OFF-STAGE with Ballet Manila’s Abigail Oliveiro and Mark Sumaylo
When I first met Abigail Oliveiro and Mark Sumaylo, I was immediately intrigued. Neither of them are originally from Manila. Mark is a Cagayan De Oro native who only started dancing ballet professionally at age 26. Abigail, on the other hand, is a dancer from Australia discovered by Ballet Manila’s co-artistic directors, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso, at the Asian Grand Prix competition in Hong Kong back in 2013. I wanted to know more about their story.
Abigail was born and raised in Singapore, where she lived until she was 11. As a hyper active 3-year-old, her father decided to take her to ballet classes.
She started learning the RAD ballet syllabus (English ballet syllabus) and was always at the top of her class despite dancing with girls older than her. Even early on, she was very advanced for her level and always got distinctions.
When she was 11-12 years old, their family migrated to Australia. Abigail continued to dance ballet despite having to travel up to 25km everyday for her lessons.
“At 16, my friends started auditioning. So my teacher’s like, ‘So who wants to audition for the Australian Ballet School? We should be working really hard for auditions now.’ And I asked my parents and they were like ‘No! You’re not auditioning!’ And I go, ‘Why not? I want to be a dancer. I don’t want that chance to be taken away from me. This is it!’ And they’re like, ‘It’s not it’.” (laughs)
Her parents were really insistent that she finished her formal education before she pursued her passion, but they didn’t stop her from dancing. In fact, her dad would drive her to ballet school every night from 6-9pm. He would sleep and watch movies in the car. Since classes never ended on time, he would pick her up at 10pm, drive an hour back to their house, and go off to work for his night shift.
At 17, she went to university to take up Pharmaceutical Science. “I love Math and Chemistry. It’s bizarre.” She would go to university in the day, ballet at night, and would work as a part-time tutor. She kept this up for 2-3 months but it wasn’t sustainable because of her heavy school workload.
Instead of going to ballet every day, it dropped to 2-3 times a week- but she never stopped. At this point, she was already starting to question if ballet was for her because she loved pharmacy too. She thought maybe it was enough to be involved in dance in some way, like performing in fundraisers and charities.
When the holidays came, Nat, one of her best friends, told her that she left a Full-time Ballet Institution because she didn’t feel happy anymore. She invited Abigail to dance with her during the day so she can find what she loved about dancing. Their friend and ballet teacher, Ms. Jane, started to train them everyday for 3 hours. After 3 months, she advised Abigail not to go back to university. Ms Jane could tell that Abigail was going somewhere with dance.
Because she believed in Abigail so much, Ms. Jane tried to convince her parents. Her dad agreed but advised her to finish her education first to have a plan B. Her mother however, was very concerned about her future and what her financial life would be like as a dancer, so she gave her a one-year deadline to try and get a job as a dancer.
Because of sheer belief and love for her two dancers, Ms. Jane brought in even more teachers to teach them. They started to make their own full-time program and worked really hard. While was dancing, she would work multiple jobs to try to save money. She would work as a receptionist, a part-time tutor, and even work on the weekends just so she could be self-sufficient and help out with their finances at home.
When auditions for The Australian Ballet opened up, Ms. Jane encouraged Abigail to try out. She auditioned there, and in other companies in Australia, but didn’t get anywhere. She was getting nervous because her mom’s deadline was about to expire.
Fortunately, she was called back for The Australian Ballet Out There Program. She toured around Australia and had a lot of great experiences, but it wasn’t what she expected. She was teaching more than she was dancing.
“I remember a lot of chocolate that year. (laughs) It started off really well but then halfway I just lost myself. “
It was especially hard because while she was teaching kids in the studio, she could hear The Australian Ballet rehearsing Swan Lake in the next room. She didn’t think she could do another year of the same thing. She wasn’t happy.
She decided to use the hard-earned money she had saved up to go to Europe with Nat in an attempt to look for a company that would hire them. For two and a half months, they went around Finland, Norway, Paris, Germany, and the UK auditioning. She got offers to be an apprentice but realized that she couldn’t afford to live there.
While they were in Paris, Abigail’s brother emailed her about the Asian Grand Prix competition in Hong Kong. She was 20 at the time and a lot of competitions were already closed for her age. Luckily, the cut-off for this one was 28.
