Meet two living proofs that art can change lives.
Graceful, strong, and well-traveled. One quick look at Jamil Montibon (22) and Jessa Balote (19) will never give you any clue that the two dancers grew up in the slums of Tondo and used to scavenge for a living. As scholars of the country’s premier classical dance company, Ballet Manila, both Jamil and Jessa have been to some of the most prestigious theaters around the world, performing in front of world leaders and society’s elite.
But their journey to success has not been easy. In fact, it was—and still is—riddled with trials. As both continue to dance their way out of poverty, one thing they note that Ballet Manila has provided them with the ability to dream.
“Ballet Manila has helped me aspire for more,” shares Montibon. “Before I entered the company, I was resigned to the fact that I will probably spend the rest of my life on the streets, collecting trash. Ballet Manila has made me realize that I have something to offer to the world. Now, my dream is to become a soloist and travel to more places. I really want to see The Kremlin Ballet Theatre with my own eyes!”
Both Jamil and Jessa are proud products of The Lisa Macuja School of Ballet Manila—an institution that will celebrate 20 years of classical dancing education this month with a recital titled ‘Just Dance 20’.
To date, dancing has taken the two from the streets of Tondo to those of Hong Kong, South Korea, and London. Ballet Manila ensures that their scholars always have a fruitful experience whenever they travel. The company allots time for them to enjoy and immerse themselves in the local culture of the places they visit.
“I really love going to Hong Kong. Hong Kong Disneyland is probably my favorite place in the world. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would actually be able to go there,” Balote says.
Both Jessa and Jamil were handpicked by Ballet Manila’s Artistic Director and CEO, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, to become part of the company’s Project Ballet Futures program. According to Elizalde, it was their distinct physical attributes that made her decide to include the two in the program.
“One attribute of Jessa that allowed her to stand out among those who auditioned before is her ability to turn out her legs,” says the famous Prima Ballerina. “Meaning, her ability to rotate her legs 90 degrees to the right and left. Also, she had really clean lines. Meanwhile, the strength of Jamil’s legs really impressed me. We asked him to jump on the very first day of the auditions, and he just soared.”
Since being accepted in the company, both dancers have undergone classical dance training based on the famous Vaganova style of dancing. Considered by experts and dance enthusiasts as the best in the world, the Vaganova technique served as the foundation of Elizalde’s long and fruitful career—allowing her to reach her dreams of becoming a famous prima ballerina and traveling to places she never thought she’d see in her lifetime.
“Ballet has given me so much and I know that it can give the same to others. The key is really to just keep pushing yourself and to constantly open yourself to learning—not just from your teachers, but from your peers as well. I know for a fact that the Philippines has so much hidden talent waiting to be discovered, and some of those, like Jessa and Jamil, are often hidden away from the spotlight. And that’s why Ballet Manila continues to run Project Ballet Futures.”
Ballet Manila’s Project Ballet Futures is a scholarship program that scouts for potential ballerinas and danseurs in some of the most deprived neighborhoods all over the country. Once accepted, all scholars get free meals, transportation, supplements, dancing gear, and allowance in addition to the full dance scholarship. The program recently held another round of auditions where it accepted a total of 17 new scholars.
“The beauty of dancing is not limited to performances. It transforms people for the better, and that’s one message we want to send out to everyone. Dancing—especially ballet—offers so much more than superficial beauty. It instills discipline and helps uplift spirits,” ends Elizalde.