John Ralp Balagot: From athlete to ballet dancer
By Jv Ramos
Born with a long and lean body, John Ralp Balagot naturally gravitated to playing all kinds of sports while growing up in Cagayan de Oro. "Athlete po talaga ako noong high school at hindi dancer," points out the Ballet Manila company artist. "Kung sumayaw man ako, kaunti lang talaga. Tuwing Buwan ng Wika lang at intrams. Napasok lang talaga ako sa pagsasayaw noong nag-college na." (I was really an athlete in high school and not a dancer. I only danced when the school would celebrate National Language Month and school intramurals.)
His first exposure to the world of dance training, learning choreography and performing in front of an audience was through being a member of the Liceo de Cagayan University Folkloric Dance Troupe. His main motivation for joining the group was to obtain a college scholarship. "May kaunting ilang noong una, dahil nga sa mga activities ko sa high school. Pero, nasanay na rin ako," he says. (I found dancing awkward at first, since I didn't grow up doing it. But I got used to it eventually.)
How he became a full-fledged ballet dancer is thanks to Ballet Manila soloist Mark Sumaylo. Also from CDO and a member of the same dance troupe, Mark joined the Grace and Pointes Dance Center, a ballet school in their hometown, and suggested that John Ralp do the same. "Kulang kasi sila sa lalaki, so ini-invite ako talaga ni Mark. Noong una, ayaw ko pa kasi nga may commitment pa ako sa dance troupe. Pero, later on, sumali na rin ako." (The school really needed male dancers, so Mark was really urging me to join. At first, I refused because of my commitment to the dance troupe. But later on, I also joined.)
After five months of getting into ballet, John Ralp found himself flying to Manila in 2008 with other Grace and Pointes Dance Center students to take classes in Ballet Manila. "Doon ko po nakilala nang una si Sir Shaz [BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso]," recalls the danseur. "Tapos noong 2015, pumunta ang Ballet Manila sa CDO para magpa-audition. Nakipagsapalaran ako noon. Sumali ako sa audition, namukhaan ako ni Sir Shaz habang sumasayaw, at ayun, nag-email sila na natanggap naman ako para sa Summer Intensive." (That's the time when I first met Sir Shaz. Then, in 2015, Ballet Manila held auditions in CDO. I took the chance and auditioned. Sir Shaz recognized me while dancing, and soon, the company emailed that I got accepted to be part of their Summer Intensive).
Flash forward to the end of a brief yet strenuous Summer Intensive in Manila: it was time for the participants to be evaluated. "Ang nakasabi po sa dulo ng papel na ibinigay sa akin ay: you are now a trainee," recalls the danseur. (The last part of my evaluation sheet said: you are now a trainee). Though happy with the results, he first consulted his mother if he should accept BM's offer. And, just like before, his supportive mom advised him to go where he would be happy.
"Ibang-iba po talaga nang naging trainee na ako ng Ballet Manila. Dati kasi, alam kong sandali lang ako dito. Pero noong trainee na ako, para bang lifetime ka na nandito!" John Ralp admits feeling left behind in the first few classes as the dancers he entered with seemed to have already mastered body coordination. (Being a trainee in Ballet Manila was very different. Before, I knew that my time in the studio was limited, that I would go home in a few days. As a trainee, you felt that you would be spending a lifetime there).
John Ralp can’t forget his first few months in the studio. "Ang gagaling na ng mga batchmates ko! Di gaya ko na laging nasasabihan ni Sir Shaz ng 'Stretch it, Balagot. Stretch it more.' Sobrang tight kasi ng muscles ko. Kailangan ng two hours of stretching at pati na rin ng kumukulong tubig para lang lumambot!" he laughingly relates. (My batchmates were already really good. They weren’t like me, who would always be reminded by Sir Shaz to, 'Stretch it Balagot. Stretch it more.' My muscles were so tight. I needed about two hours of stretching and perhaps a pot of boiling water just to loosen my muscles.)
"Pero sabi ko sa sarili ko na kakayanin ko rin ang ginagawa nila. Tiyaga lang nang tiyaga. Iyan na rin ang sinabi sa akin ng aking mga kababayan na sina Mark and Joan [principal dancer Joan Emery Sia]. Patience lang talaga and hard work." (But I told myself that I would be able to do what they could do one day. I just needed to persist and persist. That's what the dancers from CDO told me. I just have to be patient and work really hard.)
