Company artist Rodney Catubay on going with the flow of ballet
By Jv Ramos
Every danseur’s journey begins with an audition, and while Rodney Catubay and his friends willingly showed up for the tryouts that the Academy One Music and Dance Center organized in the Tuloy Sa Don Bosco foundation, none of them knew that it was for ballet.
“Ang sabi po nila ay hip-hop audition po iyon,” reminisces Rodney, now a Ballet Manila company artist, who was only 14 at that time. “So, nagulat po ako na puro stretching at frog seat ang pinapagawa sa amin. Noong time na iyon, hindi ko alam kung normal ang mga iyon sa hip-hop, so nag-go with the flow na lang ako.” (They told us that it was a hip-hop audition. So I got shocked when they were asking us to stretch and do the frog seat. At that time, I wasn’t sure if those moves were normal to hip-hop, so I just went along with the flow.)
It was only at the end of the audition that the truth was revealed – that Academy One was not scouting for students to take hip-hop. The visit of Jeffrey Espejo and Pamela Asprer, faculty members of Academy One and who were Ballet Manila pioneers, to Tuloy Sa Don Bosco was meant to find and train a new generation of ballet dancers.
Being clueless about the dance form, Rodney went with the flow again. "Na-curious ako kung ano ang ballet, so tinuloy ko kahit hindi hip-hop, at doon na nagsimula ang lahat.” (I was curious about what ballet is, so I pushed through with the classes even if these were not hip-hop, and that’s where it all started.)
'Yung curiosity ko ang naging motivation ko. Noong time na iyon kasi hindi ko alam talaga kung ano ang ballet. Ang alam ko lang ay ang sabi-sabi na ito ay pang-gay. Itinuloy ko lang kasi curious ako at naisip ko na gusto ko rin salihan ito.” (It was my curiosity that motivated me to pursue ballet. During that time, I really knew nothing about it. All I knew about ballet had to do with hearsay – that it was only for gay people. Because I was curious about it, I wanted to join and see for myself what ballet really is.)
So, how did his first ballet class go? Rodney remembers that he wasn't nervous at all. "Wala kasi akong ideya kung ano ang ginagawa sa ballet, at kami-kami lang naman po ang nandoon. So, masaya lang talaga kaming nagka-klase." (That’s because I had no clue what was being done in ballet and because I was with people that I knew. So, I was just really enjoying my time in class.)
This easy-breezy feeling of taking dance classes with friends continued on until the classes demanded more and more difficult skills. "Noong una, stretching-stretching lang. Tapos nang tumagal na, ayun, pahirap na nang pahirap. Gusto ko nang tumigil. Feeling ko rin kasi na hindi na normal ang ginagawa namin. Ang pag-split kunyari, hindi naman normal iyan sa mga lalaki." (At first, it was all about stretching. But as time passed, classes became more and more difficult. I wanted to quit. Aside from the difficulty, I also felt that what we were doing wasn’t normal. For example, doing splits wasn’t something guys would normally do.)
Sounding relieved, this danseur narrates, "Mabuti na lang, laging nandiyan si Sir Jeff para mag-motivate. Lagi niyang sinasabi sa akin, 'Susuko ka lang ba?' Syempre ayaw ko, so itinuloy-tuloy ko lang. Kahit nahihirapan, work hard lang!" (It’s a good thing that Sir Jeff kept motivating me. He kept telling me, ‘Are you just gonna quit?’ Of course, I didn’t want to be a quitter, so I just kept trying and trying. Even if it was difficult, I just kept working hard.)
After a fruitful three to four years with Academy One, which included appearances in competitions and performances, the time came for Rodney to make the move from a school to a professional ballet company. And, since Sir Jeff had been one of Ballet Manila's finest danseurs, it only made sense that Rodney enter the company where his mentor came from.
"Kabado po ako sa BM audition ko. Ang naiisip ko ay may ine-expect sila akin at sobrang kinakabahan ako na hindi mo magagawa ang expectation na iyon." (I was so nervous during my BM audition. I kept thinking that they were expecting something from me and I was so nervous about not being able to deliver).
