Fri, Dec 28, 2012 - Page 9 News List

From a slum in the Philippines emerges an unlikely ballerina

Thanks to a program run by the country’s most famous ballerina, children from poor neighborhoods are being given a chance to dance their way to a better life

By Teresa Cerojano  /  AP, MANILA, Philippines

They also receive fees of 400 pesos to 1,500 pesos for each performance.

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

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 Theater. Macuja, 48, founded Ballet Manila in 1994 with the aim of making the high art of classical ballet more accessible to the general public. 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 fortune.

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 better-off peers. However, 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 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 dream is to become a school teacher. 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 to play that role.

For Jamil Montebon, another Project Ballet 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.

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