Teenage danseur Rafael Perez: Saved and made better by ballet

Teenage danseur Rafael Perez: Saved and made better by ballet

Paeng (seen here performing here in Must Dance 2017, front and center) dreams of someday dancing as Prince Desiré in the full-length The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

By Jv Ramos

How 16-year-old Rafael "Paeng" Perez ended up in ballet seems to be the typical story of a boy who stumbles upon it. Clueless about any form of dance, Paeng at age eleven was asked by an experienced danseur, a friend of his uncle's, to point his toes and to do certain ballet positions that tested his flexibility. Once it was confirmed that he had the body type for ballet, Paeng found himself being enrolled at the Center for Movement and Music, where he would spend three years learning more about it.

When his aunt saw a production of Ballet Manila in a hotel gathering, she was very impressed by how skilled their dancers were. As a result, she suggested that Paeng try out for BM.

As a Ballet Manila trainee, Rafael “Paeng” Perez is happy because he has found a creative outlet in dance. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Paeng describes his audition experience back in 2016: "Sobrang nakakahiya kasi ako ang nasa harap at ang mga kasabay ko ay sobrang ang gagaling na! Ang naaalala ko ay iba ang tingin sa akin ng mga tao kasi nga hindi ko pa alam ang ginagawa ko." (My first audition was very embarrassing because I was assigned in front and everyone around me was already very good in ballet. I remember the way they looked at me because I really didn’t know what I was doing.)

"Natakot din po talaga ako noon kasi si Sir Shaz [BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso] pa po ang una kong nakita (I was also very scared at that time since Sir Shaz was the first person I saw)," he adds, laughing at the memory. But along with the embarrassment and the nervousness came the silver lining of making new friends – teenage boys in BM who would help him with the steps he wasn't familiar with.

"Basic lang po kasi ang ballet sa CMM, so may mga steps talaga na hindi naturo sa amin," explains Paeng. (The ballet being taught in CMM was very basic, so there were really steps that I hadn’t learned.) In order to cope with the class, where those who were auditioning were being observed, he approached the more knowledgeable young danseurs and they, without any judgment, taught him the combinations. 

"Naging Facebook friends kami after the class. Sila na rin ang nag-chat sa akin na natanggap ako sa BM." (I became Facebook-friends with them after the class. They were also the ones who informed me via chat that I had passed and was being accepted into BM as a trainee.)

Learning to jump high is one of the things Paeng (with fellow dancers in Must Dance 2017) would like to get better at through constant training. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Since it was Paeng’s first time to undergo the strict Vaganova training, he had a very difficult time during his first months in BM. “Sobrang sakit ng katawan ko. Ayaw ko na ngang bumalik sa BM para sa susunod na class." (My body was in great pain. I, in fact, didn’t want to attend the afternoon class anymore.) Back then, as he would recall, after going through a two-hour boys’ class, he could hardly move his body when it was time to learn modern dance.

What made him persist from 2016 till today then? It is the idea that ballet could change lives, which he witnessed happening every day to the dedicated students of BM. “Ang naisip ko po ay kapag tumagal ako dito sa BM, makukuha ko rin po ang aking limang kapatid na mag-aral ng ballet. Gusto ko rin po kasi na ma-experience nila ang na-e-experience ko dito.” (I realized that if I were to make it here in BM, I would be able to convince my younger siblings to learn ballet. I’d love for them to also experience the life changes I’m going through due to BM.)

Paeng candidly says that due to personal circumstances, his family has been undergoing some challenges. But thankfully, his uncle and aunt took him under their wing and are sending him to school while also encouraging him to pursue ballet and the possibilities it could offer.

Through BM, Paeng has been able to participate in its school’s large-scale recital and in the company's season performances, experience a taste of a professional dancer's life and even ride an airplane and visit another country for the first time. "Sobrang memorable po sa akin ang Vietnam trip namin," he enthuses when asked about his favorite performance with the company so far. "Bukod sa first time ko nga maka-perform and makapunta sa ibang bansa, masaya po ang feeling na nanalo po kami sa sinayaw namin." (My most memorable performance was the one in Vietnam. Aside from it being my first time to perform outside the country, it felt good to be awarded for the dance that we did as a group.)

Paeng (foreground, leftmost) was part of the Ballet Manila delegation to the International Dance Festival 2017 in Vietnam where the group won the silver for their performance of Gerardo Francisco’s Muro-Ami. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

In the 2017 International Dance Festival held in Vietnam, the BM delegation Paeng was part of won silver for their performance of Muro-Ami, a contemporary piece choreographed by the company's very own Gerardo Francisco. The recognition came as a big surprise as none of them knew that the festival was actually a competition too.

Currently, Paeng is on the road to his grandest ballet experience yet – the prestigious Asian Grand Prix, which also happens to be his first individual competition. This year, the qualifying rounds of this international competition are being held in different countries, with the chosen participants flying to Hong Kong for the finals in August.

Paeng is one of five dancers being fielded by Ballet Manila to the AGP regionals in Manila slated on April 21 to 22 at the Star Theater. “Ang role po ni Basilio [from the ballet Don Quixote] ang sasayawin ko." (I’ll be performing the role of Basilio.)

