Newly promoted principals Pia Dames and Mark Sumaylo: Ready to go beyond their comfort zones
By Jv Ramos
The ultimate goal of every ballet dancer is to be a principal in the company he or she belongs to. But even if Ballet Manila artists Jasmine Pia Dames and Mark Sumaylo are big dreamers and hard workers, they never thought that being promoted to this position would be possible, especially at this time in their careers.
"Ang liit ko kasi," points out Pia, who joined the company in 2015. "Hindi naman kasi usually nagiging principal ang mga kasing liit ko, so parang natanggap ko na dati na hindi ito mangyayari." (Because I don’t have the height. Ballerinas who are as small as I am aren’t usually promoted to principal. So I sort of accepted already that it would never happen.)
"Maliit? Dapat positive ka," Mark interjects. "Hindi dapat maliit ang tawag mo sa sarili mo, dapat cute!" (Small? You have to be more positive. You shouldn’t refer to yourself as small, but as cute!)
Always supportive of his colleagues, Mark – who, like Pia, was recently promoted from soloist to principal dancer -- shares that he himself is impressed by Pia's dancing, saying that her fearlessness onstage and her artistry could land her any role despite being vertically challenged.
"Actually, kapag napapanood ko si Pia, naaalala ko ang dati nating principal na si Dawna [Mangahas]. Nagta-transform talaga sa stage.” (Actually, whenever I see Pia dance, I am reminded of our former principal Dawna. Like Dawna, Pia really transforms into the character she plays when she’s on stage.)
"Sa last evaluation ko rin naman kasi, sinabi sa akin ni Ma'am Lise [BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde] na marami pa akong kailangan na sayawin bago mag-principal," shares the ballerina. "So, ‘yun ang in-expect ko, na sasayaw pa ako ng marami pang sayaw. At di ko talaga in-expect na uulitin niya ang pag-announce ng mga promotion pagkatapos ng show!” (During my last evaluation, Ma’am Lise told me that I still have to go through many dances to make it to principal. So, that’s what I was expecting – that I would have to do more performances. Also, I didn’t expect that she would be announcing promotions again at the end of the show.)
As for Mark, who began his ballet training in his late teens, simply having a career in this highly disciplined art was more than enough. “Noong pumasok ako ng BM, ang hangad ko lang talaga ay maging company member. ‘Yun lang talaga ang pangarap ko.” (When I entered BM, the only thing I really wanted to be was a company member. Achieving that was already enough for me.)
He continues, "So, noong na-promote ako to demi-soloist, feeling ko, sobra-sobra na talaga ang natatanggap ko sa BM. Ganyan din ang pakiramdam ko ngayon. Bonus na bonus na ang pag-promote sa akin." (So when I became a demi-soloist, I really felt that I was being given too much already by the company. That’s the way I feel now. Being promoted to principal is such a big bonus.)
"Deserve mo naman ‘yan," argues Pia, assuring Mark that he is really worthy of all his promotions. "Kitang-kita naman na napaka-hardworking mo. Sobrang happy ako sa mga ibang na-promote kasi iba talaga ang pinagdaanan nila! Grabe sila magtrabaho." (But you really do deserve it. Your hard work is undeniable. I’m really happy for all those who were promoted. They all went through low points and went through so much. They really put in all the work!)
The ballerina mentions that her twin sister, Jessica Pearl, who was promoted from company artist to soloist immersed herself in work and even took extra strengthening workouts to be able to make an epic comeback from an injury.
Asked if he was ever given a hint about being named a principal, Mark admits that during his own evaluation, BM’s artistic director had told him he had a huge chance after spending much of the season executing principal roles well with principal ballerina Abigail Oliveiro.
But the prima ballerina wasn't fully convinced yet. Mark recounts, "Sabi niya, bigyan ko pa raw siya ng isa pang sayaw at iyon ang magiging deciding factor. Nang sinabi niya ‘yon, na-excite ako talaga para sa Deux, ang last production. Doon ko sana ipapakita sa kanya na kaya ko, pero biglang na-injure ako." (She told me to give her one more solid performance and that would be the deciding factor. When she said that, I got so pumped up to perform in Deux, the last production. I was determined to show her that I was capable, but unfortunately, I got injured.)
Mark hit a low point. After shining in three of the company's three previous major productions, it was ironic that he would have to miss Deux, the final offering of the 23rd season due to a torn meniscus which required a major surgery.
