From a Manila slum emerges an unlikely ballerina

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The ghetto called Aroma reeks of putrefying trash collected by its residents for recycling. Half-naked children with grimy faces play on muddy dirt roads lined by crumbling shanties of tarpaulin walls, cracked tin roofs and communal toilets. 

From this Manila slum of garbage collectors emerged an unlikely Cinderella: ballerina Jessa Balote who at the age of 10 was plucked out of her grubby life by a ballet school to prepare her for a life on stage. 

In four years since her audition in 2008, Jessa has performed in various productions, including Swan Lake, Pinocchio, Don Quixote and a local version of Cinderella. She rode a plane for the first time in August to compete in the 2012 Asian Grand Prix ballet competition for students and young dancers in Hong Kong, where she was a finalist. 

The 14-year-old Jessa's unlikely success is as much a celebration of a unique effort by the Philippines' most famous prima ballerina, Lisa Macuja, to help slum kids of Manila by providing them a scholarship and classical ballet training for six to seven years.      

More than a quarter of the Southeast Asian nation's 94 million people live in abject poverty, many in sprawling and unsanitary shanty towns like Aroma in the capital city. Despite a reecent economic upturn, there are not enough full-time jobs. Education skills are lacking and incomes are low. At least 3,000 Filipinos leave their families behind every day to seek employment abroad. 

Jessa, who would have likely followed her family to a life of garbage picking, had not much of a future to look forward to. 

"I used to tag along with my father and mother when they collected garbage in the evening," Jessa said in her home about the size of a shipping container with a small attic. 

Her family would gather trash from houses in the nearby Quiapo district or rummage for scrap metal in the huge garbage dump not far from home. 

That was until her successful audition for the Project Ballet Futures dance scholarship established by Macuja, founder and artistic director of Ballet Manila who is married to business tycoon Fred Elizalde. 

The outreach program of Ballet Manila — which runs a dance company and a school by the same name — initially accepted 40 students from Jessa's charity-run school in Manila's Tondo district dump site. Some dropped out, but new batches have been accepted.     

Today, the program has 55 scholars, aged 9 to 18, from five partner public schools such as Jessa's. They train daily after school along with 60 paying students.     

"I can help my parents more with what I do now. I earn money from ballet," said Jessa, sitting on a plastic bench in her shorts and t-shirt, her long hair loose. The slim teenager, perhaps so used to dancing on her toes, would often have her toes pointed at the wooden floor even while sitting during the interview.    

Behind her, the plywood wall of the family shack was adorned with pictures of her in gossamer tutu on stage. Sharing the space were frames of ballet certificates and a newspaper clipping about the garbage picker-turned-ballerina. A pair of satin pointe shoes lay on top of a gym bag, a few meters (yards) from sacks of used plastic bottles and other garbage piled up outside the door of her cramped home.  Jessa and other kids are trained in the rigorous Russian Vaganova ballet and are required to keep up with their academics in school. They are provided a monthly stipend of 1,200 pesos to 3,000 pesos ($30 to $73) depending on their ballet level, as well as meals, milk and ballet outfits. They also receive fees of 400 pesos to 1,500 pesos ($10 to $37) for each performance.    

Pointe shoes alone cost $50 to $80 a pair — a fortune for someone eking a living on $2 a day — and wear out within weeks or days, said Macuja.

The daughter of a former senior trade official, Macuja was 18 years old when she received a two-year scholarship at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute (now the Academy of Russian Ballet) in Saint Petersburg in 1982, where she graduated with honors.

She was the first foreign principal ballerina for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg before returning to the Philippines, where she worked as artist-in-residence at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and a principal dancer at the Philippine Ballet Theatre.

Macuja, 48, founded Ballet Manila in 1994 with the aim of making the high art of classical ballet more accessible to common people. The dance company has held performances in malls, schools, town halls and remote villages of the archipelago. She set up the scholarship program in 2008 as a way of paying back for her good fortunes.

For Jessa and the other slum children, it opened a whole new world. Literally so, when she flew to Hong Kong for the ballet competition.

Her glee while on a roller coaster in Disneyland was captured in a photo in her humble home.

During the competition in Hong Kong, she said she often felt nervous and shy to be dancing among well-off peers. But she overcame her fear, remembering Macuja's advice "to persist despite the odds and to not let poverty hinder me."

As a company apprentice she makes around 7,000 pesos ($170) a month, sometimes more, from stipend and performance fees. The money is not enough to lift her family from poverty, but ballet has given her a choice in life.

