Like his breathtaking, rocket-launching leaps, Elwince Magbitang’s trajectory from Tondo slum dweller to world-class dancer in New York is awe-inspiring.
The son of a driver and a housemaid, Magbitang grew up in a shanty in the dense and filthy innards of Manila. When he auditioned for the Ayala Foundation’s Center for Excellence (Centex) arts program for talented, indigent children, he had no idea what ballet was.
After being honed by Steps Dance Studio, he and colleague Vince Pelegrin went on different scholarships to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (JKO) School, the preprofessional training ground of the American Ballet Theater (ABT). In 2019, they joined the junior company, ABT Studio.
Magbitang, the go-getter that he was, auditioned as a super (ballet term for an extra) for ABT’s show at the Metropolitan Opera House and became an apprentice for the company. He got a contract as ABT corps de ballet last September. Though a newbie, he has since been cast in several soloist roles for his virtuosity.
Sofia Zobel Elizalde, founder of Steps Dance Studio, expressed pride at her prodigies—Centex scholar Magbitang and Steps Foundation scholar Pelegrin—who have become financially independent.
At a press conference last Monday, Joanna Ongpin-Duarte, Ayala Foundation senior director for social development programs, said Centex’s holistic program (which includes free basic education and arts) enables their scholars from their formative years and onwards to stand side by side with the international stars.
Centex alumni such as Magbitang and other dancers who joined local companies motivate Elizalde to continuously support Filipino artists.
Hence, on April 20 at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater, the ABT Studio Company will have a concert with piano luminary Cecile Licad.
In the provinces where the audience is hungry for culture, this special program will be brought to Ayala Center Cebu on April 22 and Ayala Center Abreeza Davao on April 23. The proceeds will go to Centex.
Ayala Malls president Christopher Maglanoc said ballet, which is normally unreachable to Filipinos because of steep ticket prices, can now become affordable through mall-sponsored events.
“The second most important advocacy for us as a mall is to bring multi-generational inspirational events—inviting families to come to the mall,” he added.
The ABT Studio Company consists of 12 dancers of different nationalities, including Pelegrin. His Instagram astonishes with posts showing his elegant proportions, fluid lines, feathery interlacing of the feet, buoyant jumps and effortless pirouettes.
The repertoire is a heady mix of one Imperial Russia ballet—excerpts from Marius Petipa’s “Raymonda,” modern classics such as George Balanchine’s speedy “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto” and contemporary works such as Houston Thomas’ “Knife’s Edge.”
Licad will be playing Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti’s music to the dance by British choreographer Gemma Bond. At this writing, Licad has yet to finalize her complete repertoire, which will consist of her “firecracker” pieces.
As a bonus, Stella Abrera, the Filipino American who is acting artistic director of the JKO School, and her husband, Sasha Radetsky, artistic director of ABT Studio Company, will be conducting master classes at the Steps Dance Studio in Makati and at the Ayala Center Cebu.
Impressive backupsElizalde is yet again spearheading this project in her capacity as a member of the ABT Global Council, an international group of advisors consisting of leaders in their fields who involve communities with dance. Their roles include finding opportunities to bring ABT to key places in their country and acting as hosts.
It all began when Abrera, then ABT principal dancer, expressed to Elizalde that she would bring eight colleagues to do a charity show in 2018. Centex became the beneficiary since its scholars have been taking classes at Steps. Abrera wanted to include Filipino dancers in the show.
Elizalde, the concert chairperson, chose Magbitang and Pelegrin as the toreadors, the back-up dancers in the “Don Quixote Suite.” Abrera and Radetsky were impressed with the duo. These hopefuls then sent their audition videos to the JKO School and got accepted.
Meanwhile, Abrera and a new set of ABT dancers returned to the Philippines in 2019 for another benefit show for Centex. The fruit of the benefit shows was a dance school in her honor, the Stella Abrera Dance and Music Hall, in Bauan, Batangas.
“It’s more than a building, it’s sacred ground and an aspirational venue for a lot of our fellow Batangueños in the southern areas,” said Ruel Maranan, Ayala Foundation president. He added that even low-income Filipinos can have access to the arts through Centex’s program.
Education as anti-poverty
Centex patron Kit Zobel has been supporting Centex’s educational thrust, which has developed scholars from kindergarten to college.
“Centex today has over 2,000 scholars who have enrolled in prestigious schools or have graduated, and are now working as professionals. I have always believed in education as a transformative tool in changing people’s lives,” Zobel said.
One such transformation is seen in another Centex scholar, Danier Laganzo, who will compete in the grand prix of the Youth America
Grand Prix (YAGP) in April in Florida. In 2019, he received a full scholarship at the New Zealand Ballet School as his prize at the Asian Grand Prix competition for young dancers in Hong Kong. Elizalde then entered him in the YAGP 2023 Manila, where Laganzo won the top prize and received a 10-day scholarship at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany. Laganzo is pinning his hopes on dance to get out of poverty and find opportunities to help his family.
“These things just happen organically,” said Elizalde.
These Tondo children innocently auditioned for Centex’s after-school arts program. Centex provided their transportation allowances to the studio and likewise engaged their parents in helping to cultivate a healthy family life.
“I don’t think these kids imagined in their wildest dreams where they would end up,” Elizalde said.
Visit https://www.ayalafoundation.org/ (https://www.ayalafoundation.org/) and https://www.ayalamalls.com/ or call Steps Dance Studio at tel. no. (02) 7621 6186.