Indeed with that formula, this CDO-born talent soon turned from trainee to a member of Ballet Manila 2, the junior company. In last year's evaluation, he progressed even more as he was promoted to company artist.
"Buti na lang may dala-dala akong towel nang kinausap ako nina Ma'am Lisa at Sir Shaz. Napaiyak kasi ako," shares John Ralp, who can't stop giggling now about the way he reacted. "During that time kasi, hindi ko talaga alam kung ano ang mangyayari sa akin. Hindi ko alam kung mananatili ako ng BM2, or tataas ba, or kung sasabihan ako kung ilang taon na lang ang mayroon ako dito. Nang sinabi sa akin na promoted ako, umiyak ako nang umiyak na wala na rin akong nasabi sa kanila kundi 'thank you' hanggang exit." (It’s a good thing that I brought a towel with me because I just kept crying in front of Ma’am Lisa and Sir Shaz. Prior to entering the room, I really didn’t know if I was going to be retained in BM2, or be promoted, or be informed of the number of years I had left here in the company. When they revealed that I was promoted to company artist, I just kept crying and crying that all I could say was ‘thank you’ until I left the room).
His promotion wasn't only a very emotionally rewarding moment, it also motivated John Ralp to work even harder. "Gusto ko kasing suklian ang ibinibigay na tiwala nina Ma'am Lisa at Sir Shaz sa akin," he declares. (I want to repay the trust that Ma’am Lisa and Sir Shaz gave me). This intensified dedication has led to many more opportunities for him.
Last July, John Ralp flew to Israel as part of the company’s delegation to perform Gerardo Francisco's Ibong Adarna in the Karmiel Dance Festival. Since returning to the country, he has been preparing for Iconic, Ballet Manila's season-opener, wherein he'll be dancing the highly regarded roles of Tybalt, the antagonist in Sergey Vikulov's Romeo and Juliet, and the scheming Ahab from Tony Fabella’s Ang Mahiwagang Biyulin, an excerpt from the production Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang.
John Ralp admits he is slowly but surely sinking his teeth into the character of Ahab, and is thrilled to be assuming this role for the Iconic production. He is looking forward to taking on the role of Tybalt due to the action that it involves, and dancing two special pieces again – Reconfigured, the all-male ensemble piece by Augustus “Bam” Damian III, and Bloom, the Asian-flavored choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
Come November, the danseur will face another challenge as he steps into the shoes of the wicked stepmother in Lisa Macuja-Elizalde’s Cinderella. He is particularly intimidated as he is inheriting a role that BM ballet master Jonathan Janolo played to such comic perfection.
"Blessed ang feeling ko tuwing nabibigyan ako ng malalaking roles. Blessed at sobrang kabado rin. Mga legends na kasi ang mga gumawa ng mga iyan," he comments on his new assignments. "At parang natural sa kanila ang character. Ako, ina-absorb ko pa lang. Like kay Ahab, dapat comedian na galit ka." (I feel so blessed every time they entrust big roles to me. I feel blessed and at the same time, very nervous. The danseurs who have done these roles are already legends of the company. Playing the characters is so natural for them. I still have to really study and absorb the character. For example, Ahab has to be humorous and angry at the same time.)
John Ralp enjoys dancing both contemporary and classical pieces. "Iba ang modern pieces dito sa Ballet Manila kaysa sa mga modern na sinayaw ko noon. May background in ballet pa rin na kailangan, so mas nagugustuhan ko." (The modern pieces here in Ballet Manila are very different from the ones I used to dance before. The ones here are grounded in ballet, so I enjoy performing these more).
Now thirty years old, which is the age many danseurs consider transitioning into another career, John Ralp feels that he's far from leaving ballet. He's enjoying the workload, the new roles he has to study, and the everyday struggles. "Hanggang ngayon, kailangan ko pa ring mag-stretch nang mag-stretch para lumambot ang aking katawan," he laughs. "Pero ganyan talaga. Gusto ko talaga dito sa BM! (Until now, I still have to dedicate many hours to stretching so I could ready my body. But that’s just the way it is! I really love being here in BM)!