Prized pliés: Ballet Manila’s AGP winners share the stories behind the medals

Prized pliés: Ballet Manila’s AGP winners share the stories behind the medals

Brian Sevilla and Rafael Perez agree that competitions test not just a dancer’s physical skills but also his mental game. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

By Jv Ramos

The thing about watching a ballet performance is that it's easy to overlook the amount of work dancers go through to be able to do what they do. Their seemingly effortless execution of one step to another, combined with a broad smile, makes us dismiss that what they do is a breeze, when in fact it has taken them years to be ready for the stage.

Such misconception is especially true for ballet dancers with an award attached to their name. People think that because they've performed better than the rest, they never go through the same struggles. Ballet Manila's Brian Sevilla and Rafael Perez – danseurs who garnered the gold and silver in their respective divisions in the recently concluded Asian Grand Prix 2018 in Hong Kong – claim that their AGP journey involved many challenges, especially when it came to their mental game.

Brian Sevilla receives his Junior B gold medal from Asian Grand Prix juror Ou Lu, tying with Christiana de Blank of Hong Kong (right). At the back, Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde (right side, in blue) can be seen applauding. Photo courtesy of Asian Grand Prix

Since 16-year-old Brian bagged silver in the same international competition last year, he was aware that people expected more from him. "Mas nakaka-pressure talaga ngayon," says the teenager as he looked back at his past two AGP experiences. "Dahil nanalo na po ako ng silver, kailangan kong i-maintain o kaya naman mas mahigitan." (The pressure was really on this year. Because I had already won silver, I had to maintain that standing or improve on it).

Brian admits it was difficult to shake off this kind of pressure as he observed that there were even better competitors this year. "Ibang-iba po ang quality nila. Lalo na po ang mga babae. Marami pong magagaling sa kanila." (The quality of dancers this year is even better. Especially when it comes to the girls. Many of the girls are exceptional).

As for Rafael, since it was his first AGP participation, he knew that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so the pressure took time to really kick in. He begins his story with: "Noong buong AGP po, hindi po ako kinakabahan. Nag-e-enjoy lang po ako, lalo na po sa mga klase. Feeling ko nga po na mga kaklase ko lang sila sa BM." (Throughout the AGP, I really wasn’t nervous. I was just enjoying myself, especially during the classes. I felt that I was just with my classmates in BM).

Rafael Perez receives his Senior silver medal from Asian Grand Prix juror Jae Keun Park in last August’s awarding program in Hong Kong. He tied with Japanese ballerina Yuko Nojo. Photo courtesy of Asian Grand Prix

 Rafael's point of view is especially admirable, as the competitive spirit could really be felt in the Senior division where he was competing. The two young danseurs share that the vibe among the juniors was friendlier, whereas among the seniors, there was a more competitive feel.

"Pumasok lang ang kaba nu’ng semi-finals na! Kitang-kita mo na kasi na piling-pili na kami. Puro magagaling na ang tumapak sa Hong Kong," notes Rafael, who danced the Basilio Variation from Don Quixote. (The tension only kicked in during the semi-finals. It was then when I noticed that the competitors who made it to Hong Kong were the best of the best, and I was competing with them).

Brian, despite being experienced in competitions, also felt the jitters during the semi-finals. Being the last one to compete in the Junior B division, he couldn't help but think how unlucky his situation was. Everyone was done for the day and there he was just about to take the stage to dance the Franz Variation from Coppelia. "Ang sabi ko na lang sa sarili ko, 'Bahala na si God. Basta gagawin ko ang best ko.' Hindi ko na rin po inisip kung mananalo o matatalo ako. Ang nasa isip ko na lang ay ang sinasayaw ko." (What I told myself was, ‘I’ll leave God to take care of me. What I will simply do is my best.’ I blocked out all thoughts of winning or losing from my head. I just thought about the dance itself).

Brian felt extra pressure competing in the AGP this year after having won the silver in the same division last year. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Asked if they replayed the advice of their mentor Osias Barroso – who remained in Manila to rehearse dancers for Ballet Manila’s season-opener – in their heads, the two winners say there was no need for it, as he was very much present. Thanks to technology, the competition was streamed live, and the participants were able to initiate video calls with people back home. Brian shares that they would contact “Sir Shaz” every night to get feedback, as well as feel his strict yet encouraging presence despite the distance separating them.

