For Ballet Manila’s new soloists, the learning never stops
By Jv Ramos
When we look at Ballet Manila’s new soloists Rissa May Camaclang, Jessica Pearl Dames and Joshua Enciso, what comes to mind are some of their most impressive performances from the company’s recently concluded 23rd season.
For Rissa May, what stood out were her fiery and very mature execution of the manipulative Carmen in Iconic 2.0., and her very elegant and controlled portrayal of a sylph in Chopiniana (Les Sylphides). For Pearl, there were her perfectly executed Odalisque variation in the restaging of Le Corsaire and her touching She’s Leaving Home solo in Martin Lawrance’s Beatles-themed ballet The Winding Road. For Joshua, it was his vigorous interpretation of Solor from La Bayadere, the opening number that got everyone fired up for the season finale, Deux.
Indeed, it was the season wherein they really stepped up and brought forward unforgettable characters. But what many people probably don’t know are the struggles they went through to give those performances. Rissa May, for instance, due to an ankle injury, almost wasn’t able to dance her dream role Carmen. She, in fact, had to learn the different parts slowly as she was still recovering. Pearl, on the other hand, spent most of the 22nd season resting and helping out with technical work due to an injury. As for Joshua, he was enveloped by pressure and stress while preparing for the USA International Ballet Competition (IBC), which prevented him from showing what he really was capable of.
It was already a significant achievement that Joshua, along with partner Nicole Barroso, were invited to join the competition in Jackson, Mississippi – the first time that Filipino dancers had actually gotten through to the junior round of the so-called Olympics of Ballet.
Nerves got the better of Joshua, however, that he was eliminated in the first round. The saving grace was, because Nicole moved up all the way to the finals, he was still able to perform the three other competition pieces he had rehearsed with her. And because the pressure was already off him since he had become a non-competing partner, he seemed to be able to give his all in their remaining performances.
“Grabe, sobrang payat ko noon, kaya ramdam ko talaga na lagi akong na-o-off… Sobrang disappointed ako sa nangyari, pero di na lang ako nag-stay doon.” (I was so thin that I could really feel that I was often unstable while dancing… I was really disappointed with myself. But I refused to stay in that state of mind.) He notes that he just took his USA-IBC experience as a lesson, so that when the next competition came along, he could keep his composure.
The opportunity to redeem himself came last November, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Ballet Competition where he dominated the senior male division and consequently won first prize. “Tama, mas confident nga ako nang sumayaw ako sa CCP,” he confirms. “Feeling ko talaga na ang IBC ang nag-boost sa akin. Natutunan ko sa IBC kung paano talaga mag-perform sa stage. Kailangan na every time na pagtapak mo sa stage, confident ka lagi. Tumatak sa akin ang sinabi ni Ate Katherine [Barkman, former BM principal dancer who is now with The Washington Ballet] na dapat wala kang time na kabahan once nasa stage ka na.” (That’s right! I was really more confident while performing at the CCP. I really feel that it was my IBC experience that boosted my morale. IBC taught me how to really perform on stage. IBC taught me that every time I step on stage, I have to be confident. I also took the advice of Ate Katherine to heart – that there’s no time to be nervous when you’re up there.)
Hearing Joshua’s story of turning losses into lessons, Pearl and Rissa May both empathize with the danseur’s struggles. They, too, put forward that ballet artists should never get too depressed or completely paralyzed by setbacks. Because, at the end of the day, the most painful thing would be not being able to perform onstage if one wallows in a heartbreaking experience.
If it’s Joshua’s victory at the CCP Ballet Competition and all his performances afterwards that became the deciding factor for his promotion, Pearl guesses it was probably her “pagiging todo-bigay” (being gung-ho) throughout the season that convinced BM’s artistic directors Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso that she’s ready for more demanding work.
“Two seasons ago, sinabihan ako ni Ma’am Lise during evaluation na kung ipagpatuloy ko ang hard work ko, nakikita niya akong maging soloist,” shares Pearl. “Pero ‘yon nga, na-injure ako, so parang nag-back to zero. Habang pinapahinga ko ang injury ko, na-miss ko talaga ang pagsayaw, at doon ko talaga nalaman na mahal na mahal ko ang pagsasayaw. So, nang nakabalik na ako, ginawan ko talaga ng paraan para ma-strengthen ang katawan ko at ma-avoid ang injury. Tapos, sinabi ko talaga na kahit anong role man ang ibigay sa akin, i-wo-work ko talaga ‘yan kahit anong mangyari.” (Two seasons ago, Ma’am Lise told me during evaluation that if I were to continue my hard work, I could make it to soloist. But then I got injured, so I felt that I went back to zero. When I was recovering, I really missed dancing and that’s also when I realized how much I really love ballet. So, when I finally healed, I really worked hard on strengthening my body to avoid injuries. I also told myself that I would work really hard on whatever role was assigned to me.)
