Training in Manila, Philippines may seem a world away from dancing with the big ballet companies in New York City. Yet in April 2018, local ballet students Elwince Magbitang and Raye Vince Pelegrin, both 17, shared the stage in Manila with leading dancers from American Ballet Theatre in the benefit gala An Intimate Evening with Stella Abrera & American Ballet Stars. Little did they expect that their performance as toreadors in the Don Quixote Suite would land them at ABT's prestigious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
Stella Abrera, the first Filipino American principal dancer at ABT, created the gala to support the Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education, or CENTEX. CENTEX provides education and performing arts training, among other activities, for children from economically disadvantaged families in the Philippines. It was Abrera's idea to include local ballet students in the production. Magbitang and Pelegrin, students at Manila's Steps Dance Studio, were selected by Sofia Zobel Elizalde, their artistic director and the gala's chair, to perform with Abrera and her colleagues (among them Gillian Murphy, Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven). During master classes and rehearsals for the show, the boys caught the eyes of both Abrera and her husband, ABT Studio Company artistic director, Sascha Radetsky.
From left: Pelegrin, Abrera, Magbitang and Radetsky pose for photos during the CENTEX gala in the Philippines. Courtesy Pelegrin and Magbitang.
"They are both clean technicians, with solid alignment, buoyant jumps, natural turns and senses of lyricism and musicality," says Radetsky. Soon after the gala, he sent the boys' audition videos to Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the JKO School, who accepted them for the 2018-2019 school year.
"I was thrilled and ecstatic because I knew that it would be a great opportunity and a fun experience for me," says Pelegrin. Magbitang, a CENTEX scholar himself, felt both surprised and blessed. "My dream even before we got accepted to JKO was to become a professional dancer at ABT," he says.
It Takes a Village
They have come a long way from their humble beginnings.
Pelegrin hails from Pasay City, Philippines, the son of a limousine driver and call center agent. He began his dance training at age eight, studying ballet, jazz and modern dance at Steps. He was inspired by his two older brothers, who also train at the studio, and received a scholarship under the Steps Dance Studio Foundation.
Magbitang grew up in Manila and began dancing at Steps at age nine. His father works as a driver, while his mother is a housemaid. He was a CENTEX scholar from kindergarten until sixth grade.
Helping the boys transition from their simple life in Manila to the Big Apple required the support of many people.
Their artistic director Sofia Zobel Elizalde and her husband, Patxi Elizalde, provided everything from airfare to dorm room necessities like groceries, bedding and appliances. She also helped the boys secure sponsors to assist with daily needs like winter clothes, transportation and other living expenses. Meanwhile, through Elizalde and Abrera's support, Capezio provided the boys with dancewear when they arrived.
Once they were set up in the city though, it was time to learn how to fend for themselves.
"I became really independent when I moved here," says Pelegrin. "I learned a lot of things like doing my own laundry and budgeting my money."
The young men admit to feeling homesick, but check-ins with family through FaceTime has helped. The resident assistants in their Upper West Side dormitory also planned fun birthday activities. "We didn't feel we were away from home," said Pelegrin.
Learning from the Best
They typically train from 1-6 pm each day in JKO's Upper 2 pre-professional division. In addition to daily technique class, their curriculum includes men's variations, Pilates, modern and character dance, pas de deux, men's strengthening, and music. Lately they have also been rehearsing for JKO's spring performances at The Joyce Theater April 26–27. Mornings and evenings are devoted to academic classes, which are done through an online program.
"My favorite part about training at JKO are the classes taught by amazing teachers like Cynthia Harvey and Robert La Fosse," said Magbitang.
"I remember when I took my first class here," said Pelegrin. "I was really nervous and shy because I didn't know anyone. I was also star struck when Ethan Stiefel taught our class!"
Their teachers have not only taken notice of their dancing, but their professional demeanor as well. "Vince and Elwince have brought a quiet and humble discipline to the school," says Harvey, adding that they have impeccable manners. "They're both very different in their dancing. Vince is elegant, pure and light in his work, while Elwince is a firecracker. Retaining their individuality, and in fact, finding strength in their differences will benefit them both."
Magbitang (back left) and Pelegrin (front center) with JKO School students volunteering at the Family Friendly Matinee during ABT's Fall season at the Koch Theater. Photo courtesy Raye Vince Pelegrin.
Motivation Through Mentorship
Abrera has also taken them under her wing. "Stella checks in on the both of us as a mentor," says Pelegrin. "She watches our classes and asks us how we are doing and if we need something. She has also been so kind to treat us both to dinner."
After their performances at the Joyce, Magbitang and Pelegrin will have an end-of-year meeting to learn if they will continue on at the JKO School for the following year. Whatever the outcome, they both acknowledge that there is much to look forward to.
Following an audition in January, Magbitang was chosen to perform as a super in the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's The Seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House this spring. He will also be attending the Pacific Northwest Ballet summer intensive under full scholarship. Meanwhile, Pelegrin will be attending the ABT New York Summer Intensive, as well as Kaatsbaan's "Extreme Ballet" summer program, both with full scholarships.
Abrera is filled with pride at watching these dancers from her homeland. "Having seen how far these young men have come fills me with such joy," she says. "They work very hard and don't take this opportunity for granted. They have many people rooting for them in Manila. I am so excited to watch their careers blossom!"