How Sayaka Ishibashi made ballet her ‘mission possible’
By Jv Ramos
The career of a ballet dancer is short, so as soon as a young lady realizes that she'd like to be a professional ballerina, it would be wise for her to undergo the best possible training – even if it means moving away from home.
Ballet Manila company artist Sayaka Ishibashi already knew early on that performing in ballet productions was what she wanted to do. With that goal in mind, she was already making big life decisions even before her 16th birthday.
Born in Japan, this charming talent reveals that since the beginning, she had always been obsessed with ballet. "As a child, I got so inspired watching my older sister do ballet, so I asked my parents when I could start," begins the youthful-looking dancer. "I guess they noticed how much I really wanted to dance, so they just enrolled me. I was three when I started taking ballet, and it just became something that I always wanted to continue."
By "always wanted", she really means that her desire to attend ballet classes was unconditional. When she experienced her first injury, nine-year-old Sayaka could still be found in the studio watching the other kids dance with a look of longing. "That's when I decided to make a career out of ballet, because that's when I realized how much I really loved it! Even if I was hurting, all I could think of was dancing ballet."
Hungry to make up for lost time, this ballerina jumped into as many classes and workshops as she could as a tween. "In Hiroshima, where I grew up, I would run to the bus stop every day after school. There, I would meet my grandfather who carried a bag with all my ballet stuff," reminisces Sayaka. "I would immediately exchange my school bag with the bag he would bring to me and hop into the bus. I didn't care what [childhood] activity I was missing. All I cared about was getting to ballet class."
Her eagerness to learn was, of course, noticed; and soon, a Japanese dance teacher advised her to audition for the Central School of Ballet in London. "I was in my fifth month of high school when I stopped [my formal education] to move to England for ballet," says Sayaka, now 23. "When my parents found out that I got in, they were really happy and supportive of me. And, I was all like, 'Oh yeah, let's go to England!' It was all so easy for me then. But now that I think about it, I'm like, 'Whoa! That's such a big deal!'"
Sayaka's moving away at age 14 became especially alarming as she would spend a year in England just recovering from surgeries. Like many hard-working ballerinas, she was not spared from developing an extra bone in her ankles, which brought her great pain.
The Ballet Manila dancer narrates, "At first, it was only one ankle, then just when I was about to completely recover, the other ankle began hurting. Since I already knew that [the] recovery [period] takes long, I just had my second ankle injected for the extra bone to melt. That didn't work, so I went through another surgery."
Sayaka muses, "It was a difficult time, but I learned a lot from that." Among the important lessons she learned from being derailed was to listen to her body. "There were times when I pushed myself too hard, and that only kept me away from dancing for a longer period. The pain just kept coming back... Indeed, even if I experienced one surgery after another, my dream of becoming a professional ballerina never changed."
She notes that her injuries never made her feel depressed. Instead, what brought her down was missing out on ballet. "Right after graduation, I sent my resumé and video to over 100 companies all around the world! I really didn't care where I would go, I just really wanted to be part of a ballet company. Out of the hundred, only five to six responded and not all of them were positive. In short, I didn't really get anything and I became so upset!"
Familiar with Sayaka's perseverance and ability to get through an adverse situation, the Central School of Ballet deputy director contacted the Orlando Ballet School in Florida and recommended her. "Because I missed the open auditions period of the company, I had to begin there as a trainee. If you’re a trainee, you’re not getting paid to dance. I was sad about that, but I just thought that it was a good opportunity for me to be there."
Dedicated as ever, this ballerina, at the end of every year, would receive a promotion. But after her third year with the Orlando Ballet School, her contract was no longer renewed, and Sayaka had to go back to sending applications everywhere. More companies replied this time, but their offers seemed to dismiss this hardworking artist’s experience.
"It was around this time when I decided to enter Jackson," discloses Sayaka. "I had my share of ballet competitions before, but the USA International Ballet Competition was the biggest one I had ever joined." She recalls that unlike many of the other participants, she didn't feel as nervous about competing. More than the results of the competition, she was eyeing the morning classes being offered as these were being observed by directors of ballet companies.