Pearl’s hunger to be better and her determination to be on stage was so evident that everyone knew except her that her promotion was coming. “Nakipagpustahan po sa akin si Kuya Mark [Sumaylo, who was promoted to principal dancer], na kung ma-promote ako, ililibre ko siya ng pagkain. Hindi ako naniniwala na mangyayari ‘yon, kahit ‘yon din ang sinasabi ni Pia [Dames, her twin sister, who was also promoted to principal dancer] at pati na rin si Joshua, so pumayag ako sa pustahan. May utang tuloy ako!" Pearl laughs. (Kuya Mark actually made a bet with me, that if I were to be promoted, I would have to treat him to a meal. I didn’t believe that getting promoted to soloist was possible, so even if my sister Pia and Joshua would always mention it, I agreed to the bet, thinking that Mark would lose. Now, I guess I owe Kuya Mark!)
"Tama ‘yan!” agrees Joshua, who was one of those who noticed Pearl’s transformation on stage. “Niloloko ko nga siya na maganda ang reading ni Madame Auring sa kanya, so ma-po-promote siya, pero ayaw niya talaga maniwala. Pero kitang-kita naman! May something every time sumasayaw si Ate Pearl." (That’s right… I would often joke that the fortune teller Madame Auring can already see Ate Pearl’s promotion, but she just kept denying the possibility. But everyone could see that Ate Pearl was dancing at a different level.)
As for former Project Ballet Futures scholar Rissa May, it was her roles in Carmen and Cinderella that caught the eye of artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. “Siguro, napansin rin po nila na active ako sa pagiging understudy. Kapag may dancer na wala dahil may sakit or injured, ako usually ang sumasalo.” (Also, I think they noticed that I’m really active when it comes to understudy work. Whenever a dancer is unavailable or injured, I’m the one who takes over the role.)
Although given good comments, Rissa May -- who can’t help but doubt her capabilities – says she didn’t expect that her evaluation last January would lead to something bigger. “Sobrang bilis ng pangyayari noon,” says the ballerina, recalling the moment when she was named soloist in front of everyone. “Ang naaalala ko lang ay nang dine-describe ni Ma'am Lisa ang susunod na promoted dancer, pumikit ako. Sobrang surreal kasi! Naaalala ko rin na nanonood si Mama sa audience. At sinabi ko sa kanya na para sa kanya ang lahat nito. Sobrang masaya po ako at thankful. Hindi ko in-expect na kaya ko pala abutin ito.” (Everything happened so fast… What I remember from that moment is me closing my eyes as Ma’am Lise was describing the next promoted dancer. Everything was just so surreal. I also recall the face of my mother who was in the audience. I communicated to her that this promotion was all for her. I’m very happy and thankful. Never did I expect that I’d be able to reach this level.)
This fervent performer, in fact, never listed being a soloist as one of her goals. “Ang gusto ko lang talaga ay sumayaw nang sumayaw,” shares Rissa May with an added giggle. “Bonus lang po ang promotion na ito sa akin.” (What I really want is to keep on dancing. This promotion is just a bonus!)
Switching to a more serious tone, this Ballet Manila baby reflects, “Siguro, reminder na rin ito na tumatanda na ako, na hindi lang puwedeng basta-basta. Kailangan kong maging good example sa mga bata. Kailangan mo rin ingatan ang katawan. Iba kasi ang career ng ballet dancer. Kapag nasa twenties ka na, 10 to 15 years na lang ang dancing years mo. Kailangan na gawin mo na nang tama ang mga ibinibigay sa iyo. Inaamin ko, wala pa ako sa level na lahat tama. Marami pang room for improvement, pero I will get there.” (I also see this as a reminder that I’m getting old, that I can’t just settle for average. This promotion also tells me that I have to be a good example to the younger ones. I, too, have to be extra careful with my body. Having ballet as a career is really different. When you’re in your twenties, it means that you only have 10 to 15 dancing years left. So you have to execute your roles better. I admit, I’m not yet at that level where everything I dance is perfect. There’s so much that I still have to improve on, but I will get there eventually.)
Asked if they’re ready to work as soloists, the three admit that they are nervous of the pressures that come with the job; but really, more than anything, they are excited.
