I liked it, I told myself that I’ll go and try the next level),” he explains. “Pagkatapos ng level na ‘yon, sabi ko, i-try ko naman ang next. Sa kaka-try ko, umabot na ako dito ng 17 years! (When I was done with that next level, I told myself that I’ll try what’s after. After trying out one level after the next, I suddenly realized that I’ve been in the company for 17 years!)

In Ballet & Ballads (2018), Romeo Peralta premieres the Bam Damian work El Adwa. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Seventeen years for Romeo and Elpidio and nine years for Joan since they began their Ballet Manila journeys. Though that may be a very long time, the three principals note that this is just the beginning and that there’s so much more they would like to achieve.

“Being a principal is not just about being technically stronger, it’s also about being able to touch the audience,” imparts Joan. “Sir Shaz once wrote me a note saying, ‘Dance with your heart.’ At that time, I didn’t know what it meant, but after growing with the company, I now understand what it means. And I want audiences to see that I’m really dancing with my heart.”

Teary-eyed, this ballerina adds, “Also, I feel like I can be an inspiration to the younger dancers who don’t think that they can. I persisted because I also believed that you make your own luck. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

“I’ve always looked up to Rudy and Geri (principal dancers Rudy de Dios and Gerardo Francisco),” states Romeo. “And that’s not just because of their dancing. If you meet them, they’re humble and very down-to-earth… Gusto ko rin ang pagiging family man ni Geri. Nagagawa din niya ‘yung to bring people together. I admire him for that. Siyempre, andiyan din ‘yung choreography aspect. Dream ko one day na makagawa ng piece kagaya ng kay Geri at Rudy.” (I also like the way Geri is a very good family man. He can really bring people together. I admire him for that. Of course, there’s also that aspect of choreography. I dream that one day, I would be able to choreograph a piece like Geri and Rudy.)

Elpidio Magat makes a leap in Bam Damian’s Reconfigured, presented in Ballet & Ballads (2013). Photo by Ocs Alvarez

As for Elpidio, though dancing ballet for him comes naturally, he admits that there’s still room for improvement, and that he has a long way to go before being in the same level as the other Ballet Manila principals. “Like si Rudy. Demi-god ‘yan talaga. Ang tawag nga namin diyan ay ‘Rudy of God’ or de Dios! Bagay talaga sa kanya ‘yung last name niya (Rudy is demi-god. In fact, we call him ‘Rudy of God’ or de Dios! He really lives up to his last name),” he gushes. “Rudy, Geri and Katherine (Barkman) are extremely hardworking. That’s what I would really like to emulate.”

For Romeo, the newly minted principal status – although it may be the ultimate goal for any dancer – should not change their attitude towards work. “I think it doesn’t matter what label you have,” he stresses. “As principal, gagawin ko lang ulit ang ginagawa ko bilang soloist (As principal, I will just do everything that I’ve been doing as a soloist). I will just go to the studio every day and work as hard as I can. And then, when I go on stage, I will give more than my 100 percent.”

Elpidio Magat, Joan Emery Sia and Romeo Peralta agree that being named principal dancers of Ballet Manila means working harder and dedicating themselves to dance even more. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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