Robert Peralta: Teaching ballet is in the heart
By Jv Ramos
As someone whose passion for and service to ballet only grew stronger when he had to give up his life as a danseur, it's difficult to believe that teacher Robert Peralta was once indifferent to this discipline. As a boy, he, in fact, would even run away from Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias "Shaz" Barroso every time the latter would suggest that he try ballet since his older brother Romeo Peralta, now a principal dancer, had grown up to like it very much.
“Habang tumatakbo ako nang palayo sa kanila, ang sinasabi ko sa sarili ko noon ay, ‘Bahala kayo diyan. Di ko gusto iyan!’ Pero, may isang araw na nagising ako at bigla lang ako nag-decide na i-try ang ballet,” shares Robert, laughing. "Hindi ko ma-explain kung bakit, basta biglaan ko lang talaga ginustong i-try." (While running away from them, what I would tell myself back then was, 'Leave me alone. I'm not interested in that!' But then, there was one morning when I woke up and just suddenly decided to try ballet. I can't explain why that happened, all I know is I that I wanted to try it.)
Now a faculty member of The Lisa Macuja School of Ballet Manila, Robert was around 14 when he first attended a ballet class, and at that time, he intended dancing to be nothing more than a summer activity. He paints us a picture of his first ballet experiences: "Masakit sa katawan ang mga pinagagawa. Alam kong di natural na galaw, pero sunod lang din ako nang sunod. Ang ballet kasi mas na-a-appreciate mo kapag tumatagal ka na.” (My body would end up aching. That was a sign that the moves we were doing aren't natural, but I just kept following what they told me to do anyway. Ballet is an activity that you only get to appreciate if you've been doing it for quite some time.)
Robert adds that performances were a big help in making him see that ballet is more than just the awkward moves and body pains. "The first time na na-realize ko na na-e-enjoy ko na pala ang ballet ay nu’ng nag-recital ako. Tapos, mas lalo pa akong napamahal sa ballet noong marami na akong shows ni Kuya Romeo na napapanood. Every time napapanood ko silang sumayaw, mas gusto kong seryosohin pa ang ballet." (The first time I realized that I enjoyed ballet was during my first recital. Then I fell in love with ballet even more when I regularly watched my brother's shows. Every time I would see the older dancers perform, the more I wanted to take ballet seriously.)
Realizing that he could only be part of more company performances if he improved, Robert decided to continue attending ballet classes even after summer. He expresses, "Kahit masakit ang katawan at pagod na dahil sa school, pinipilit kong pumunta. Naiisip ko lagi kasi ang sinabi ni Sir Shaz, na kailangan mag-improve at i-master ang basics bago ma-entrust sa aming mga bata ang mas magaganda pang roles." (Even if my body ached and even if I was already tired from school, I would really will myself to go. I just couldn't forget what Sir Shaz told us – that we had to improve and master the basics before he could entrust to bigger and better roles to us younger dancers.)
"Pero, alam n’yo, kahit madalas akong nag-a-attend ng klase, hindi po talaga ako ang ideal na student," admits the young ballet teacher. "Tamad po kasi akong mag-warm up noon, so ayun, ang dali lang natapos ang dancing years ko." (But I have to admit to you that even if I showed up for classes frequently, I was far from being the ideal student. I was so lazy to warm up back then and as a result, my dancing years were cut short.)
Forced to retire in his early twenties due to an injured shin and knee and back spasms, Robert chose to still be part of the ballet world by accepting the invitation to teach. "Pero sumasayaw pa lang ako, alam ko nang gusto kong magturo later on. Gusto ko kasi iyong feeling na natutulungan mo ang mga nakababata sa iyo, at gusto ko rin ang pagbigay ng advice sa iba para mag-improve pa po sila." (Even as a full-time danseur, I already knew that I would teach ballet later on. I've enjoyed the feeling of helping out younger dancers, and giving advice so that others would further improve.)
Since coaching and being an older brother to the others came naturally to him, the transition from danseur to a teacher was not so difficult for Robert. "Nakatulong din ang pagiging curious at observant ko noong bata ako. Naaalala ko na mahilig akong mag-hang out sa studio kahit di ko naman klase. Nag-no-notes din po ako kahit na mali-mali pa ang spelling ko. Kapag teacher ka kasi, dapat makita mo agad ang differences ng mga bata. May mga mabilis matuto, may iba na kailangan mo talagang tutukan. Iba-iba ang capability, so kailangan iba-iba rin ang approach mo." (What also helped in the transition was my being curious and observant when I was younger. I remember hanging out in the studio even if my classes were over. I would also take down notes and corrections of teachers even if I didn't know the correct spelling of the terms. When you're a teacher, it pays to easily spot the differences among your students. Different capabilities require different approaches in teaching.)