“We came back from Europe. We had to work for our funds. We treated it very seriously. I was like, ‘This is it. I have done the Aussie ballet. I have toured Europe. I didn’t make the auditions in the other Australian companies. I am out of options. This is it. I gave my promise to myself and to my parents. I really tried’.”
They came back to Australia around February-March. The competition in Hong Kong was in August. They trained hard and went to Hong Kong together. Their efforts would eventually pay off. Nat got to the semi-finals while Abigail made it to the finals.
At the Grand Prix she met Missy Elizalde of Ballet Manila, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde’s daughter. Missy gave her a season program and suggested she write to them if she was interested. Abigail was so impressed by the season line-up, and even more so when Missy told her that the prima ballerina on the picture was her mom.
She remembers how Osias Barroso approached her and gave her advice about her turns and told her to send them her CV if she was interested to join Ballet Manila. After being really impressed by the company’s dancers and season program, she convinced her mom to let her join.
“They are interested in me. It’s someone else who believes in me. I think I have a good feeling about it,” she told her mom.
She sent Lisa her CV online but didn’t hear back from her. After waiting anxiously for 6 days, she thought that they probably weren’t interested. She was ready to give up and go back to pharmaceutical science because she knew that she had given it her everything.
The day before she was about to return to Australia, her phone buzzed. Her heart raced when she saw an email from Lisa. “OMG they want me ASAP!” She was so excited because she would be with Ballet Manila in time for The Nutcracker.
When she arrived, she felt how welcoming Ballet Manila was. When she came to class, everyone was nice but very serious. When she started rehearsing, she felt like she was on cloud 9. Her first production, Le Corsaire, was when she first met Mark.
“He was always hanging back in the shadows. He used to stare at me all the time!” (laughs)
In the span of 2 years, she got to be in The Nutcracker, Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika: an OPM Festival, Swan Lake, BM 2.0, Romeo and Juliet, Rebel, among many others.
“They started using me for Swan Lake. ‘Oh my god!’ I was like, ‘Are you sure? And like why of all people? Why?!’ I still think they’re insane.“
The year she realized that she was actually dancing principal roles, she told herself, “This is dream come true stuff. This is it.”
Abigail is really grateful to her teachers and her family.
“They believed in me when sometimes I didn’t believe in myself. As a dancer I’m so happy I came from the Jane Moore Academy of Ballet because I feel like I learned how to be a girl, I learned how to be a woman, I learned how to be respectful, I learned how to be polite, and at the same time I learned how to fight. If dancing is what you love and that’s what you want to do, then you’ll see through it.”
Soon after, Abigail bagged the Silver medal at the Asian Grand Prix in 2015. How did she feel?
“BIZARRE! I’ve never danced like this before. I was nervous. I’m always nervous. But I remember when I danced Esmeralda, because I danced it before, it was very different. I felt very comfortable on stage and I knew how to calm my nerves. Plus I was happy dancing. I wasn’t such a nervous wreck like last time. But I didn’t expect anything from it. I mean I knew I changed but this was just my time to show it again. When they did the announcements, I wasn’t really listening. They called the girl before me, and then Joan [Sia] got Bronze, and I was the only one left. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but instead of like doing the Math, I was just like, ‘Alright, this is great. Cool.’ And they were like ‘2nd place, Silver Medal’, and they said there was no gold medal. So I was the top but I was Silver. And I was like, ‘It’s me! Okay!’ That was my first big win. So cool. So cool. And it was nice because it was a physical validation that I did change.”
At 29, it’s really hard to imagine that Mark has only been dancing ballet professionally for 3 years. As a student, he used to perform folk dances in his hometown in Cagayan de Oro. He joined the NAMCYA (National Music Competitions for Young Artists Foundation, Inc.) competition at the CCP where ballet was one of the competitions.
“I joined but I didn’t make it, but some of my friends in CDO got in. So Sir Osias went to CDO and conducted a Master Class. He said, ‘We will give you a chance to perform.’ So I danced again and he said, ‘Yes! You are competing at a national competition here in Manila.’ So that was the start. That was the connection.”
He then joined Ballet Manila’s summer workshop in 2009 and received a full scholarship right after.