“Bukod sa excited, inspired rin ako,” declares Pearl, who is the picture of giddiness two weeks after the surprise announcement of their promotion. “Hindi n’yo nararamdaman ‘yon, guys? Sobrang ni-lo-look forward kong aralin ang mas madaming pang roles. Kahit anong role pa man ‘yan!” (Other than being excited, I’m also inspired. Don’t you feel that, guys? I really am looking forward to learning more and more roles. Whatever role they give me, I’m willing to do it.)
“Tama siya! Parang gusto kong mag-production agad,” concurs Rissa May. “Tara na! Ngayon na!” (She’s right! I sort of want production season to start right away. Let’s go! Right now!)
“Siguro, gusto rin namin i-prove na worthy kami sa promotion na ito,” reasons the petite ballerina. (I think we also just want to prove that we’re worthy of the promotion.)
“Ganyan naman kasi dito sa ballet. Every time na bibigyan ka ng new role, gusto mo talagang patunayan na tama ang desisyon nila,” explains Rissa May. (That’s the way it is here in ballet. Every time you’re given a new role, you want to work hard to prove that they made the right decision.)
Clearly passionate about ballet, these soloists would like to explore more aspects of the art. Pearl and Joshua would really love to try choreography if given the chance.
Rissa May, on the other hand, wants to pursue teaching. “It’s time for me to give back, especially to PBF, Ballet Manila’s scholarship program of which she was among the first recipients. Gusto kong magturo ng Baby Ballet or Level 1. Gusto ko kasing ma-explore pa ang Vaganova technique at ipasa ito sa mas marami pang dancers.” (I want to teach Baby Ballet or Level 1. That’s because I want to explore the Vaganova technique further and pass it on to even more dancers.)
“Kung magtuturo man ako, siguro sa mga mas matanda na. Kapag mga Level 1 kasi, feeling nila talaga ay bata lang din ako dahil sa liit ko,” expresses Pearl, noting that she had a real-life experience of getting playfully bitten by a kid in a class she taught. (If I were to teach, I’d probably go for the higher levels. If it’s Level 1, the students just treat me like I’m their age due to my height.)
Sharing a laugh with her colleague, Rissa May then points out that their promotion and determination have a lot to do with their instructors in Ballet Manila. Because more than the strict Vaganova training that ballet master Jonathan Janolo and assistant ballet mistress Eileen Lopez give, they also provide endless motivation.
“Gusto kong maging parang si Sir Jay at pati na rin si Teacher Lops,” asserts Rissa May. “Si Sir Jay kasi, hindi lang niya iniintindi ang physical characteristics ng bata. Tinitignan rin niya ang mental health, kung paano nila tine-take ang corrections. Kung alam niya na kaya ng bata i-take ang corrections at mag-rehearse, saka niya ito tinuturuan at tinututukan. Kay Teacher Lops naman, gusto ko ma-adapt ang pag-preserve niya ng Vaganova method. Hindi magiging ganito ang standard ng BM kung wala siya. At gaya ni Sir Jay, magaling siyang makipag-interact sa students. Madali siyang kausapin at magaling din po mag-motivate. Mahalaga na i-motivate ang bata.” (I want to be like Sir Jay and Teacher Lops. Sir Jay because he goes beyond physical characteristics. He considers the children’s mental too, whether or the not they can take corrections well. If he sees that the child can, that’s the only time he pushes the child to learn and improve. As for Teacher Lops, I would love to adapt the way she teaches and preserves the Vaganova method. BM’s standards wouldn’t be what it is today if it’s not for her. Like Sir Jay, she has a different way of interacting with students. She’s easy to talk to and she really motivates you. It’s really important to motivate kids.)
“Dito sa ballet, malaking factor talaga ang motivation,” Joshua echoes, underlining the fact that if he didn’t have the support of his teachers and fellow dancers, he probably wouldn’t have overcome his fear of competitions. “Mahalaga rin po na mahalin mo ang ginagawa mo. Kapag minahal mo kasi, tuloy-tuloy lang ang growth.” (Here in ballet, motivation plays a huge factor… It’s also important that you love what you’re doing. If you love what you do, you’ll just continue growing as a dancer.)
“Sa ballet, matagal mong mapansin ang results ng hard work mo,” admits Pearl, recalling the lengthy process towards her comeback. “Pero, darating at darating rin ‘yan kapag ipinagpatuloy mo lang ang hard work. Simple lang ang advice ko sa mga bata: ‘Don’t give up!’ (Here in ballet, it’s takes a long time befor you notice the results of your hard work. But the good outcome will eventually happen as long as you keep up the hard work. My advice to younger dancers is simple: ‘Don’t give up!’)
“And be willing to learn,” concludes Rissa May. “Learning never stops here in ballet!”