The ‘Carmen’ connection: Two ballerinas on being transformed by the dramatic opus
By Jv Ramos
After alternating as the delightful street dancer named Mercedes in Don Quixote, Ballet Manila principal dancer Abigail “Abi” Oliveiro and company artist Rissa May Camaclang have once again turned heads on stage.
This time, it was for their portrayal of the coquettish, fierce and dramatic lead character in Carmen, which they debuted in Ballet Manila's Iconic 2.0, Abi in the gala and Rissa May in the matinee.
Though it was only a few months ago that their journey of transforming into the fiery character began, their connection to Carmen can be traced years before they inherited the role this season.
"I first saw Carmen with my mother when I was 10. [It was] in 2009 and Carmen was Ma'am Lise [Lisa Macuja-Elizalde], with Sir Shaz [Osias Barroso] as her Don Jose," raves Rissa May who, at 19, is one of the youngest ballerinas to be given the chance to dance the prized role. Though she had only been in ballet for two years back then, she already pinned Carmen as the role she would “die” for the most.
"I found it to be different from other ballets," she reasons. "The other ballets I watched were romantic, and this one was just, 'Whoa.' I know, it's hard to imagine a 10-year-old appreciate Carmen so much, but I did. Naintindihan ko (I was aware) that Carmen died violently, and I just loved the story. I knew at that time that I wanted to play her in the future."
Despite declaring Carmen to be the role of her dreams at such a young age, this wish of Rissa May never changed through the years. As she progressed from flat shoes to pointes, from taking classes as a Project Ballet Futures scholar of Ballet Manila to performing in company productions, she never stopped dreaming of being Carmen.
"I started as one of the villagers. I remember that they would throw me in the air because I was little; and then in the death scene, I would be the one throwing the flowers. During those times, I remember that every time the music goes poom-poom and Carmen would enter the stage, I would really stare at her and think that I wanna be her someday."
Little did Rissa May know that she would be given the role before she entered her twenties. “I was so shocked when I got cast. I really thought that I was going to dance her maybe five years from now – when I am stronger, older and more mature.”
Like her Mercedes-sister, Abi started out as one of the village folk in the company's productions of Carmen. "My first exposure to the ballet was during my first five days here (in Manila)," recalls Abi, who, back in 2013, had flown in all the way from Melbourne to the Philippines to start a career in ballet.
“I was shocked because I had only been here for a few days and they already wanted me to perform on stage! And, because I was too busy studying my roles, I didn't get to see Carmen that much. All I could tell from the sides of the Aliw [Theater] stage was that it was very dramatic."
Her rather indifferent reaction to the Carmen ballet changed when BM restaged it in 2016. Being more familiar with the ways of the company by then, Abi allowed herself to watch the dancers and absorb what really happened to their characters.
"I remember watching it during rehearsals and I was like, 'Oh my God, so this is how Carmen looks like!'" shares Abi, looking back at the time when she finally became a “convert”. "To me, it was an amazing Carmen – the way Tito Eric [V. Cruz, BM’s first artistic director] choreographed it – because it was full of drama, but didn't sacrifice the ballet part. Yes, I know that there's the classical Carmen which is very technical; but it just didn't have the same draw as this one! This one brought you into the story and I became hooked. Every time that I could, I'd sit down in the front [of the theater] to watch it.”
Abi admits that she especially adored how Carmen was performed by former BM principal dancer Dawna Mangahas and soloist Mark Sumaylo, who happens to be her boyfriend in real life now. "They're my favorite Carmen-Don Jose pair. They really tugged at my heart," expresses the ballerina. "When I watched them, I remember wanting to dance Carmen with Mark as my Don Jose. Actually, that was the first thing on my list: to dance Carmen opposite Mark as Don Jose, because I wanted his level of commitment and dedication to the character. And, the second thing was to dance the role of Carmen."
Excitement obviously enveloped Abi when she found out that her dream to be cast as Carmen opposite Mark as Don Jose was actualized. To make sure the opportunity did not slip her by, she never held back getting into her character during practice. "It was a slow learning process though," she puts forward. "Because we were rehearsing everything from Iconic slowly, we would learn the pas de deux bit by bit. We learned the bedroom pas de deux first, then the other parts later, so we weren't able to develop the emotional aspect of it until later."
For Rissa May, who had been partnered with principal dancer Romeo Peralta, the process of turning into Carmen was even slower due to an ankle injury. At one point, she even thought of giving up the role, since she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to polish everything on time. Abi, however, dissuaded her from giving up on a role she had waited a long time for.
"There were many times wherein all I could do was watch Abi and Mark in the studio," says the teenager. "I saw the fire between her and Mark, and that inspired me! If they could produce that fire, I told myself that I'd love for it to happen with me and Romeo."