It was during this audition when he first encountered Osias "Shaz" Barroso, Ballet Manila co-artistic director and the one responsible for producing the company’s finest danseurs. "Ang first impression ko sa kanya ay parang si Sir Jeff siya. Pareho sila kasing tumayo at lumakad." (My first impression of Sir Shaz was he’s very much like Sir Jeff. They stand the same way and walk the same way.) Here, Rodney adds that while both are very strict, especially in the dancer’s first classes with them, they are also the ones who encourage their students to be better.
Accepted as company trainee of BM after the auditions, Rodney notes that he still couldn’t get over the nerves. "Sobrang kinabahan ako sa first day ko. Naiisip ko kasi na magiging pabigat ako sa iba." (I was also very nervous during my first day here. I kept thinking that I would just be a burden to the dancers here.)
But just like in the ballet school where he came from, there were people who motivated him to keep going. "Sina Kuya Mark [Sumaylo], Romeo [Peralta] at Glenn [Ragel] - pinaramdam nila talaga sa akin na welcome ako dito sa BM. Sinabi nila sa akin na huwag dapat akong mahiya at ipagpatuloy lang kasi nga kaya ko naman." (Kuya Mark, Romeo and Glenn - they really made me feel welcome here in BM. They kept telling me to not be shy and kept encouraging me to work hard because I, too, could do what they do.)
While Rodney had the advantage of being trained in the Vaganova method since the beginning, he admits that he still had a difficult time adjusting to the company's ways. "Sa Academy One kasi, paisa-isa lang ang mga shows. Dito, sunod-sunod," he laughs. "Pero, naging okay naman kasi sobrang enjoy naman ako." (In Academy One, we would have one show here and there. Here in the company, it’s one show after another. But, that’s all right. I really enjoy it here.)
To date, Rodney’s most memorable production has been Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang, which also happened to be his first performance as a professional danseur. "Trainee pa lang ako noon. Naalala ko na ang dami kong sinayaw at na-enjoy ko talaga." (I was just a trainee back then. I danced so many parts and I really enjoyed my time.)
Two promotions later, Rodney, who’s now 21, claims that he still very much delights in performing the Lola Basyang ballets due to its narratives and the way the audience reacts to these.
Regarding his journey across the many classical offerings of Ballet Manila, Rodney reveals that his first ever was Satanella, and that if he had to choose between classical and contemporary, he would choose the former. "Kay Sir Jeff ako kasi nanggaling, so puro classical talaga ang mga sinayaw ko doon. Di rin po ako masyadong kumportable sa mga movements ng contemporary." (I came from Sir Jeff, so I’m really classically trained. I am also not too comfortable with the movements done in contemporary.)
It's not surprising therefore that Rodney's dream roles are Prince Désiré from Sleeping Beauty and Prince Siegfried from Swan Lake. "Prince Désiré kasi gusto ko 'yung story niya at 'yung mga galaw niya ay pang-prince talaga. Ganu’n din po sa Swan Lake prince." (Prince Désiré is my dream role because I like his story and his movements are very princely. Same with the Swan Lake prince.)
Speaking of Swan Lake, Rodney has a special connection to this iconic ballet. In 2016, all the numbers he performed at the Asian Grand Prix, where he placed 5th in the Senior B category, were excerpts from the said classical ballet. "Okay naman po ang experience ko sa AGP. Ginawa ko naman po ang best ko po." (My experience at the AGP was okay. I did my best.)
"Opo, kinakabahan po talaga ako kapag competition, pero palakasan lang ng loob! Iniisip ko rin ang lahat ng ginagawa namin sa practice. Sayang naman ang lahat ng iyon kung kakabahan lang ako. So, kahit anong mangyari, laban lang para sulit ang practice." (Yes, I get very nervous when competing, but I just gather all my courage! I also think about all the practice we’ve done. I don’t want those to go to waste. So whatever happens, I fight so that all may hard work isn’t for nothing.)
