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From a Manila slum emerges an unlikely ballerina
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.
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 well-off peers. But 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 ($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 school teacher. But 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 for that role.
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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