Twirling gracefully in a pool of silk, ribbons, and tulle, Odette is every inch a vision in white. The Prince notices the maiden, instantly struck with the kind of emotion people crossed oceans for, the kind of romance people wrote novels about. It only takes a glance, a few steps closer and then the star-crossed lovers would meet in a dance–the maiden and her prince joined together under the glow of moonlight. An inciting incident that precedes a sequence of a dreamy, fairytale whirlwind of romance and so begins Swan Lake, a love story both cherished and beloved by its audience across the world.
Every wide-eyed, restless child has heard the story a one or two times before going to bed. Perhaps with the mentioned maiden in place on the bedside table – a small stone figurine complete with its tutu, frozen at an image of dance, painted to its every fine detail while it spins away to the music box’s soft lullaby. The fantastical and wonderful adventure of these bedtime stories never doing justice the hard work and effort dancers (whether ballet or not) in real life go through.
It has become commonplace for ballerinas to inspire the images of delicate movement, a kind of poised arch of the back, an ethereal fluid sequence of gracefulness–images that paint the glamour without the backstory. But fusing the elegant art of dance with a personal passion translated through every twist, plié, and graceful turn, these ballerinas defy the stereotypical image of the weak, unmalleable human body we have come to know.
If the shoe fits
Lisa Macuja-Elizalde is no less than an icon of grace and prominence in the Philippine ballet industry. Both muse and artist, she traces back her steps and remembers simple beginnings, back to the unsuspecting path where her ballet dreams would be fulfilled, where she’d eventually rise and etch an indelible name of her own–a path where even personal dreams are exceeded by reality. A prelude she shares in common with every aspirant, Lisa took no shortcuts in ballet.
Traditionally an experienced hiphop dancer, but recently taking up ballet for a different genre of the art form, Ysabel Maniulit explains that every beginning ballet dancer like herself starts with the essentials. Varying for each ballet school, but nonetheless the typicals including leotards, soft ballet shoes, and tights. Just a short list of items to tick off when starting lessons in the dance, the beginners never truly prepared for the succeeding prerequisites consisting of a strong will, fervent passion, and intense love for the art form – the only things that will weed the undecided out, toughen the remaining, and get them through the diets to be followed, positions to master, and fierce competition to endure.
Though exposed to an early training at the age of 8, Lisa wasn’t deterred. “Ballet is the strictest form of dance,” she comments. Strict might be an understatement. A craft that demands passion matched with discipline, it takes a wholehearted commitment to excel.
Being a different story, Abigail Oliveiro, a professional ballerina known for her role as Odette in the notable Swan Lake, didn’t see it as a sacrifice – admitting that she never skipped the classes or training. Oliveiro says, “How strange. Ballet is a discipline, a strict one at that. But there is just so much freedom in it! It’s a discipline that empowers you to be artistic. I can really be myself. I can even be someone else.”
To dance with abandon, to perform and be honestly vulnerable–these are the things that cannot be taught. Call it instinct, call it the summons of a personal calling, but to simply dance and to be a dancer are two different things. As a painter uses a canvass to tell a visual story, as a writer uses his pen, so does music become instrumental to the fluidity of dancer’s storytelling. “When the music plays, it speaks. You move. And you dance,” Oliveiro remarks.
Behind the pretty picture
In the dance, nothing but the beauty and grace is scintillatingly evident. Of course, they are trained to do that. As their toes bear the heavy pressure and weight of their entire body, they maintain the poise and facial expression because one tiny mistake is one wrong frame in a movie.
Dancers seldom talk about the physical wear and tear they get used to, the topic too morbid for the polished, perfected world of glamorous tutus and intricately orchestrated dance routines. Prone to being placed on pedestals for their near-perfect like embodiment, we often fail to shed light on the dark side of a ballet dancer’s world. The short witnessing of a performance never coming close to the hidden, unseen hours of hard work and effort they had endured to fit the role they were expecting to play. After all, “Legs are simply not made to turn out and be pushed into positions like a la segonde or arabesque,” as quoted by Liza.
“Being a professional dancer, you need to make something extremely hard seem very easy. This means daily class and maintenance of form. Sacrifices need to be made in order to take care of your body as the body is your instrument. So you need to make smart choices. Whether or not to go out and spend a late night partying, or getting your sleep for the next day of work – for example. Eating the right foods. Staying away from smoking or alcohol.” Lisa explains.
The Philippine ballet industry may not be Russia, but, that doesn’t make it any less difficult. At times, emotionally overwhelmed, dancers succumb to the pressure and experience huge bouts of insecurity. The ideal and the reality never truly merging, trapping any ballerina in a cage of frustration. Ysabel adds to the idea, admitting that she herself felt a near greediness to be as good as the professionals, increasing her determination for perfectionism and success.
Even at the picture of perfection, dancers will still always be insecure, Lisa confirms. She says, “When you are faced with your imperfect image in the mirror, you are in constant battle with that image and your pursuit of perfection – which as we all know is a battle that can never truly be won.”
All the right moves
Perhaps it is just the human race that we are naturally drawn to objects of beauty, a mesmerizing, pretty vision that is a complete contrast of the harsh world we eventually grow up in and accept with all its ugly flaws. It is in this manner that society often forgets how “human” and inclined to any physical and emotional vulnerability these dancers are.
Being the most memorable statement we need to remember about the dance form, Abigail Oliveiro quotes, “The greatest competition is the one with yourself. That’s where the challenge lies.”
Only a portion of the feet in the practice room ever make it to the big stages of professional ballet companies – the symbolism of success and promise of a career for aspiring ballerinas. “Overcoming the frustrations, the disappointments and the negativities – the things that you can control and the things that are out of your control. How do you pick yourself up again to keep going. Even when everything seems to be working against you,” Oliveiro adds.
Though ballerinas portray a mark of elegance–a difficult feat to maintain amid the spotlight of attention from every expectant member of the audience, it’s more than just the choreography or a charged behind-the-scenes hiding in plain view. Wearing their heart and passion on their sleeves, a single movement isn’t just a step, it’s a peek into a dream they chose to pursue, every step a metaphor of overcoming.
One sees a ballerina and the first impulse is to be in awe. But it’s also natural for one to wonder or eventually ask: how must it be possible to witness an art that makes discipline enticing, a performance so seamless it makes you forget the rigorous practice and dedication it demands? Perhaps the landscape of ballet more accurately resembles hope than it does beauty, grace, or any other thing it represents–an optimistic bet, a calculated step that chooses to move anyway, though fear could’ve just as easily intimidated or paralyzed.
Dainty ballet shoes aren’t among those easy to fill and there will always be some element that makes it difficult or, at times, even risky. But to step against the current of a challenge, to demonstrate that even sacrifice bears the fruit of beauty is to prove that, although difficult, it is the right choice.