Abigail Oliveiro: Ready to take on more challenging roles as Ballet Manila’s new principal dancer

Abigail Oliveiro: Ready to take on more challenging roles as Ballet Manila’s new principal dancer

Three faces of Abigail Oliveiro: The ballerina displays a range of emotions in her first interview as a principal dancer. Photos by Jimmy Villanueva

By Jv Ramos

Just when Abigail Oliveiro thought that winning a Gawad Buhay award for her role as Mercedes in Don Quixote was the most unexpected honor she could receive this year, fate surprised her anew when she learned of her promotion from soloist to principal dancer for Ballet Manila’s upcoming season. 

“It happened on a Saturday night, when we were all about to get our new contracts,” recalls the Singapore-born, Australia-raised ballerina who has been with the company since 2013. Since no one wanted to go first, she decided to approach human resources manager Jason Jerus. When he told her there were going to be some changes in her contract, Abi thought his statement had an ominous ring to it. But whatever those changes would be, she thought to herself she would still continue dancing with BM.

“Jason then said, ‘Hey, Abi! Congratulations on your principal contract.’ I then started trembling and started yelling at him. ‘You can’t do that, Jason! That’s such a bad prank. I cannot handle this right now!’ And after all that, he said, ‘I’m not joking. Just look at the contract!’”

Abigail Oliveiro describes her promotion to principal dancer as “the wildest thing that’s ever happened to me.” Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

That’s when a skeptical Abi saw the title of principal dancer along with her name on the document, and that this promotion had already been signed by BM’s artistic director, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. After trying her best to recover from her tears of disbelief and happiness, Abi recalls taking the contract with her, leaving Jason for him to meet with the other artists, and finding a room where she could be alone with her thoughts.

“The first person I called was Mark [her partner on and off the stage],” shares Abi, who clearly remembers everything that happened that evening. “When he picked up the phone, he couldn’t understand me. I was in a hysterical mood, and he had to really calm me down.” Not long after that revelation, Mark composed a Facebook post congratulating Abi on her promotion and praising her for her hard work and dedication to her craft.

“After my phone call with Mark, I decided to call my parents,” continues Abi. “I told my dad to put the phone on speaker mode, so I could talk to him and mom at the same time. I have never heard my dad sound so surprised in my entire life. I mean, he’s always been proud of me. But in the past, he would always be like, ‘I knew you can do it.’ So when he reacted the way he reacted, I just cried even more.”

“The best part about that conversation is, the only time I heard my mom speak was when I said ‘Bye’. She was so shocked that she couldn’t even speak until towards the end of phone call!” Abi chuckles as she recalls the moment.

Receiving more pairs of pointe shoes is a perk Abi – seen here in Paquita – is most excited about. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Although she had already told the good news to her nearest and dearest and had the contract as proof of her promotion, Abi remained doubtful. So much so that she sought out Macuja-Elizalde the day after. “While Ma’am Lise was putting on her make-up to be the queen [before BM’s Swan Lake recital], I approached her and asked, ‘Did you really mean to give me the principal contract?’ And she immediately replied, ‘Why, of course, I really did mean that!’ And when she began to state the reasons, I felt like crying again.”

It was only after that encounter that Abi decided she could also call her ballet teacher back home. This phone call was perhaps the most important one as it was Jane Moore who believed in Abi from the very beginning.  Teacher Jane, as Abi would call her, is in fact the person who convinced the ballerina’s parents to allow their daughter to give professional dancing a shot.

Unknown to many, Abi was in the middle of pursing a Pharmaceutical Science degree before entering the ballet world. “That was when my ballet started to decline,” she recalls. “The hours were long there. Like making aspirin took several hours and we had to do reports after, so I would finish university about 6 or 7 p.m. I was just too tired to do ballet after that.”

“But in my second year of university, my ballet teacher said, ‘Abi, I really think you should try dancing. I mean, you’re 18 years old. It’s now or never! I think you should really try because I think you have something special.’”

Dancing as the Ibong Adarna, says Abi, can be quite exhausting as she has to continuously flap her “wings” but make it look effortless. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Teacher Jane repeated the same thing to her parents, and after that career discussion, Abi’s father – who has a deep appreciation for the arts, especially music – gave in. “My dad said, ‘If this really is her dream and if this really is her one shot, then she should go for it.’”

Her mom was worried though as to how they would be able to afford the expenses, particularly for auditions. It was Teacher Jane who offered a viable solution. She would teach Abi from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, and also allow the dancer to attend the evening classes, and in order to pay for her fees, Abi would help out at the dance school’s reception.

Abi’s mom eventually relented after hearing Jane’s proposal, pointing out that her daughter would have a year to prove herself. But as life would have it, things would never play out as easily as it sounded.

So as not to burden anyone with her dance and audition fees, Abi also became a part-time English and math tutor. “I’d tutor before ballet, after ballet and even in-between ballet,” the ballerina laughs, feeling relieved that the company she’s in now permits her to dance full-time.

