Danseur John Carl Concepcion reflects on what ballet has taught him

Danseur John Carl Concepcion reflects on what ballet has taught him

John Carl Concepcion dances the Ali Variation from Le Corsaire as his classical piece in last year’s CCP Ballet Competition. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

By Jv Ramos

It's been seven years since John Carl "JC" Concepcion was pulled into the world of ballet. "Pulled into" is the appropriate way to describe it – because he willingly let his friend Alvin Dictado, who is a danseur like his older brother Anselmo Dictado, drag him to the studio for an audition with Ballet Manila.

"Nakatunganga lang ako nang isang tanghali sa may amin, sa may Leveriza. Tapos, biglang dumating si Alvin. Sinabihan niya akong maligo at magbihis dahil may pupuntahan kaming audition. Sumunod naman ako," he reminisces. (I was just bumming around one afternoon, in our neighborhood of Leveriza. Then Alvin showed up. He told me to bathe and dress up because we were going to an audition. I just followed.)

Starting out as a scholar of Project Ballet Futures, John Carl “JC” Concepcion is now a member of Ballet Manila’s junior company. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

JC admits laughingly that it was rather silly of him to just submit to his friend's requests without knowing the whole picture. But he's very grateful now that Alvin did what he did – and that he had played along.

"Nang sinabi na nakapasok ako, natuwa naman ako. Ang hirap kasi ng mga pinapagawa nila sa auditions. Di ko akalain na matatanggap ako." (When they announced that I got in, I was glad. That’s because the things they asked us to do in the auditions were really hard. I didn’t expect that I would be accepted.)

Curious of what else he could be capable of doing, JC, who was only 12 at that time, showed up for his first ballet class, which was no different from his auditions.

"Si Sir Jay [Jonathan Janolo, ballet master] ang nag-klase noon. At unang klase pa lang, nahirapan na ako. Marami kasing combinations ang pinapagawa at hirap akong isaulo ang mga ito."  (It was Sir Jay who taught my first ballet class. And even if it was just my first class, I already found it hard. There were so many combinations we were asked to do and I had a difficult time memorizing them.) 

The challenging memory work, partnered by aching muscles, made him want to go back to just playing around in Leveriza every afternoon. But at the same time, his interest in dance was stoked right there in the Ballet Manila studio.

Alvin Dictado (left), who took JC to his audition with Ballet Manila seven years ago, gets to dance with his friend and recruit in a number for the recital Must Dance in 2017. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

"Nakita ko ‘yung mga nakatatandang danseurs na tumatalon at gumagawa ng kung anu-anong tricks. Doon ko na-realize ang magagawa ko kung ipagpapatuloy ko ang training ko," he points out. "Ang ganda nilang tignan, so na-motivate talaga ako! Ang pinaka-naaalala ko doon ay si [Elpidio] Magat [now a principal]. Ang ganda ng mga lines niya; idol ko na siya unang araw ko pa lang!" (I saw the older danseurs jump and do all sorts of tricks. That’s when I realized what I could do if I were to continue my training… They moved so well, I was really so motivated. The person I remember most is Magat. His lines were so polished; he’s been my idol since day one.)

With that newfound inspiration came the willingness to show up to ballet class every day, even if this meant having to head home very late due to training and having to wake up early for school the next day. 

Sobrang nakakapagod iyon, pero nagawa ko naman,” reflects JC, who reveals that he has just graduated from Grade 12. “Hindi nawala ang mga moments na gustong mag-quit syempre. Nakakapagod naman kasi talaga. Pero, naisip ko rin kung ano ang magiging buhay ko kung walang ballet. Mas ayaw ko naman iyon.” (Balancing school and ballet was so exhausting, but I managed… But definitely, there were moments when I really wanted to quit. Because it’s really very tiring. But I thought about what my life would be like without ballet. I didn’t enjoy the thought.)

Like his idol in Ballet Manila, principal danseur Elpido Magat, JC – seen here during a performance for World Ballet Day in 2016 – can now execute movements honed through years of training. Photo by Kurt Alvarez

This 19-year-old danseur underscores, “Ayaw ko rin sayangin ang opportunities na ibinibigay sa akin ng Ballet Manila. Napapabuti ng ballet ang buhay ko.”  (I also didn’t want to waste the opportunities being given to me by Ballet Manila. My life, after all, has been greatly improved by ballet.)