Brian offers us a glimpse of how their teacher-student video calls would go. "Pagkatapos ng semis, tinanong po ako ni Sir, 'Oy, Brian, ang pangalawang turn mo magagawa mo ba iyan bukas sa finals?' Ang sabi ko naman ay, 'Opo, gagawin ko ang best ko. Tapos, sasabihin ni Sir ay, 'Hindi mo dapat gawin ang best mo. Dapat manalo ka!'” (After the semi-finals, Sir Shaz asked, ‘Hey, Brian, that second turn of yours. Do you think that you could do that tomorrow?’ To which I replied, ‘Yes, Sir. I’ll do my best to execute it.’ He then said, ‘Don’t just do your best. Make sure that you win.’)

Giggling, Brian points out that though he was pressured by Barroso's comments, these also got him fired up to do a better routine in the finals.

Rafael didn’t expect to make it to the finals that when he was told he did, he thought his Ballet Manila colleagues were playing a prank on him. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

As for Rafael, what he remembered doing after the semi-finals was finding ways to comfort himself. "Feeling ko nadapa-dapa ako sa semis, so ang lungkot noong gabi. Alam ko po na hindi ako makakapasok sa finals." (I felt that I was so clumsy during the semi-finals, so I was really sad that evening. I knew I had no shot in entering the finals.)

"Hindi na nga siya sumama sa dinner namin dahil sa disappointment niya," confirms Brian. (He was so disappointed about his performance that he didn’t join us for dinner.)

"Nang mag-isa na lang ako at nagse-cell phone, ang sinabi ko na lang sa sarili ko, 'Mabuti na rin. Hindi na ako maglalaba.'" (When I was alone, tinkering with my cell phone, I told myself, ‘Oh well, at least I don’t have to wash my dancewear tonight, since I won’t be competing tomorrow anymore’.)

Rafael had already welcomed the idea that he had already been cut off from the competition that when his teammates informed him that he had actually made it to the finals, he thought that it was all a big prank.

"Akala po niya talaga na binibiro ko siya," says Brian. (He thought that I was kidding about him entering the finals.)

Though feeling the jitters, Rafael says he gave his all in his performances. Photo courtesy of Asian Grand Prix

"Nang nakita ko na po 'yung post, nawala agad ang lungkot ko. Sobrang napangiti talaga ako.” (When I saw the official post, my sadness immediately disappeared. I couldn’t stop smiling). Realizing that he had made it to the finals, the 17-year-old ballet dancer ditched his I-should-have-done-this thoughts about the semi-finals and body-related insecurities, and decided to give everything he had on stage the following day.

At the awarding rites held shortly after the finals, Rafael confessed that due to the stiff competition provided by the senior girls, he once again thought he had no chance of winning. Knowing that he had no more business in the competition, he decided to take a power nap backstage and only snapped to attention when the winners in the Junior Division were already being announced.

Rafael heard that the judges were awarding two golds for the Junior division. "Nu’ng natawag kasi ‘yung unang pangalan, nakita ko na nalungkot ang mukha ni Brian. Pero nang pinaalala ko sa kanya na dalawa nga ang ibibigay ng judges, natuwa siya dahil may chance pa." (When the first gold medalist’s name was called, I could tell that Brian was disappointed that they didn’t call out his name. But when I reminded him that the judges would be awarding two golds, he was again hopeful because he might still have a chance.)

Nu’ng tinawag na ‘yung pangalan ko, muntik pa po akong madapa. Muntik pa ako magkaroon ng injury bago kunin ang gold ko," expresses Brian laughingly. (When they called my name, I almost slipped. I almost injured myself before receiving my gold medal.)

Ballet Manila’s Brian Sevilla and Nicole Barroso were both first-timers at AGP in 2015. Nicole won the silver that year while Brian placed fifth, both in the Junior B division. Photo courtesy of Nicole Barroso

While Brian was receiving his award, Rafael kept clapping and cheering but couldn't ignore the loud thumping of his heart. "Hindi naman kasi mawawala ang feeling na sana nga manalo ka." (Hoping that you’d win in the competition is a natural feeling).

