From ‘basurera’ to ballerina
Tondo teen a dancing diamond in the roughBy Erika Sauler
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Wearing tights and pointe shoes, her hair tied neatly into a bun, 14-year-old Jessa Balote regularly goes to ballet lessons to train in the Russian Vaganova method.
For a few hours of rigorous rehearsals, she steps out, twirls and glides a world away from the place she calls home, where husbands frequently beat their wives, neighbors gossip as grimy children run around, and petty crimes and senseless killings are not uncommon.
The stink in Aroma, the housing project where she lives near a dump in Tondo, Manila, never goes away. Garbage lines the muddy alleyways as most of the residents pick through trash for a living. The residential buildings, more like warehouses partitioned only by plywood, have no running water and toilets.
From such environs came this balletic diamond in the rough. “It’s chaotic. Violent fights erupt and people gossip a lot,” said Balote, a dance scholar of Ballet Manila School.
Finding a career in the high art of ballet was therefore far from the mind of the young girl who used to scour the streets for recyclables in order to have food on the table, a drudgery which her older sisters continue to do.
“I never dreamt of being a ballerina,” she said. “But I enjoy dancing.”
A rare opportunity came in 2008 when she was encouraged by her brother to audition for a scholarship program of Ballet Manila run by prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.
Four years after earning a slot in Project Ballet Futures, Jessa is now a company apprentice and earns a modest but steady stipend apart from performance honoraria.
“Now I can provide for my family’s needs. We can buy food and pay our electricity bills from my allowance,” she said in an Inquirer interview.
Jessa recently made it as a finalist in the Junior B category of the Asian Grand Prix for young dancers held in Hong Kong, with her performance of La Fille Mal Gardee-Lise variation.
Asked about her fond memories from the trip, she said, eyes alit: “We went to Disneyland!”
But the competition itself was no walk in the park. During the final round, Elizalde recalled, Jessa’s performance encountered a problem. “Her music stopped. Even for the most experienced performer, that could be very rattling. What more for a girl of her age,” she said.
“If you look at the story of her life, it was a feat to become a finalist after only three and a half years of training. And she’s already wearing pointe shoes and doing a solo,” Elizalde said of the young talent.
Balote had also performed in the Ballet Manila productions of “Swan Lake,” “Tatlong Kwento ni Lola Basyang” and the recent “Alamat: Si Sibol at Si Gunaw.”
“Her body is flexible and she has beautifully shaped legs,” Elizalde noted, though pointing out that “her No. 1 advantage over her contemporaries is that she’s hardworking.”
Project Ballet Futures started out simply as a free summer workshop held at the porch of Elizalde’s Quezon City residence. It now has 50 dance scholars trained by Ballet Manila in Pasay City.
The auditions, like the one that gave Jessa a break, are held in coordination with Philippine Christian Foundation in Tondo, and with Gotamco Elementary School and Bonifacio Elementary School in Pasay.
The foundation runs a school where Balote is currently a sixth grader. She attends classes from 7:30 a.m. to 3:10 p.m., and then completes her homework before going to ballet rehearsals at 5:30.
Elizalde concedes that not all of her students will become professional dancers. “Most of them will drop out. At least they are given a chance.”
“(But) I want them to continue to the point that they become professional dancers. Not only will you travel, learn more and make friends, but the experience will also qualify you for other jobs. I actually hope that one of my scholars will eventually put up a ballet school of her own,” she said.
They could also become physiotherapists or pilates and yoga instructors, she added. Some of her students had even branched out to backstage work, such as production, costume, lighting and set design.
For now, Balote simply wants to give her best onstage, partly because “I feel guilty that some of my classmates pay while I get free ballet clothes and lessons.”
“I make sure that my schooling and ballet training are balanced,” she said. “I really want to finish my studies.”
Ultimately, the Tondo girl gifted with litheness and grace dreams of taking her family away from the slums. “I want to lift them up through my diligence. Give them a decent house in a safe place. I want them to be healthy.”
And this she hopes to fulfill, one pointe step at a time.