Meet Filipina dancer in America's premier ballet company

June 18, 2013
ABS-CBN News
Kathy Rose A. Garcia

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MANILA, Philippines - A Filipina ballet dancer has been getting raves for her performances with the renowned Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.

A Ballet Manila alumni, Christine Rocas has been with America's premier ballet company since 2005. Her performances with the Joffrey Ballet has gotten her noticed by critics.

"The effortless beauty of Rocas' arms; the combination of lightness and energy transmitted through her slight, ideally proportioned frame; the radiance of her delicate face; and her expression of the sheer joy of dancing captured the audience’s attention," critic Hedy Weiss said in Dance Magazine.

The Chicago Sun-Times called her recent performance as Emilia in "Othello" as "exquisitely subtle and passionate".

It may be hard to imagine the pretty and graceful Rocas as anything but a dancer, but she started as a gymnast when she was 8 and she wasn't always in love with ballet.

In an interview with ABS-CBNnews.com in Makati last week, Rocas recalled how she initially took ballet classes as part of her rhythmic gymnastics training. At 11, she wasn't exactly thrilled when her mom forced her to audition for a scholarship with Ballet Manila.

"I didn't like auditioning," she said, but despite her reluctance she did get the scholarship.

For several years, she juggled gymnastics and ballet, but she eventually had to choose which one to pursue. At that time, she was 15 and already part of the Philippine national gymnastics team.

"I was a professional (gymnast) at that point, but to leave that behind and pursue ballet, where I didn't know where I'll end up... It was a huge leap of faith," Rocas said.

At Ballet Manila, Rocas blossomed under prima ballerina Lisa Macuja's tutelage. "She has so many things to share about her passion, dancing, technique and artistry... I learned a lot from her... It was a great experience to be taught by her," she said.

She was sent to various international competitions, such as the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in Finland, where she was a semi-finalist in the junior division; and the New York International Ballet Competition, where she won silver medal and the Arpino Award in 2005.

"I'm very grateful to Ballet Manila because they exposed me to competitions. I started out with having the scholarship and training under Ms. Lisa Macuja and several of her well-trained dancers, so with that I was able to build a good foundation and gain confidence to perform well... It was all thanks to Ballet Manila, if it wasn't for them, the opportunities they gave me, I wouldn't be where I am today," she said.

Moving to Chicago

Along with the Arpino Award came a one-year contract with the Joffrey Ballet. Rocas once again had to make the decision, to stay with Ballet Manila, where she was already getting principal roles or to join the Joffrey Ballet, where she would have to start from scratch.

The opportunity was too good to pass up, so in August 2005, the then 19-year-old Rocas packed up her bags and moved to Chicago.

The work environment at the Joffrey was quite different from what she was used to at Ballet Manila.

"I feel that over there, everyone was very different from each other. There are no two dancers who are alike, no two dancers doing the same steps the same way... In the beginning, it was hard for me to appreciate the differences in each dancer. But in time I realized that an individual is an individual. It's how you use your individuality to your own advantage, it's your true artistry," she said.

Now, she has developed her own style. "I don't look like a Ballet Manila dancer anymore," she laughed.

Since joining the Joffrey, she has been in Apollo, Cinderella (Cinderella and Summer Fairy), The Dream, Giselle (Giselle), The Green Table, Light Rain, Les Presages, The Nutcracker, In the Night, Reflections, Pretty Ballet, Crossed, Age of Innocence, After the Rain, Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Romeo & Juliet.

Her busy work schedule usually means she has to work five or sometimes six days a week. "It's not so bad. It's actually fun when you think about it. I'm very happy," she said.

On her downtime, she likes to relax at home and watch Korean dramas. "I love Korean dramas," she gushed. Asked if she has any favorite dramas, Rocas smiled and asked, "how many?"

While she lives in Chicago for 38 weeks in a year, Rocas said she makes sure she goes home every year. But that doesn't make her any less homesick, as she admitted she still cries every time she leaves Manila.

Rocas, who is currently on vacation in Manila, also gave her first performance in the Philippines since she joined The Joffrey. She was invited by Macuja to perform in Ballet Manila's "Stars of Philippine Ballet" gala, which gathered the finest ballet artists here and abroad earlier this month.

She and her partner Mauro Villanueva, who recently retired from the Joffrey, performed two pieces from the Joffrey Ballet repertoire - Reflections by Gerald Arpino and Bells (Pas de Deux) by Yuri Possokhov.

"The audience was very receptive... I was very grateful and encouraged by them," she said of the audience at the gala.

Advice for aspiring dancers

Rocas offered some advice for aspiring ballet dancers. Passion, she said, is very important.

"Ballet is a very visual art, and you must be able to touch an audience member with what you're doing... We have that passion, we just need to show it. We have amazing talent. Filipinos are so talented and passionate," she noted.

Also, dancers should always keep an open mind.

"Make sure you watch every single person because there's always something you can learn from them. And explore your own individuality, you're not the same as the next girl... Why try to be the same? Stand out if you can," she said.

Asked where she sees herself in the future, the 27-year-old hasn't quite figured it out yet. "I want to keep dancing until my body holds out... It would be nice to stay within the dance community, teaching ballet or even a stage manager. I could go to school for physical therapy... I would love to open my own school when the time comes."

But one thing is for certain, she will always come back home. "My heart will always be here," she said.