Nanami Hasegawa: Braving Manila for ballet
By Jv Ramos
A fun fact about Ballet Manila company artist Nanami Hasegawa is that she never really lived in the country she was born in. At just three months of age, she moved to Shanghai from her birthplace, Osaka, Japan, as her father's business was in China. All throughout her childhood and adolescent years, her family moved to other Asian cities based on her father’s work.
"Yes, I'd say that I've been a traveler all my life," confirms this merry 19-year-old individual who, before joining the company in 2017, lived first in Singapore and then in Hong Kong.
So, how did ballet fit into her family’s expatriate living? Nanami shares that it had always been a constant in her life ever since she began taking classes as a toddler. “My mom was a dancer, so I wanted to follow her. I was four when I first told her that I wanted to take up ballet. Because I was too young, she didn’t take me seriously.”
Her mother let a year pass to check if Nanami would still feel the same way about the dance form, and when this was confirmed, her parents surrendered. Nanami was enrolled in her first set of classes when she was five. “That was during one summer in Japan, and I just kept doing ballet as I got older… I’m usually the type of person who gets easily bored, but I never felt that way about ballet. In ballet, I would always find something new that I could work on.”
It was only at the age of ten, however, that she took ballet more seriously, and this had to do with her family moving to Singapore. In the ballet school she entered there, classes were held regularly, which allowed her to gain more knowledge about ballet and track her progress. In addition, the school gave its students the opportunity to watch professional ballet companies. “When the school celebrated its tenth anniversary, they invited a professional ballet company from Japan to perform, and it was after watching them when I decided that ballet would be my career.”
To be able to make it to the professional scene, Nanami – who was 12 at that time -- doubled the classes she attended per week, did extra rehearsals, and practiced on her own when the ballet classes ended. “I also watched a lot of YouTube videos if there was a specific ballet I was working on, so that I could learn and take inspiration from these,” she expresses.
Nanami worked hard day after day, and continued her habit of training for ballet six times a week when the family settled in Hong Kong. There, Mr. Soh Hon Wah, the chairman of the Asian Grand Prix (AGP) became her ballet teacher. It only made sense that she would participate in the international competition that he was spearheading.
"I competed at the AGP every year since 2012,” says the independent young lady. “I did that because I loved being on stage and the competition was another opportunity to do that. Being part of a school performance every year just wasn't enough for me. I wanted to be on stage more.”
Nanami reveals that it was in this international competition that she was first exposed to Ballet Manila. “It all began at the AGP,” she confirms. “I learned about the company through Rissa May [Camaclang, also a BM company artist]. We've been friends since 2013, the year she won silver and I took the bronze. I noticed back then that there were so many competitors from Ballet Manila.”
She continues that back in 2014, she wondered what it would be like to part of the company. “I remember thinking that it would be fun to join Ballet Manila, because every time their dancers would perform, it seemed that they were having so much fun on stage. And I wanted to experience that."
Despite eyeing Ballet Manila for two years, it was only in 2016 that Nanami’s dream became possible. As she was waiting for the elevator in the venue of the AGP, a woman approached her and asked if she was the one who did the Giselle variation. When she answered yes, the woman's next question was: Are you interested in becoming a professional ballerina?
"That was Ma'am Lise [BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde] who spoke to me," she reveals. "She told me that she didn't have her name card with her, but if I was interested in Ballet Manila and coming to the Philippines for ballet, I could just contact her!"
Since the invitation happened so fast and at an unexpected time, the dancer couldn't wrap her head around the fact that she had just gotten an invitation from the professional company she wanted to join.
"My mom, who was beside me waiting for the elevator, was literally frozen [in shock]. It was during the AGP gala, when Sir Shaz [BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso] gave me his name card that we finally understood what was going on." But because she was still in high school at that time, Nanami couldn't make the big move immediately. "I got shocked when Ma'am Lise told me that she'll wait for me to finish high school. I thought she would withdraw her offer."
It took a year after that elevator incident for this Japanese ballerina to finally come to the Philippines. "I arrived two days before the first show of [Ibong] Adarna," she reminisces. "And since Pia [Dames, a BM soloist] got dengue fever, I had to replace her. I had to learn the dance in two days!" Other newbies would have found this instant assignment daunting, but all Nanami could think was, "Oh, this is so perfect! I've always wanted to perform on stage more."
Asked if she had any apprehensions about moving to Manila, a city that's not as progressive as the other places in Asia she's lived in, she replies, "The first time I came here, I was like, 'How am I gonna live here?' I was really shocked. I grew up in cities that were busy, organized and clean. So Manila scared me a bit. I wanted to back out, but as soon as I entered the studio and saw familiar faces from AGP, I decided that I wasn't here for the city. I was here for ballet."
Nanami has already experienced dancing seven major productions with the company, several tours around the Philippines, and performing in an international festival in Israel -- all of which she just embraced as she's living her dream of performing in front of audiences more often.
She reviews her journey of nearly two years: "Being here is fun and tough. Tough because I wasn't trained in the Vaganova style. There were times before when I'd look at the mirror and see myself different from everybody else. At one point, I wanted to give up. I cried to my mom, because I didn't think that I could catch up with the rest."
"Swan Lake was the worst time for me," she shares. "That's when I discovered that I didn't know how to line up. In the performances I was part of before, I was the shortest, so everyone had to line up behind me. Here, there are people who are in front of me, and even if I think that I'm following the line, I'm always off!"
Nanami adds that it was in the Swan Lake rehearsals where she learned the most important Filipino term for ballet dancers. "They kept saying 'sabay-sabay' which means we have to do it all together. I really couldn’t keep up at first."
Due to this long adjustment period, there came a point when she thought of quitting on her ballet dream. “But my mom and I knew that I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want to come back to Ballet Manila because I was having a difficult time. It wasn’t because I didn’t love ballet anymore!”
Upon recognizing that she struggles out of love for her art, Nanami just welcomed more and more challenges, including learning to dance with difficult costume components, such as heavy animal masks for the fairytale ballets and high heels for the pirate adventure Le Corsaire. The latter, as this ballerina would point out, was especially traumatizing as she witnessed Rissa May twist her ankle while dancing in the heeled shoes. “I walked everywhere with those shoes, so I could get used to it!”
Of course, there was also the challenge of learning several of the company's classical and contemporary dances from both Filipino and foreign choreographers. Nanami comments, "The thing with learning new choreography is it's not just about memorizing the steps. I also have to learn how to perform it. So when there's a lot of pieces to learn, I admit, I tend to mix up things and panic!"
To calm herself, Nanami lists down all the steps in her notebook. “When things are written down, I'm able to focus and not worry about all the dances at once… Yes, being here in Ballet Manila is exhausting. It involves a lot of brain work, but I keep going because I love ballet. I'm here struggling, because I want to improve. I’m here struggling, because I love ballet."
Very observant of the things happening around her, Nanami expresses that she has no right to complain as her load is nothing compared to principal danseur Gerardo Francisco’s. “He’s one of my ballet inspirations. I don’t know how he’s able to do all of it. He’s still the most powerful danseur here. And, aside from dancing, he choreographs and after all our rehearsals, he’s busy with his cooking. When I see him do all these things, I get motivated to work harder.”
Regarding her dream role, she hopes to dance in full length the character which caught her artistic director Lisa’s attention. “I’d love to experience dancing Giselle. That’s my favorite ballet, especially its second act.”
“Yes, it’s been a good year and a half here,” Nanami concludes, putting on her charming smile. “And, while I miss things back home, like people coming on time, the food, no traffic, and being able to safely walk everywhere, I’m excited to experience more with Ballet Manila.”