Called to dance: Jillian Villanueva returns to Ballet Manila

Called to dance: Jillian Villanueva returns to Ballet Manila

Jian Villanueva performs Sayaw sa Pamlang by choreographer Agnes Locsin for Ballet Manila’s Just Dance! summer intensive recital in 2015. Photo by Ovs Alvarez

By Jv Ramos

Though often brought to the studio by her father Jimmy Villanueva, who works as Ballet Manila’s lighting designer, Jillian Villanueva didn't show any strong interest in ballet as a young girl.

"Ang gusto ko talaga noon ay taekwondo,” she shares. But since she often experienced nose-bleeding, she couldn’t really get into this martial art.

"Napunta lang ako dito sa ballet dahil noong nine years old ako, na-diagnose na may scoliosis ako," narrates the ballerina, who is called Jian by her close friends. To remedy her spinal condition, the doctor recommended that she take up either ballet or swimming. Since her dad worked in BM, ballet seemed to be the natural choice of an activity for her.

Asked if she liked it immediately, Jian notes that she understood why she had to go through ballet. But seeing ballet as only a means to correct her spine all changed when she was learning the Blue Bird variation. 

After graduating from college with a degree in Travel and Tourism Management, Jillian “Jian” Villanueva found herself gravitating to ballet once more. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

"Habang nag-re-rehearse, bigla kong na-realize na gusto kong gawin ito araw-araw, na kahit may school, willing akong pumunta sa studio pagkatapos para mag-training," the ballerina explains. "Nang na-realize ko iyon, mas lalo ko nang sineryoso ang ballet, at mabuti na lang very supportive po ang aking mga magulang. They've had my back every step of the way." (While rehearsing, I suddenly realized that I wanted to do this every day, that even if I had school, I was willing to head to the studio right after for my ballet training… WhenI realized this, I began taking ballet more seriously. Fortunately, my parents have been very supportive.)

Jian vividly remembers her parents gifting her a ballet figurine during her first recital. "Doon ko talaga na-feel na ang blessed ko to have such supportive parents. And hindi talaga sila nawala sa tabi ko through the years." (It was during that moment that I realized how blessed I am to have such supportive parents. And they really never left my side through the years.)

Due to her interest to learn, partnered by her family's support, Jian – despite starting late – had a steady growth in ballet. From performing in annual recitals, she moved on to dancing in company productions and also competing abroad during her tween and teenage years.

"I just loved everything about it,” raves Jian when asked what she loves about ballet. “Gusto ko ang moments sa studio, sa stage, making friends, ang pag-ko-compete. Lahat talaga! Pati rin ang mga klase. Gusto ko ang mga moments kapag kino-correct ako. Basta lahat… So na-miss ko talaga ang ballet noong umalis ako." (I like the moments inside the studio, on the stage, making friends, the competitions. I really love everything! I also like the classes. I like it when I’m corrected. Everything… So I really missed ballet when I left.)

Midway through college, Jian made the difficult decision to give up what she loved doing in order to be eligible for a dance scholarship in her university. "Ayoko sanang tumigil, pero sayang ang opportunity na makatipid ang magulang ko sa pag-aaral ko."  (I didn’t want to stop, but I also didn’t want to turn my back on the opportunity so that my parents could save on the expenses for my studies.)

Shortly after starting ballet class again and being assigned as an understudy for Chopiniana, Jian (second from front, right row) was surprised to learn she had been cast in the ballet classic. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Diligent as ever, this young lady's college years went by so quickly, that before she knew it, her sleepless nights of studying and finishing projects turned into moments of counting down the days until her graduation.

"Dahil wala na akong ginagawa noon, naiisip ko from time to time na bumalik sa ballet," claims Jian. (Because I hardly did anything during those days, I would often think of returning to ballet). But while rejoining Ballet Manila crossed her mind often, what had really prompted this 21-year-old to put on her tights and pointes again was a strange dream that she remembers quite vividly.

"Napaginipan ko si Sir Shaz (Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso)!" exclaims the fresh college graduate. "Sa dream ko po, sumasayaw kami sa Aliw Theater. Tapos biglang itinigil ni Sir Shaz ang music at sinigaw ang pangalan ko. 'Jiaaaaaan!' Sobrang na-feel ko ang galit niya, so bigla akong nagising." (I dreamt of Sir Shaz. In my dream, we were dancing at the Aliw Theater. Then he suddenly stopped the music and yelled my name. ‘Jiaaaaaan!’ I really felt his anger so I suddenly woke up.)

Admittedly terrified of Sir Shaz (he, in fact, is the one thing about ballet that scares her), Jian's natural reaction should have been to stay away from the studio. Instead, however, she found herself more curious to give ballet – a pastime she decided to take more seriously after her first recital – a second shot.

"Hindi ko po plinano na mag-ballet kaagad, pero sobrang na-curious ako after that dream. Tinatanong ko lagi sa sarili ko, ‘What if mag-start ulit ako? Kakayanin ko pa ba? Anong mangyayari kung bumalik ako?’” (I didn’t plan on returning to ballet so quickly, but I got really curious about dancing again after that dream. I would always ask myself, ‘What if I start again? Will I be able to make it? What will happen if I were to dance ballet again?) To stop these “what if's” from haunting her, Jian approached Ballet Manila's artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde  and asked if she could take a few classes. The prima ballerina, of course, welcomed her.