Soon enough, Rafael's number and name was called and like Brian, he dashed happily to the stage to take silver in the Senior division (tying with a Japanese ballerina), his first-ever award in an international competition. "Siguro po, ang pagkapanalo ko ay dahil sa participation ko sa mga klase,” comments Rafael, once again criticizing himself. “Sa mga klase doon kasi, ako ang pinaka-jolly at pinaka-nag-e-enjoy sa pagsasayaw."  (I really feel that I won because of the way I participated in the classes. In class, I was the most jolly and I was enjoying every minute of it.)

Days after their big AGP win, Brian and Rafael found themselves back in the thick of rehearsals for Iconic 1.0 and Iconic 2.0, Ballet Manila’s ambitious season-opener featuring a different repertoire for each weekend and where these junior dancers had been cast.

"Mas doble po ang trabaho ngayon. Marami kaming pinag-aaralang choreography at mahihirap po ang lahat ng ito,” Brian states, referring to BM’s exceptional pieces, Carmen, Reconfigured, Bloom and Ecole, which he and Rafael will take part in. (Our work has doubled now. We’re learning several new choreographies and many of these are difficult to dance.)

Both are also currently waiting for word if they have made it to the list of finalists in the Cultural Center of the Philippines Ballet Competition, to be held in November, based on video submissions.

Clearly, these two medalists have been molded by Osias “Shaz” Barosso, the erstwhile “Ballerina’s Prince”, who would always remind dancers that they’re only as good as their last performance. “You have to start from the beginning. The next day, it's back to your pliés. Yes, it's harsh, but that's the reality of it,” he stresses.

Shaz, however, admits that he became teary-eyed while watching via livestream the boys receiving their medals in Hong Kong. "It was overwhelming. I started training Brian in 2014 [and Rafael in 2016] so nakakatuwa (it’s heartwarming) to see their growth and that you have them to cover the company's future.”

Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso (center) says that Asian Grand Prix 2018 medalists Brian Sevilla (left) and Rafael Perez represent the future of the company and advises them to keep working hard to ensure a long dancing career. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

He discloses that both boys didn’t start out as perfect students. Brian, at one point, didn’t show up for six months; while Rafael as a newbie was asked to leave class for laughing too much. In Brian’s case, though Shaz knew that he could be ready to compete after returning and taking classes more seriously, he didn’t allow him to do so. “If we had fielded him, that would result to him becoming big-headed. He had to wait and work for it.”

Noticing that the boys were beginning to get flattered by his words, the teacher orders them to cover their ears before saying, "I really am proud because this really reflects the training of Ballet Manila. I don't think any company has boys of their ages that could take the stage."

By “take the stage,” Shaz doesn’t mean executing a single variation excellently to medal in an international competition. He means performing to the level that professional danseurs do. "Right now, they're learning the repertoire of the company, so they are good. When you see it [the numbers they're part of], you can tell that they're young due to their bodies, but they can do the choreography."

Upon returning to Manila, Rafael and Brian were back in the thick of rehearsals for Ballet Manila’s 23rd season opening shows, Iconic 1.0 and Iconic 2.0. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

As for what the future holds for Brian and Rafael, Shaz says that the former has the “ultimate strength”. Due to the gold medalist’s height and capability, he is said to have the potential to dance anything. What Brian has to work on, however, is his partnering skills and contemporary dancing as he supposedly the tendency to execute this as if it were still a classical ballet.

Rafael, on the other hand, though he has the technique, is said to have certain limitations when it comes to roles due to his height. Shaz, however, is quick to remind Rafael that he shouldn’t be worried because many vertically-challenged danseurs in Ballet Manila have overcome their deficiencies and have gone on to be associated with iconic roles and are enjoying long and fruitful careers. “Ituloy niyo lang ang ginagawa niyo,” Shaz advises the two teenagers.

“Their generation is set, you know. We started noticing that when their generation went to Vietnam (for a performance in an international festival) last year,” concludes Ballet Manila’s co-artistic director.  “I can let them go because they already have the grounding. What I'm working on now is the generation after them.”

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