"Because I wanted to get to class early, there was a time I got into an accident while catching the morning bus to get to the venue.” At age nine, Sayaka still went to the studio watching other dancers as she was waiting for her injury to heal. At age 22, she was participating in a ballet class with a bleeding wound! Laughing, she continues, "They wanted to take me to the hospital, but I insisted on taking class! I was just pushing myself each day."
How Sayaka eventually found her way to Ballet Manila was the result of a series of random events. First, co-artistic director Osias Barroso, who was there to coach the junior pair of Ballet Manila, spoke to her out of nowhere in Jackson – only to tell Sayaka that she looked like a former student and dancer of his. "I took that as a compliment and thanked him. Then after, when I was taking another class, I saw him taking a video of me! He probably was going to send it to someone and say that I look like one of his former dancers," quips Sayaka.
Soon after, she came across Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, and grabbed the chance to say that she was looking for job opportunities. That exchange with the prima ballerina and Sayaka's entire time in Jackson, however, didn't set any dancing job in stone – although she did emerge as a finalist in the acclaimed .”Olympics of Ballet”.
"I thought of just going back home to Japan after, but then, Ma’am Lisa messaged me on Facebook, saying that there were open auditions for the company." Always the trooper, Sayaka immediately packed her bags and headed to Manila.
"Apprehensions? There were none! My parents were just really happy for me. That's because they knew that I was close to quitting. When no job opportunity came to me, I really thought of giving up on ballet, making a career out of something else."
Having spent seven years in England and in the United States, Sayaka had a lot of adjusting to do in the Philippines. First on her list was her living situation. "When I found out that I was going to be living with five other people, I admit, I was a bit worried. I've always lived on my own and I'm the type of person who needs her alone time."
But when this Japanese ballerina met the five other dancers she would be rooming with, she transitioned from being worried to being grateful. "I could just have that alone time in the gym or at the ballet studio! Living with five people who are your good friends, is very fun. I really love it.”
As for the ballet part, Sayaka, who initially had been accepted as a member of BM’s second company, had to “unlearn” the ballet methods she picked up during her stay in London and Florida. "I will never forget my first class here in Ballet Manila," declares the ballerina. What felt like two or three hours of dance class was really just 15 minutes of Vaganova! I was never exposed to it, so [learning] it really was difficult. I remember my hip hurting after my first class, and the day after, my whole body was in pain!"
Sayaka opted to take two classes a day to absorb Ballet Manila’s training method faster. She decided that even if Vaganova is hard and painful, this may be what could bring out her full potential as a ballerina. And, she was right! Soon, Sayaka found herself dancing better than she ever did before.
Her extra efforts and quick progress were soon noticed and rewarded. After just three season productions, Sayaka would find out she had been promoted to BM's main company – a life-changing announcement which was just as random as Lisa's invitation for her to come to the Philippines via Facebook.
She shares the story of how her promotion was revealed to her: "I did a guesting in the USA last December. And when I came back, Ma’am Lisa took me aside and asked me, 'Have you heard? Has anyone told you?' I had no clue what she was referring to. Then, she surprised me with the news that I'd be a first company artist starting January 2019."
Despite the confirmation that she had caught up with her peers in terms of technique, Sayaka's ways have not changed. She can still be found taking two classes a day, on top of rehearsals, gym sessions and assorted performances in a week. Instead of complaining about the workload of Ballet Manila, Sayaka is embracing every bit of it. "Dancing, rehearsing and performing a lot has always been something that I've wanted to do. So, whatever they give me, I just go for it! I'm really just like, 'Give it to me!'"
There’s no doubt that her can-do attitude contributed to her being cast in several numbers in the company's season-ender Deux. Aside from joining the corps de ballet in the classic Chopiniana, she was granted two pas de deux numbers – Flames of Paris, which she performs with Asian Grand Prix and CCP Ballet Competition medalist Rafael Perez; and Diana et Acteon, which she dances with guest artist and USA IBC awardee Hyuma Kiyosawa.
Sayaka loves turning herself into a sylph and dancing to Frederic Chopin's beautiful music in Chopiniana. She expresses how appreciative she is for every role that the company assigns her.
True to her word, when Sayaka is asked about her dream role, she answers Juliet, but is quick to note that she's living her dream already. "I'm just very happy being here,” reiterates the ballerina. “I'm very happy that I get to dance and perform a lot here. I'm so excited that I’m able to continue ballet and learn more modern and contemporary styles."