Since ballet is a dance form that requires daily conditioning, Jian really felt the impact of her two-year absence on her body. "Barre pa lang, pagod na pagod na po ako," she recalls. "Natatawa sa akin si Teacher Lops [assistant ballet mistress and rehearsal mistress Eileen Lope]. Pero siya rin, sobrang supportive." (I was already so exhausted after just doing barre… Teacher Lops couldn’t help but laugh at my efforts, but she too was very supportive about getting me back in shape.) Teacher Eileen advised her to take it one day at a time, to stick with wearing flats first and to not force herself to do center if her body wasn't ready yet.

Dancing in Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika, 2014. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Jian paints a bleak picture of her first few days back in the studio, as she felt so much pain in her body. ‘Parang ang hirap gawin lahat. Ang hirap tumalon, mag-stretching at pati ang attitude ko parang ang baba! Ang sabi ko nga sa sarili ko, ‘Hala, baka hindi ko na maibalik.’" (It seemed like everything was difficult to do. It was hard for me to do the jumps, to stretch and even my attitude was so low! I told myself, ‘Oh no! What if I’m not able to bring my skills back?’)

"Naalala ko noong first time kong mag-pointes," adds Jian. "Sumakit talaga ang paa ko, so nagpaalam ako nang maaga sa klase. Tapos, kinabukasan, ang sakit na ng buong katawan ko!" (I remember the time when I first wore my pointes again. My feet began aching in class, so I had to excuse myself. Then, eventually, my entire body began aching.)

Having spent two years dancing contemporary pieces (as a scholar with the College of Saint Benilde’s Romançon Dance Company), Jian says her body took some time to adjust to her classical ballet training. But luckily, the discipline that ballet demands – namely, to show up early and be prepared to learn – was something that never left her. It was this very discipline that made her cross out things in her can’t-do list.

Thus, regardless of the setbacks of body pains and seeing her BM contemporaries already dancing with the main company, Jian was never that discouraged. She only grew more eager to get into shape. She trained in demi-pointes until her feet were ready for pointes, and did several barre and center drills until she could cope with the dancers in class.

Noticing her perseverance and quick progress, the company’s artistic directors made her an understudy for Chopiniana, one of the highlights of Ballet Manila's 23rd season-ender, Deux. But soon, it was revealed that she would actually be performing as one of the sylphs.

Nagulat po talaga ako doon kasi nga kababalik ko lang,” she says with a tone of disbelief.  “Buti na lang heavy on poses ang classical piece na ito, so nakayanan ko naman. Pero grabe, mali-mali ako sa blocking noong una!" (I really got shocked that I was included in the cast, because I had just returned to ballet… It’s a good thing that this classical piece is heavy on poses, so I was able to do it. But that’s not without struggle. I couldn’t get the blocking right at first.)

Though relieved to get her old skills and body strength back, Jian puts forward that frustration hits her sometimes. “Pero hindi naman ako nagiging negative about it. Iniisip ko na lang that I’m starting from experience rather than from scratch.”  (I don’t want to think negatively about it. I just see it as starting from experience rather than from scratch.)

Jian (right) in the Sleeping Beauty excerpt featured in Gold, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde’s 50th birthday presentation in 2014. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

She explains that her two-year hiatus has allowed her to see things from a different perspective. Technique-wise, she notices more details that she can improve on and polish. If back then, her focus was always on her upper body, now she also pays attention to her knees. Moreover, in terms of mental strength, she’s now more patient and driven when it comes to learning.

Kung papipiliin ako between the dancer I was before and the dancer I am now after those two years of being away, ang pipiliin ko ay the dancer I am today,” she notes, stressing that she really is enjoying the whole process of relearning.

Now a member of the junior company (she was accepted as a trainee upon her return and was subsequently moved up to BM 2), Jian is very grateful to have a taste of the things she had missed out on. “Naalala ko noong pinanood ko ang Snow White ni Ma’am Lise (in 2017). Naiyak ako kasi hindi ako kasama. Siyempre gusto kong ma-try ang choreography ni Ma’am Lise. Buti na lang, ngayon part na ako ng cast,” she enthuses. (I remember when I watched Snow White by Ma’am Lise. I teared up because I wasn’t part of it. Of course, as a dancer, I want to be able to try the choreography of Ma’am Lise. It’s a good thing that now, I’ve been given the opportunity to be part of the cast.)

Now a Travel and Tourism Management graduate, Jian admits she still has plans outside ballet. “Tama, marami pa po akong pangarap at gustong gawin sa buhay," confirms Jian. "Pero sa ngayon, sobrang happy po ako na bumalik ako sa Ballet Manila. Feeling ko rin kasi ay marami pa akong gustong matutunan at gawin dito – that for now, I’m meant to be here." (That’s right, I still have many things that I want to do in life. But right now, I’m just so happy that I returned to Ballet Manila. I really feel that I still have so much more to learn and do here – that for now, I’m meant to be here.)

She stresses that her love for ballet never wavered. "Kahit iba ang klase sa school kaysa sa company, sobrang nag-e-enjoy pa rin ako at syempre, sobrang daming sayaw na gusto kong gawin." (Even if classes in the school are very different from those with the company, I still find taking class enjoyable, and of course, there are still so many dances here that I’d like to experience.)

Getting back into ballet after a two-year absence has been quite difficult, but Jian is determined to prove that she is up to the challenge. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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