"Nang na-injure itong tuhod ko, bumagsak ang buong mundo ko,” admits the Cagayan de Oro-born and raised artist. “Inisip ko talaga ang pag-change ng career. Grabe kasi talaga ang injury sa tuhod, at di na rin kasi ako bata! Naghahanda na talaga ako na masabihan na tapos na ang pagiging danseur ko. Buti na lang, hindi ganu’n kalala ang nangyari." (My whole world shattered when my knee injury happened. I really thought of changing my career already. Knee injuries are life-changing, especially if you’re not a very young danseur anymore. I was preparing myself to be told that my dancing days were over. Fortunately, my knee injury turned out to be not as bad as I thought.)
Less than a month after his operation, Mark – due to his quick progress in rehab – was already cleared by the doctor that he could return to ballet. "Ayaw ko lang biglain ang tuhod ko. Gusto kong dahan-dahan para pag-start ng next season, magagawa ko lahat ng nagagawa ko dati!" (I just don’t want to force it prematurely. I want to do things slowly to ensure a full recovery, so when the next season starts, I’ll be able to do all the things that I used to do.)
"Ang hirap po talaga niyan," says Pia, no stranger to injury herself. "Kapag dancer ka at nakaupo ka lang habang nakikita mo ang iba na sumasayaw." The ballerina, who has had her share of injuries and illnesses such as dengue, notes that when she was sidelined, she experienced depression even if she knew that she'd be able to come back. "Mas mahirap ‘yang major injury na hindi mo talaga alam kung makakasayaw ka pa ulit!" (What Mark is going through is really difficult. It’s hard to watch other dancers perform when you’re still in recovery… What more when you’re in a situation wherein you don’t know if you can dance again because of a major injury.)
"Tama, noong una nga, ayaw ko talagang pumupunta dito," says Mark, referring to the Ballet Manila studio. "Mas lalong-lalo na sa theater. Kapag naririnig ko kasi ang music, naiisip ko na ‘Ay! Dapat ako ang sumasayaw nito’. Pero sabi ko sa sarili ko na kailangan ko itong labanan. Wala na kasi akong magagawa. Walang mangyayari sa pag-e-emote ko." (That’s right, after my surgery, I really didn’t like coming here. I didn’t like going to the theater even more. Because whenever I’d hear the music, I‘d be reminded that it’s supposed to be me dancing up there. But I just told myself I should refrain from thinking that way. I can’t do anything about what happened. But nothing will happen either if I get depressed.)
Instead of letting himself fall into a dark place, he focused on healing and turning himself into a stronger dancer. "Lahat ng exercises na makakapagpalakas ng tuhod ko, ginagawa ko. Nag-join nga ako ng zumba!" (All the exercises that could help strengthen my knee, I would do. I even joined zumba!)
"’Yan na po ang first responsibility namin as principal dancers – na pangalagaan ang mga katawan namin para ma-survive ang isang taon na walang masakit. Na kapag may sumakit man, dahil lang ito sa fatigue o pagod. Hindi ito talaga injury," declares a very level-headed Pia. "Siguro, iyan rin ang ni-lo-look forward ko sa susunod na season. Na mas maging malakas na dancer pa ako." (That’s our first responsibility as principal dancers – to take care of our bodies so we can survive the next year without pain. That if pain were to be experienced, it would be because of fatigue or exhaustion. Not an injury… I think that’s also what I look forward to next season. That I would become an even stronger dancer.)
Looking back at the last season, this ballerina notes that it really pushed her limits, particularly Deux which really tested her stamina and mental strength because of the sheer number of dances she had to do in it.
"Sinayaw ko ang La Bayadere, Les Sylphides, Diana and Acteon at ang Beatles ballet. Hindi ko inakala na kaya kong ma-survive ‘yon. Tignan n’yo naman ang partner ko sa mga pas de deux. Kakaiba po si Hyuma [Kiyosawa, Pia’s Japanese partner who’s the 2017 USA-IBC junior silver medalist]. Ang bata pa pero ang galing niya gumalaw. Nakaka-pressure po talaga siya. Hindi siya na-o-off, pero ako zombie na talaga. Ito na ‘ata ang production kung saan pinakapagod ako." (I danced La Bayadere, Les Sylphides, Diana and Acteon and the Beatles ballet. I didn’t think that I could survive that much dancing. I mean, just look at my partner in the pas de deux numbers. It’s difficult to dance next to Hyuma. He’s so young but he moves so well. I really felt quite pressured. He also never runs out of energy. I felt like a zombie next to him. This production was really the most tired I’d ever been.)
