From a Manila slum emerges an unlikely ballerina

Friday, January 4, 2013
Filipino slum dweller Jessa Balote, center, practices with other students during a class at Ballet Manila in the Philippine capital. Balote, who used to tag along with her family as they collected garbage at a nearby dumpsite, is a scholar at Ballet Manila’s dance program. (Aaron Favila ~ Associated Press)

MANILA, Philippines -- 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 from 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. 

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

A life of poverty      

In this photo taken Nov. 25, 2012, students practice during a class at Ballet Manila in the Philippine capital. Aside from well-off students, the school picks scholars among kids living in slum areas of Manila and enroll them at their dance scholarship program where they are given a monthly stipend. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

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 recent 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. 

Ballet Manila

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.     

In this photo taken Nov. 25, 2012, Filipino slum dweller Jamil Montebon uses his worn-out ballet shoes as he practices steps during a class at Ballet Manila in the Philippine capital. Montebon, a scholar at Ballet Manila's program, used to collect garbage and also worked at a junk shop. He now receives a monthly stipend, stays at their dormitory and is given meals. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

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.

Jessa and other children 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 $30 to $73 depending on their ballet level, as well as meals, milk and ballet outfits. They receive fees of $10 to $37 for each performance.    

Pointe shoes 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 St. 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.

A whole new world

For Jessa and 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 Disneyland roller coaster 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. 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 $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 teacher. She also wants to dance as a professional ballerina. She said she is challenged by the feisty acting and difficult dance turns of the Black Swan character in Swan Lake and aspires for that role.

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

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 children 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.

sitting on a plastic bench in her shorts and T-shirt, her long hair loose

1,200 pesos to 3,000 pesos

400 pesos to 1,500 pesos

7,000 pesos

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 yards from sacks of used plastic bottles and other garbage piled up outside the door of her cramped home. 

As an apprentice, she makes around $170 a month, sometimes double that, from stipend and performance fees.

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