Rissa May makes a comparison that like her, Romeo, who also began as a scholar with BM, grew up with many productions of Carmen. "I think Kuya Romeo was even part of the very first Carmen of BM! He was still a kid back then, and because he grew up with more Carmens, he knew more than me and really helped every step of the way."
Analytical as ever, she specifies, "Where he helped me the most is in the technique. He's more advanced than me, so he would give me tips on where to put my hands or where to put my weight. And, he helped me connect with his character. May mga times na sasabihin ko sa kanya, ‘Di ko pa siya feel, Kuya. Di ko pa mailabas si Carmen.’ At sasagutin niya ako, ‘Okay lang, iunti-unti lang natin. Lalabas rin siya.’ Walang time na pinabayaan niya ako! (There were times when I would tell him, ‘I don’t feel her yet. I can’t release the Carmen in me yet.’ And he would answer, ‘That’s okay, let’s dance it little by little. Soon, she’ll come out.’ There wasn't a time wherein he didn't contribute to the growth of my Carmen!) Even in the times when I couldn't dance because of an injury, Kuya Romeo was still so supportive."
Abi echoes Rissa May's view that absorbing the controversial character of Carmen had much to do with her partner. “Honestly, I don't think my Carmen would be Carmen if Mark wasn't my Don Jose. He enhanced my Carmen. Because we're in a relationship, we could hear and understand each other without speaking. So, on stage, I could ‘hear’ what he's saying as Don Jose. We're both really into our characters, so everything – from the lovemaking scene to the death scene – felt so real.”
The older of the two Carmens even discloses, “In fact, there was a time in rehearsal when Mark even told Jay [Janolo, BM’s ballet master] that if we were to run Carmen one more time, he'd end up in a mental hospital because of a heartbreak. It really was just too real for us. It's too brutal for us. That's the difference between Carmen and other ballets. It doesn't just look intense, it feels intense.”
While Rissa May doesn’t have a danseur for a boyfriend, she can relate to Abi’s experience of drawing motivation from a healthy relationship. "My Mark has always been supportive too," she shares. "He's not one of those guys na dahil lang hindi siya nasa ballet, hindi niya ako naiintindihan (that because he’s not in ballet, he doesn’t understand my world). When I told him that Carmen was my dream role – ito yu'ng time na bago pa lang kami (during the time when our relationship just started) – he researched the role of Carmen. He used to comment, 'Ang fierce ng character, at may boys ka!’” (The character is fierce, and you’ve got boys!)
This interest in the ballet that his girlfriend loved at first sight just grew when Rissa May was given the role. "He'd ask everyday how my rehearsal for Carmen went. And, he even asked me who'll be my Don Jose. See? He really knows who Carmen is! He really has been one of my inspirations. He understood that if I love Carmen, he should love her too."
On the day Rissa May played the role, her boyfriend Mark Quiroga made sure that he was present, despite having to leave that night for Italy for work. In addition, the young seaman "conspired" with other company members to surprise his ballerina girlfriend with a bouquet of flowers during the curtain call. Even BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso was in on the plan.
Asked if they are anything like the stage character, Abi points out that she is as determined as Carmen to get what she wants in life. “The difference between us is, to get what I want, I would do it quietly, and Carmen would do it brutally and badly. I would say, ‘If you don't like me, then fine!’ Carmen would say, 'I don't really care what you think.’”
“Like Abi, I am Carmen in a way,” comments Rissa May. “Carmen is very straightforward and if she wants something, hindi siya talaga nagpapatalo (she will keep on fighting until she gets it). I'm like that, too. Perhaps the only difference from Abi is that I think I'm capable of [physically] fighting like Carmen.”
She shares that when she slapped Don Jose in the fighting scene, she hit Romeo harder than she had planned. “Everyone heard it when my hand hit his face! That's something I could do again if I have a principle na babanggain mo! (that you’re challenging!). Minus the sins and bad attitude, Carmen inspires me. I admire how she fights for what she wants.”
Were they contented with the way their Carmen turned out then? Abi replies, “What I did onstage was more than what I expected to feel and more than what I expected to happen. In my previous roles, I would fall short in technique, but it wasn't like that for Carmen. It surpassed everything. I will do it all over again.”
“I'm surprised that we're feeling the same thing," Rissa May comments after hearing Abi’s answer. "I guess this just shows na nasa tamang pag-iisip ako (that I have the right mindset) for Carmen. But yes, I had my doubts too about Carmen, but on the day of the show, I just told myself, 'After all the rehearsals, ngayon ka pa ba kakabahan? Kung mag-gi-give-up ka, puwede bang bukas na lang?’ (Would it be now that I’d get nervous? If you’re going to give up, can you just do it tomorrow when the show is over?) And so, I did Carmen, and I'm willing to do it again. I will “die” to dance her again."