Though clearly serious about ballet, Rodney sees to it that his time with Ballet Manila also involves some downtime with his fellow dancers. "Nahiligan namin kumanta, so bumuo po kami ng music group – kami po nina Paeng [Rafael Perez], Joshua [Enciso], JC [Johnn Carl Concepcion], at sumali na rin si Emmerson [Evangelio]. Gusto namin 'yung mga kanta ng IV of Spades, so kami naman ang IV of Hearts," he chuckles. "April lang kami nag-start, at dahil marami talagang ginagawa this year, hindi madalas ang pag-practice namin." (We got interested in singing, so we came up with our own music group – at first, it was just me, Paeng, Joshua and JC, and then Emmerson joined in too. We like the songs of IV of Spades, so we named ourselves IV of Hearts. We started our band this April, but since this year’s schedule has been so busy, we hardly have the time to practice.)
Despite their lack of jamming sessions, it’s obvious that Rodney's bond with his peers is very strong, giving him more reason to come to the studio every day. Apart from the friendships, Ballet Manila has given him plenty of danseurs to look up to.
“Idol ko sina Kuya Rudolph [Capongcol], Sir Rudy [De Dios], Sir Geri [Gerardo Francisco], Kuya [Elpidio] Magat,” he enumerates without pausing to think. “Ang gusto ko sa kanila ay ang presence nila onstage – kung paano sila mag-act at pati na rin ang ang pag-partner nila. Ang mga tricks, mga pagtalon at pag-ikot ay kayang makuha sa practice. Pero ang pag-mime at pag-asikaso sa partner, mahirap makuha ang mga iyan.” (My idols are Kuya Rudolph, Sir Rudy, Sir Geri and Kuya Magat. What I like about them is their presence – the way they act and the way they partner. Tricks such as the high jumps and turns can be mastered through practice. But doing mimes and being attentive to your partner can be challenging.)
Rodney, of course, doesn’t fail to mention the man who introduced him to ballet and the one who convinced him that there’s a future in it, Sir Jeff. Other than having the stage presence, his first teacher readied him for the big stage.
“Dalawang lessons mula kay Sir Jeff ang tumatak sa akin,” Rodney shares. “Una ay ‘laban lang’ at ang pangalawa naman ay ‘habang pagod’. Kahit anong mangyari, kailangan mong lumaban sa ballet. At kahit sobrang pagod na, kung may next na sayaw, gawin mo pa rin dapat nang maayos.” (There are two great lessons that Sir Jeff taught me. The first is ‘keep fighting’ and the second is ‘even when you’re tired’. Whatever happens, you have to fight to be in ballet. And even if you’re very exhausted, if there’s a next dance, you have to perform it well.)
Never one to complain about the demands and requirements of being a BM company artist, we asked Rodney what he finds particularly challenging about the career he chose. “Kung ang iba hirap magpapayat, ako naman ay hirap sa pagpapalaki ng katawan.” (If others find it difficult to lose their weight, I have a problem with gaining weight.)
The danseur shares that him being one of the tallest talents in BM is never noticed due to his thin frame. “Iyan ang laging sinasabi sa akin ni Sir Shaz – na kailangan kong magkalaman. Nang sinabi ko ito sa aking nanay, ang sagot niya ay, ‘Siguro magiging solid ka lang. Pero ang magkaroon ng laman, di yata. Dahil mula bata, di pa kita nakitang tumaba.’ So, Christmas season man o kahit anong season, wala akong food restrictions. Iyun nga lang, hirap akong mapalaki ng katawan, which is talagang kailangan kung senior danseur ka na.” (That’s what Sir Shaz tells me – that I have to gain muscle. When I told this to my mom, she replied, ‘I think you’ll just firm up. But gain weight? I don’t think that’s possible. Since you were little, you’ve had a fat phase.’ So, be it Christmas season or any season, I really don’t have food restrictions. That’s cool but I really find it difficult to develop muscles. If you’re a senior danseur, that’s really needed.)
Despite the setback of fighting his genes, Rodney – as always – just goes with the flow. He regularly hits the gym to ready his body for more years of ballet.
Asked to give advice to boys who would like to take up ballet, Rodney notes that like him, they should begin with enjoying the classes first. “Pero, habang nag-e-enjoy, kailangan nilang makinig sa teachers. Magagamit nila iyan kasi kapag nag-decide silang seryosohin talaga ang ballet. Mahalaga dito ang pakikinig.” (But while you’re enjoying, you have to listen. Because if you do decide to take ballet seriously, all the lessons you listened to will pay off. In ballet, it’s important that you listen.)