Not long after her days of ballet and tutoring, Abi received a scholarship from the Joffrey Ballet, but had to turn it down because her family wouldn’t be able to afford the boarding and lodging expenses. Then came a job offer from the Australian Ballet.

Abigail Oliveiro and Mark Sumaylo take on the lead roles in the full-length Swan Lake, 2017. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

“My parents were happy about it and it was okay too. The only problem was I wasn’t doing much dancing. Yes, I was dancing and touring, but that was in order to teach ballet,” Abi says. “I remember being next to the studio where they were rehearsing Swan Lake, and I was just like, ‘Aaaahhhh! No!’ I even got depressed at one point.”

Knowing that she could do more, she left the Australian Ballet despite being offered another contract, and once again approached Teacher Jane. Together, they went through the same cycle of doing ballet every day until the right offer came. “There were offers in a few places in Europe, but it was for guest artist or apprentice – things that I again couldn’t afford. Accepting those contracts just didn’t make any sense to me! Then came my last shot, which was the Hong Kong Asian Grand Prix in 2013.”

The AGP indeed became a game-changer for Abi as she not only became a finalist, she was also spotted there for the first time by BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso. Shortly after that, she was invited to try out for BM and passed. Upon learning that she had made it to the company, Abi gladly packed her bags and headed to Manila to start a new leg in her still fledgling ballet career.

In her award-winning role as Mercedes, Abi gets to perform anew with off-stage partner Mark Sumaylo as the bullfighter Espada. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Before the AGP competition, Abi and her ever-supportive dad had a serious career chat. “He spoke to me realistically. He said, ‘If you can get into a company, then that’s great. But really, the most I could see you as is a soloist. I can’t imagine you becoming a principal dancer.’ When I heard him say that, I wasn’t mad. I also thought that the furthest I could get to is to be a soloist.”

But this mindset of hers changed when she became a soloist in Ballet Manila. “It meant that I can,” points out Abi, referring to her first climb up the ladder. “Back then, I thought that if I could make it here [being a soloist], which seemed so unlikely before, then I could make it to principal. I wanted to be more after that!”

“This [promotion] is the wildest thing that’s ever happened to me, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I mean, it’s almost my birthday, so I consider this as a gift. And, to be honest, I felt down for quite a while,” reveals Abi, recalling the time when she saw three of her co-soloists get promoted at the end of the last season.

Though she was happy for her fellow dancers Romeo Peralta, Elpidio Magat and Joan Emery Sia when they were announced as new principals for BM’s next season, Abi candidly admits she also felt a tinge of disappointment. Teary-eyed, the ballerina expresses, “I just told myself it wasn’t my time yet, and that I’ll work harder next season. Then, it happened. What makes all this even sweeter is knowing that I was willing to push through all of it. It was really hard. Everyone [throughout the years] kept saying that I couldn’t make it, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t doing it for them or for anything else. I was doing it for me because it made me a better dancer and it made me a better person.”

After drying her eyes, Abi regains her giddy self and notes that she’s beyond excited about the next stages of her career. “You know what really got me excited about my contract as a principal? More pointe shoes! I get to have 24 pairs of pointe shoes,” she raves. While such benefit may only be a number to most people, for ballerinas, it means being blessed with tools to do what they love, which is to dance more and more.

Abi (center) loves classical ballet but is equally adept in tackling contemporary pieces such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Bloom.

Abi says that the title may have changed, but she notes, “To be honest, I still feel the same. I still have to work really hard and still have many things I’d like to work on. This time though, I would have to be outstanding all the time. Before, as a soloist, it was great if you could dance like a principal. Now, you have be great all the time.”

She declares, “I’m ready though. I told this to Ma’am Lise the other day – that I’m ready for other responsibilities, that I’m ready to push more and work more. I have this craving – craving for more work.”

As for the roles she looks forward to, the ballerina first states that she’s willing to take on any. “That will allow me to explore more, experiment more and to be more versatile dancer… But if there’s a role that I’d really like to do, it’s Giselle! And then, Carmen, too. I’d really love to dance the role of Carmen with Mark as Don Jose.”

She again looks back, “Yes, I know he’s my boyfriend, but I can still recall when I watched him do that role with Dawna [Mangahas, former BM principal] from the audience. He really makes a convincing Don Jose, and that’s when I really saw why they made him a soloist! He performed that role so well that I all I could think of at that time was, ‘I wish I was Carmen.’”

After a few more flashbacks about her five-year BM journey which includes the roles she considers the most crucial – her award-winning portrayal of Mercedes in Don Quixote and dancing Odette and Odile in Swan Lake – Abi concludes her first interview as a principal dancer with these words: “I’m ready for more!”

Abi dreams of dancing as Giselle and Carmen, two iconic roles in ballet. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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