The younger Peralta brother underlines that to be able to teach effectively, one has to put one’s self in the student’s shoes. "Kung baguhan na bata, iniisip ko, paano ko kaya ma-e-explain ito upang maintindihan ng nakababatang sarili ko? At kung adult naman, iniisip ko kung paano ko mapapalakas ang loob ko habang may natututunan na bago." (If I'm teaching a child, I think about how my younger self would be able to easily understand this. If I'm teaching adult classes, I think about how I can develop self-confidence as I’m learning something new.)
Asked which set of students is more challenging to handle, this ballet teacher points out that the pressure is greater when teaching children. "Ako kasi ang nag-le-lay ng foundation para sa kanila, so kahit anong ituro ko, madadala nila iyan sa paglaki. Naku! Patay tagala ako kay Sir Shaz kung siya na ang humawak at mali-mali ang technique ng estudyante." (I'm the one laying down the foundation. Whatever I teach, they're bound to carry that with them as they grow in ballet. Sir Shaz would really kill me if he were to start handling them and they had the wrong technique.)
But since Robert takes his role as a teacher very seriously, passing down mediocrity is unlikely to happen. "Personally, ayaw kong mangyari sa kanila ang nangyari sa akin," he intones, referring to his careless days as a danseur. "Lagi ko tuloy ni-re-remind sila na i-build nila ang disiplina sa sarili." (Personally, I don't want what happened to me to happen to them. That's the reason I always remind them to build their self-discipline.)
He explains that self-discipline is doing what you're supposed to do even if the teacher doesn't order it or when no one is around to watch you. The well-loved teacher adds, "Example na diyan ang warm-up. Di mo dapat hintayin na pagsabihan ka na mag-warm up or gawin lang ito kapag may nanonood!" (A good example of self-discipline is to always warm up. A dancer shouldn't wait to be told to do it. Also, a dancer shouldn't just do it if the teacher is present.)
Early this summer, Robert coached a handful of junior dancers for the Manila regionals of the 2019 Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition, wherein three Ballet Manila students took home top honors.
"Nakakaiyak kapag pinapanood ko ang mga competitors sa stage," he describes the experience of watching the competition as a teacher. "At mas kabado talaga ako kapag pinapanood ko sila kaysa sa noong mga times na ako ang nag-ko-compete. Bakit ako naiiyak? Nakikita ko kasi ang progress ng mga bata." (I get teary-eyed watching my students compete. Also, I'm more nervous when watching them compete than the times when I was the one on stage competing.)
He points out that the results don't matter much to him as he sees all the competitors as winners. "Proud na ako sa fact na wala sa kanilang sumuko. Walang nagsabi na, 'Ayaw ko nang mag-compete' kahit nakikita ko na hirap na hirap na talaga sila minsan. Sobrang laki ng difference ng chapter 1 or ‘yung time na una pa lang nila natututunan ang variation sa chapter kung saan sila ngayon!" (I'm already very proud of the fact that none of them gave up. No one said, 'I don't want to compete anymore' even if I could tell that they were having a difficult time already. There’s really a huge difference between their chapter 1 or the time they were first learning their variation compared to the chapter that they’re in now!)
Does Robert give special advice during competition? Like a true artist, he states that performing a variation for a competition is no different from performing this in the studio or in the theater. "Sinasabi ko lang sa kanila ang lagi ko na pong sinasabi: Kailangan mag-isip sila. Hindi kasi pwede na gawa ka lang nang gawa." (When they're training for a competition, I just give them the same reminder I usually share: You have to use your head. You can't simply do one movement after another.)
Robert continues, "Kapag sumasayaw kasi, hindi lang ang katawan ang gumagalaw. Dapat nandiyan rin ang utak. Dapat maisip ang right technique at maging active rin ang imagination. Kunyari, kung variation mo ang Blue Bird, kailangan ma-imagine mo na ibon ka at lumilipad ka. Nakakatulong ang imagination na ilabas ang character at ma-convince ang audience kung sino ka sa stage." (When dancing ballet, it's not just the body that should be working. The mind should too. You have to think of the right technique and activate the imagination. For instance, if your variation is Blue Bird, you have to imagine yourself to be a bird, and that you’re flying. Doing this would bring out the character and would convince the audience who you are on stage.)
Knowing his insights on teaching and ballet, it's easy to dismiss Robert as a very stern individual, but he has a fun-loving side which is evident in the vlogs that he publishes. "Iba lang talaga ako sa studio," he chuckles. "Ang kukulit kasi ng mga bata, so kailangan ko talagang i-establish ang authority ko."(I really just project a different personality in the studio. The kids can get quite rowdy, so you really have to establish your authority.)
For Robert, ballet is a serious matter and he wants his students to learn the value of absorbing lessons even at an early age. As a former danseur, he knows only too well that being given roles, delivering heartfelt performances, and performing one’s best in competitions all start with taking class well.