"Hindi ko po alam kung bakit, pero lagi po talaga akong kinakabahan sa bawat every rehearsal," answers Paeng when asked how his preparations for the competition are going. "So ang nangyayari daw ay nanggigigil ako kapag sumasayaw." Fortunately, he's learning to control his nerves better as each rehearsal passes, and he credits Teacher Robert Peralta for his improvement. (I don’t know what it is with me, but I really get nervous with every rehearsal. So what happens is I would really show intense emotion when I’m performing.)

"Sabi po sa akin ni Kuya Robert na kausapin ko ang aking sarili kapag kinakabahan. Sabi niya na isipin ko na raw ang gagawin ko at kung ano ang magiging itsura ko sa stage kapag lalabas na ako. Ang kailangan daw ay ang mindset naPanoorin n’yo ako! Sasayaw na ako!’" (What Kuya Robert advised me to do is to talk to myself whenever I’m feeling nervous. He also told me to visualize what I’ll be doing and how I will look on the stage. He said the right mindset should be, ‘Watch me! It’s my turn to dance.’)

Paeng (seated, rightmost) and the rest of the BM Summer Workshop 2017 Boys’ Class with their mentor, Osias Barroso (in red shirt). Photo courtesy of Osias Barroso

Determined to make the most out of this opportunity that the company has given him, Paeng, aside from working on his mental game, is undergoing extra efforts to improve his physique. "Sabi po kasi ni Sir Shaz na malaki ang hita ko, especially kung titignan n’yo ’yung itaas ng katawan ko. Para paliitin ito, may mga exercises akong ginagawa at binabawasan ko rin ang aking pagkain. Gusto ko kasing ibigay ang best ko sa AGP! Yes, ramdam ko na ready na ako!" (Sir Shaz observed that I have big thighs, especially if you were to compare it with the size of my upper body. To address this, I do extra exercises and also control what I eat. I’m doing this because I really want to give my best in the AGP! Yes, I feel that I’m ready for it!)

While thoughts of having a big audience, recognition and opportunities to perform abroad make ballet appealing, Paeng notes that it's the dance form's therapeutic nature that really made him fall in love with it. "Kapag may problema po ako, mas gusto ko na lang isayaw. Hindi ako ‘yung type na tao na nag-se-share kung ano ang nararamdaman ko. Mas gusto ko na lang i-release sa sayaw. Hindi naman sa dito ko nilalabas ang sama ng loob ko. Nakakalimutan ko ang mga problema ko kapag nagba-ballet na ako. Outlet ko po ito." (When I am weighed down by problems, what I’d like to do is dance. I’m not the type of person who likes to share what I feel. I’d rather release my emotions through dance. It’s not that I show my bad feelings here. Dance just helps me find peace of mind. Dance has become my outlet.)

It is not only because of ballet's peaceful effect on him that he craves to dive more into the discipline. "Isa sa mga nagustuhan ko sa BM ay pinalawak niya ang mundo ng ballet. Natuwa talaga ako sa first recital pa lang. Dati kasi, ang liit namin gumalaw. Sa Just Dance [BM’s summer recital], may kasama pang Bollywood na sayaw!" (One of the things I really liked about BM is it broadened the world of ballet for me. I was really happy with my first BM recital. Yes, I’ve performed in front of an audience before but all our movements seemed very small. In Just Dance, the repertoire even included a Bollywood number!)

He continues, "Isa pang gusto ko rito ay ‘yung mga teachers na naiimbitahan para magturo – sila ay nanggaling na pala kung saan-saan. Gusto ko ‘yung fact na may mas-alam pa sila at marami kang maaaral pa." (Another thing I like about BM is that they invite teachers who have been to many places and have achieved many things through dance. I love the fact that through them, you’re exposed to much more and could learn more.)

Performing a classical number in Pasinaya 2017 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Someday, given the opportunity, he would like to dance as Prince Desiré in the full-length The Sleeping Beauty.

Clearly dead serious to grow with the company, Paeng embraces every opportunity that would help him become a better danseur, even if it entails him rushing to the Pasay studio for his 6 p.m. class despite being dismissed from school in Quezon City at 5 p.m., or coming to the studio as early as 8 a.m. during summer break. 

"Noong una, ang akala ko, pwede ka lang tumalon-talon para ma-achieve ‘yung mga high jumps na ginagawa na ng mga ibang performers. Hindi pala! May technique talaga at kailangan mong mag-practice," notes the teenager, underscoring the importance of taking classes regularly. "Sana sa future, tumaas na rin po ang mga jumps ko." (At first, I thought that all you have to do is jump and jump in order to achieve the high jumps that the more experienced danseurs do. As it turns out, there’s really a technique to it and one really has to practice. I really hope that in the future, I would be able to perform higher jumps.)

Indeed, Paeng has set many goals for himself to be better at ballet, but his biggest dream really is to introduce it to his younger brothers. “To be honest, ipinasok ako ng Tito Edwin ko po sa ballet para madisiplina ako. At ‘yun nga ang nangyari! Sa ballet, hindi ka lang naman sayaw nang sayaw. Tinuturuan ka rin ng ballet na maging responsable at maging disiplinado.”  (To be honest, I was enrolled into ballet by my Uncle Edwin so that I would learn discipline. And that’s exactly what happened! In ballet, you’re not just dancing and dancing. You also learn how to be responsible and well-disciplined here.)

If he makes good in ballet, Paeng is hoping his five younger brothers could also follow in his footsteps. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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