“I didn’t accept it because I was graduating. It was my last year so I went back to CDO to finish my studies. After that I stopped [dancing] for 4 years. Then I went to Singapore and applied, looked for jobs. But at that time they started the quota system. They needed to get 5 local citizens before they could hire a foreigner. It was so hard. So I emailed Sir Osias and asked if I could come back and audition. And he said, ‘Okay come back! Work your way up.’ That was 2013.”
“I used to hate dance during my high school days. That’s why I joined track and field. We were not rich, so when I graduated, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. So I tried auditioning in the dance troupe. Then they said they needed instrumentalists in the dance troupe to play musical instruments so I joined because I knew how to play guitar. I wasn’t so good but I could play. And after that they needed props men. I got in as an instrumentalist, then the director said they needed props men to hold the bamboo stick.“
Mark was tall so he was put in charge of holding the sticks. A few weeks after, he came back and the teacher said he needed him to dance. He agreed because he needed the scholarship. And that was the beginning. “From there I started to feel fulfillment.”
Abigail: “That’s what I like about it. You don’t have to go through the exact way to be a ballerina. If you love something, you will find your way to it and if life has that plan for you, somehow or another you’ll fall back into that. It has a way of showing you the way.”
Mark: “In folk dancing, I was fine. Ballet is really hard. Really hard because it’s like building a house. You have to have a good foundation. That’s why, especially for girls, they start really young. For men, around 13, 10, or 8 years old, so that the foundation is solid. So my foundation is honestly not that solid. I need to double up. Work hard. And with Ballet Manila, it comes with good training, good teachers. They motivate you. Until now, I’m still working.”
And that hard work paid off. He was promoted 3 times in one year.
Mark: “I was inspired by the book, ‘10,000 hours’. Sir Osias told me, ‘If you wanted to target something, you have to work 10,000 hours to perfect something.’ Everything is all about hard work. You have to push yourself.”
Abi: “He’s very disciplined. When it comes to something, if it challenges him, he is motivated from the challenge. He will work really hard to see it through. And it’s not just in ballet. It’s just who he is. If he sees something, there’s no stopping him. He’ll get it.”
Mark and Abigail
After two years of dancing at the same company, they officially became a romantic couple! So how did love blossom between them?
Abigail: “I always said I would never date a dancer. (laughs) I feel like I knew the ballet world. Either they’d be gay or go around with everyone.” (laughs)
“We used to be in the same friendship group. And I really liked him because he could be really open-minded. I could always just talk to him about anything and have a proper decent conversation. Not just about petty things, but deep meaningful conversation and it would go on for ages.”
Little did Abigal know, Susan Macuja (Lisa’s mother) and Missy were already teasing Mark about her backstage.
Mark: “What I like about us, we critique each other honestly. Like, ‘What you did, I don’t like it. You need to work on this or that’.”
Abigail: “He has his head on his shoulders. It’s nice to have someone like that. And to have someone who doesn’t just see ballet as an art; as a passion. There’s so much more you can put into that. There’s so much love you can put into that. There’s so much hatred you can put into that too. It’s a form of expression.”
“We’re on the same page. I keep him grounded, he keeps me grounded during insane, psychotic times.”
They have both recently gone to CDO and to Melbourne to meet each other’s families. When I asked Mark if he liked Abigail’s family, she said,
“Does he like my family? He chose my family over me! Sometimes I go out with my friends and he goes, ‘No, that’s alright. I’ll go with your family instead.’ More than once. More than twice.” (laughs)
Abigail: “Love what you do. It’s easy to work hard if you love what you do.”
Mark: “Even if you’re not cast, that doesn’t mean you stop working. You just have to keep moving. We all have problems in life. But when you go, when you dance, when you perform, you set aside everything. You leave it, and then once you’re done, you go home, and you deal with it because you can’t bring it inside. You cannot focus. You will be distracted. So that’s why when we talked about our relationship, if we have problems, once we enter Ballet Manila, leave it outside. So if she’s doing lead roles, I don’t disturb her. I give her space. We talk, avoid arguments.”
Abigail: “My life in Manila has been so enriched by ballet, by the people. As the year goes on there’s always something that makes it even more special. I feel like as a dancer and as a person, being with Mark has helped so much. He’s older. He’s more mature. He has already been through hell and back. (laughs) I feel like I’m a better dancer because of him. Recently, he has made me a better dancer first because he loves the arts as much as I do and he understands ballet the way I understand it. Worldly and expressively, in that essence.”