Her father, Gorgonio, works part-time as a construction worker besides collecting garbage. His meager pay is insufficient to feed his large family of six children and two grandchildren. One son works in a factory while another daughter collects garbage.

Jessa's childhood dream is to become a school teacher. But she also wants to dance as a professional ballerina. She says she is challenged by the feisty acting and difficult dance turns of the Black Swan character in Swan Lake and aspires for that role.

For Jamil Montebon, another Project Ballet's beneficiary, the scholarship was a life saver. 

The troubled 18-year-old has left his broken family in a violent slum community not far from Aroma. 

He became a ballet scholar at 13 but then dropped out of high school and ballet last year after a fight with his mother. During his time off from ballet and school, he collected garbage and worked in a junk shop. At night he would go drinking with other kids who often clashed with rival gangs, then sleep in a church where he got one free meal a week. 

He was later accepted back into the program, which demands that children keep good grades and stay out of trouble. After shaping up, he moved into Ballet Manila's dormitory.

"I think that the key really is that these kids have been given hope, and that hope will transform their lives," Macuja said.

  

SHE Rocks: Candice AdeaBallet Philippines' principal dancer Candice Adea reveals the hardships that she has to go through in order to achieve her dreams. Interview by Charley Bautista-Braga. Video produced by Yahoo! Southeast Asia and Digitank Studios.

Loading...

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • Sy moves up, Villar enters Forbes list of billionaires
    Sy moves up, Villar enters Forbes list of billionaires

    Eleven Filipinos are included in Forbes’ 2015 list of richest people in the world. Filipino-Chinese tycoon Henry Sy Sr. continues to be the wealthiest man in the Philippines. The 90-year-old SM supermalls, banking and property tycoon ranked 73rd among the world’s richest with an increased net worth of $14.2 billion from $11.4 billion last year. Sy’s net worth was attributed to the continued growth of his SM Investments Corp. and his more recent venture, the City of Dreams Manila resort and …

  • US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines
    US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines

    Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday he had found one of Japan's biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, some 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II. Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the American billionaire for his high-tech mission that apparently succeeded after so many failed search attempts by others. Allen posted photos and video online of parts of what he said was the …

  • Jolo apologizes to Bong in visit
    Jolo apologizes to Bong in visit

    Cavite Vice Gov. Jolo Revilla wept and embraced his father as he apologized for the “accidental” shooting incident in their Ayala Alabang residence, the family’s spokesman said yesterday. Lawyer Raymund Fortun came out of the private room at the Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Muntinlupa City to speak to reporters, who were barred from entering the hospital compound during the visit of Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. …

  • US ambassador slashed and bloodied in Seoul attack
    US ambassador slashed and bloodied in Seoul attack

    The US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was slashed on his face and arm in Seoul on Thursday by a blade-wielding assailant opposed to ongoing US-Korean military drills. The United States condemned the "act of violence" which left the ambassador bleeding profusely as he was rushed to hospital, and said that President Barack Obama had spoken with him. Witnesses described how a man with a blade concealed in his right hand had lunged across a table at Lippert at a breakfast function at …

  • World's oldest person wonders about secret to longevity too
    World's oldest person wonders about secret to longevity too

    TOKYO (AP) — The world's oldest person says 117 years doesn't seem like such a long time. …

  • Australian drug smugglers being taken to Indonesian island for execution - media
    Australian drug smugglers being taken to Indonesian island for execution - media

    By Jane Wardell and Beawiharta SYDNEY/DENPASAR, Indonesia (Reuters) - Two convicted Australian drug smugglers were removed from a prison in Bali on Wednesday to be taken to an Indonesian island where they will be shot by firing squad, Australian media reported. The planned executions of Myuran Sukumaran, 33, and Andrew Chan, 31, have ratcheted up diplomatic tensions amid repeated pleas of mercy for the pair from Australia and thrown a spotlight on Indonesia's increasing use of the death …

  • Pacquiao big hit so far in Vegas sports books vs Mayweather

    LAS VEGAS (AP) — Manny Pacquiao has always believed he can do what 47 other fighters before him have failed to do — beat Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the ring. …

  • Another source of SAF execution video identified
    Another source of SAF execution video identified

    The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is still tracing the source of the video showing one of the wounded police commandos being finished off by Muslim rebels during the encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Jan. 25. A source from the Department of Justice (DOJ) said they have identified two persons who first uploaded the video that went viral over social networking sites. The supposed source of the video was elusive and claimed that somebody just placed it on an external drive. The …

POLL

Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Loading...
Poll Choice Options