Now a member of Ballet Manila 2, the junior company, JC – who started out as a scholar of Project Ballet Futures – has been through many rewarding experiences. Among these is travelling to Hong Kong and Vietnam for competitions, and of course, taking part in the company’s many performances.

Asked which between performing or competing he enjoys more, JC says that while he loves pieces like Osias Barroso’s Ecole – wherein several dancers perform to a lively tune that gets the audiences cheering and clapping – he also cherishes moments alone on stage.

JC, seen here performing his contemporary piece at the CCP Ballet Competition, likes the feeling of being alone on stage with all eyes on him. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Gusto ko ‘yung feeling na ikaw lang ang pinapanood sa stage, ang feeling na sa iyo lang ang stage.” (I like the feeling of being alone on stage with all eyes watching you, the feeling of owning the entire stage.)

But while it’s the season performances that many look forward to, JC underlines that ballet is more than just the dances and costumes. It’s also about the mentors and friends that you gain.

JC, for instance, sees his first teacher, Jonathan Janolo, as the one who strengthened him and made him ready for what’s beyond ballet classes. Co-artistic director Osias “Shaz” Barroso, on the other hand, is a strict parent who only wants the best for his children.

Nakakatakot po talaga si Sir Shaz noong una, lalo pag nagalit,” he attests. “Pero nang nag-mature na ako, na-realize ko na kapag sinasabihan niya ako, para sa ikabubuti ko ito. (Sir Shaz really scared me at first, especially when he’s angry. But when I matured, I realized that what he’s telling me is for my own good, so that I would improve.)

Barroso indeed appreciates a well-performed piece when he sees it. In a story about Ballet Manila’s participation in the CCP Ballet Competition in 2018, the esteemed ballet mentor shared one instance that happened during rehearsals.

JC demonstrates the grand jeté a la seconde for the Ballet Manila Archives website’s Ballet Dictionary. Photo by Mark Sumaylo/ MarBi Photography

"Kanina, hindi ko ini-expect, pero naiyak ako kay John Carl (A while ago, I didn't expect to tear up when John Carl was dancing)," Barroso is quoted as saying. "Ang galing ng pagkasayaw niya ng kanyang variation. Ganyan ang dapat mangyari sa performance nila – dapat ma-move mo ang audience." (John Carl performed his variation so well that I was moved. That's what is supposed to happen in their performance – the audience has to be moved.)

As for Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, JC says that like Sir Shaz, she’s very firm. “Sobrang bait ni Ma’am Lise sa kahit kanino. Pero kapag nag-klase na, grabe siya! Ang hirap po talaga ng klase kung siya ang nag-ko-conduct.” (Ma’am Lise is very kind to everyone. But when she’s the one conducting the class, she’s very strict. Her classes really are on a different level of difficulty.)

A photo of the Ballet Manila Summer Workshop 2017 Boys’ Class shows JC (standing, leftmost) with his classmates and their mentor Osias Barroso (in maroon). Photo from Osias Barroso’s Facebook page

Regarding the lifetime friends he met through Ballet Manila, JC shares that their cover band composed of Joshua Enciso, Rafael Perez, Rodney Catubay and Emmerson Evangelio, is slowly getting into composing their own songs.

Dahil mahilig po akong mag-DJ o mag-mix  ng mga music, ako ang gagawa ng beat sa mga naisulat ni Joshua na kanta (Because I enjoy being a DJ or mixing music, I’m the one who’s assigned to create beats for the songs that Joshua writes)says JC, who is grateful for the company of these friends with whom he shares an intense love for ballet and music, not to mention a boisterous sense of humor.

Para sa mga batang makakapasok dito, ang masasabi ko lang ay huwag nila sayangin ang mga opportunities na matatanggap niyo (For those who would be given the chance to become a scholar, I’d tell them to make the most out of the opportunities that they receive),” advises JC, who – after being accepted as a PBF scholar – just forged ahead with the daily punishing regimen of ballet, despite experiencing occasional moments of discouragement.

JC has seen some dancers throw away the opportunities that have come their way which he says is sad. For himself, he has learned what the key is to continuously grow in ballet. “Dito, kailangan niyong respetuhin ang mga nakatatanda sa inyo at makinig sa sinasabi nila, at dapat alagaan ang iyong katawan.” (Here, you have to respect those who are older than you and listen to what they say, and of course, you also have to take good care of your body.)

Even though it was never in his plans to become a dancer, JC can no longer imagine life without ballet. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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