Despite all her apprehensions, the exhaustion and the sleepless nights, Pia got through all the classical and contemporary dances and is looking forward to more performances where her capability as a ballerina will be tested again.
Asked if they're prepared to take on all duties and responsibilities demanded of a principal dancer, Pia and Mark both admit that stepping into their new position is daunting.
"Pero kailangan mong tanggapin ang mga out of your comfort zone para mag-grow ka pa as a dancer," notes the ballerina, who likens embracing her new position to a stage role that she doesn't see herself portraying. (You really have to embrace those things that take you out of your comfort zone so you can grow more as a dancer.)
"Para sa akin, nakakatakot talaga kasi ang taas talaga ng standard na na-set ng mga principal danseurs. Tignan niyo si Gerardo [Francisco], Diyos ko po! Si Rudy [De Dios], Diyos ko po! Si [Elpidio] Magat at si Romeo [Peralta], ang tataas rin ng mga standard," raves Mark. (For me, it’s really nerve-wracking due to the high standards set by the principal danseurs. Just look at the way Gerardo dances, oh my God! Look at Rudy, oh my God! Then, you have Magat and Romeo who have also set such high standards.)
"Pero kilala ko ang mga iyan, mababait sila at alam kong tutulungan naman nila ako. Alam kong makakaya ko ang trabaho dahil nandiyan ang guidance nila, maliban sa guidance na galing kay Sir Shaz [Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso] at Ma'am Lise. Magbibigay lang naman sila ng role na alam nila na kaya mong gawin." (But I know these dancers, they’re very kind and helpful. I know that I would be able to execute my role as a principal with their guidance and the guidance of Sir Shaz and Ma’am Lise. Besides, they will only give you a role that they know you can dance.)
Speaking of roles, Pia and Mark realize in this interview that both their respective dream roles, Carmen and Romeo, are very emotional and require them to deviate from their cheerful personalities. "Pareho kasi kaming Pisces! Ma-drama at emotional," the danseur jokes as Pia agrees. (That’s because we’re both Pisces. We’re very dramatic and emotional.)
"Kagaya ni Kuya Mark, gusto ko rin ma-experience ang mga di ko pa nasayaw ever," adds the ballerina. "Ang Sotto Voce at ang MAZN na rin. Gusto talaga namin ang hindi namin comfort zone." (Just like Mark, I also want to experience those pieces that I have never danced before. There’s Sotto Voce and then MAZN. We’re really into roles that take us out of our comfort zone.)
"Hindi lang talaga kami pwedeng mag-partner. Magmumukha akong tatay niya sa laki ko!" laughs Mark. (We can never be partners though. I’m going to look like her father because I’m so big!)
Both teary-eyed from laughing, these new principals assure that they are grateful for their new position and want to spend more years in ballet. In fact, other than dancing lead roles, they would like to dive deeper into choreography.
Pia notes that she likes the process of getting to know a ballet dancer's strengths and being able to create movements and an overall concept that highlight those strengths. "Hindi ako kasing galing ni Geri [Francisco] sa paggawa ng concept, sa pagpili ng music, pero gusto ko talaga i-explore pa ang choreography. Mahirap ito, pero na-e-enjoy ko ang process!" (I’m not as good as Geri when it comes to forming a concept and finding the perfect music, but I’d really love to explore more of choreography. It’s difficult for me, but I enjoy the process.)
As for Mark, he wants to learn how to choreograph 30-minute pieces like Bloom by Annabel Lopez-Ochoa and Winding Road by Martin Lawrance. "Buong week ko inisip ang two-minute choreography. Gusto kong maranasan kung paano gawin ang mga mas mahahabang choreography," says the danseur who choreographed a piece for a BM colleague as an entry for a ballet competition. (I spent a week thinking about a two-minute choreography. I want to be able to experience what it’s like to choreograph longer pieces.)
Evidently, Pia and Mark are up to the challenge of being Ballet Manila’s principals, as well as any task that would take them beyond their comfort zones.