20 years and counting: Ballet Baguio redefines Pines

20 years and counting: Ballet Baguio redefines Pines

THIS is a banner year for Ballet Baguio. The school is celebrating its 20th year and it’s been a packed performance season from the beginning. They opened 2023 with the show Iconic featuring the pieces that made the city fall in love with the school.

It was followed up by Legendary which featured the greatest hits of Ballet Baguio divided into eras: the classical era, the Broadway era, the Disney era, and the Diva’s era.

And on Dec. 17, they will be closing the year with The Majestic Nutcracker at the Baguio Convention and Cultural Center. It will feature the school’s very own Keri Villegas as Clara alongside Ballet Manila principal dancer Jessica Pearl Dames and soloist Sean Kevin Pelegrin as the Sugarplum Fairy and the Prince.

Its founder and artistic director, Jacqueline Go-Ramon, cannot be prouder of the school that she established when she was only 15 years old. Technically, her parents founded it since she was still a minor and not able to legally sign the documents. But the vision and artistic direction were all Jackie’s. It is hard to believe that once upon a time, she did not enjoy ballet.

“I was four when I started. I hated ballet when I was a little girl. One of the reasons I agreed was because kasama ko ang best friend ko. (I was with my best friend) I studied under Teacher Chelo (Chelo Borromeo Gemina) in her Children’s Dance Workshop which is now ACTS Manila,” said Ms. Go-Ramon.

When her friend quit, she stopped as well. But Teacher Chelo was relentless. She sent letters to the students, inviting them to return to class and Ms. Go-Ramon found herself back in the studio. But it was only when she overheard a classmate talking about how much she loved ballet that a passion sparked within her. With renewed interest, she worked hard not just to catch up but to excel in the art form she had grown to love.

Unfortunately, Teacher Chelo’s school closed shop. But before doing so, she brought her students to Ballet Manila (BM) to ensure that their ballet education continued. Ms. Go-Ramon soon came face to face with prima ballerina Lisa Macuja Elizalde and her co-artistic director Osias Barroso. Under their tutelage, she discovered that her passion for dance led to a love for teaching it as well.

But as she flourished in ballet, fate had other plans. Her father moved the family to Baguio for work. The young Jackie did not want to leave her newfound passion but was eventually convinced to pack her bags after her parents promised that they would allow her to continue with ballet at the City of Pines.

But finding a school in the province with the same level of standards was very difficult. In 2003, the family decided to put up their own.

“We talked to Ma’am Lise and she said okay. But she was hesitant because I was just a student and I didn’t have company experience. But she agreed for as long as every year we will get teachers and artists from BM to train the faculty,” Ms. Go-Ramon explained. Thus, Ballet Baguio was born.

While Ms. Go-Ramon had an inclination to teach, she soon found out that it would take far more than that for the school to succeed.

“I learned everything the hard way!” she admitted. “We had four students tapos ’yung isa parang saling-pusa lang (one was not really a serious participant). We didn’t have connections. We would go from school to school to teach for P150 an hour! We came from rock-bottom. Our posters were photocopies. We didn’t have funds. We had no capital.”

Her hard work paid off and soon enough, more students started to enroll. But being the youngest ballet school and the youngest artistic director in the city, she experienced pressure from others who felt that this Baguio transplant had no place in the city.

One memorable experience was Ballet Baguio’s first recital. She had 30 students who were excited to perform at the open grounds of the SM Mall. It was a happy occasion marred by advanced ballet students from other schools placing themselves in the front row to intimidate the kids. The parents intervened to protect the children and the event went on without a hitch. But it left its mark on Ms. Go-Ramon whose resolve to succeed was further strengthened by the incident.

She made sure that the training for her teachers was up to date. She strengthened her network and learned to negotiate for performances in commercial spaces. She created short pieces that highlighted the technique that her students were learning but were set to popular music so that more people could enjoy the choreographies. Above all, she conducted the school with the same level of competency and efficiency as a professional ballet company.

There was also a lot of re-education among show producers. There was little understanding of ballet and the process leading to a performance. She would encounter organizers who thought that the students could simply show up and learn choreography just an hour before the show. She had to patiently explain that it takes weeks of rehearsals to ensure that the kids would move as one, and that they needed ample time to stretch and warm-up before a show so that they could perform safely. Requests right before the performance for dancers to do pirouettes could not be accommodated as it could cause injury when done without proper preparation. All this and more had to be explained patiently and with a smile. But soon, they became the entertainment of choice in most of Baguio’s tourist events – from anniversaries to Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. They even featured in the Philippine Military Academies Christmas performances.

When the pandemic hit and everything was shut down, Ms. Go-Ramon turned to her Ballet Manila mentors for guidance. Her students were able to access the company’s online classes. They remained open throughout the difficult times, offering students a way to continue their education, as well as providing parents of very young children with an outlet to expend their excess energy.

“’Yun din yung maganda when you start from the ground. Umangat ka na. Nagka pandemic, bumagsak ka. Alam mong i-rebuild ’yung sarili mo kasi napagdaan mo na ’yun. Dumaan din kami talaga doon sa point noong pandemic na nagte-text kami sa lahat ng students at parents: ‘Tita baka gusto niyong mag-enroll sa amin!’ Kulang na lang magmakaawa ka na sa kanila. Tapos biglang magugulat ka na 100 na ang estudyante online (That’s what’s good when you start from the ground. You grew. The pandemic happened and you fell. You know how to rebuild yourself because you’ve been through it all. We went through a point in the pandemic where we were texting the students and parents: ‘Auntie, you might want to enroll with us!’ You’re this close to begging them. Then it was a surprise to see that we have 100 students online!),” Ms. Go-Ramon reflected.

But the enthusiasm continued offline. When the lockdowns were lifted, there was a clamor among the parents to shift to face-to-face instruction. The students did not only stay but grew. At last count, Ballet Baguio has about 200 students actively participating in school and its various activities.

The Majestic Nutcracker will mark another milestone for the school. It will be their first time doing a full-length classical ballet. She will, however, inject a modern twist into the much-loved choreography.

There is pressure for the school to bring a strong performance but Ms. Go-Ramon is confident. Having weathered so many storms, she knows that they are fully capable of delivering the majestic show that they are promising.

The Majestic Nutcracker will be performed on Dec. 17, 5 p.m., at the Baguio Convention and Cultural Center, Baguio City. Tickets are available at Ballet Baguio, 4th Floor Porta Vaga Mall.

Giselle P. Kasilag co-owns Project Art, Inc., which handles the archives of Ballet Manila. She is also involved with Ballet Manila founder Lisa Macuja-Elizalde’s radio show, Art 2 Art, under the Manila Broadcasting Company. Ms. Kasilag is a former reporter in the Arts & Leisure section of BusinessWorld.