“WHAT does it take to be a fairy princess?” is one of the big questions that crosses every little girl's mind. The closest thing to this in reality would be to devote oneself to the arduous and lifelong craft of dancing ballet, and it is exactly this that Cagayan de Oro ballet luminary Joan Emery Sia has done since the mid-90s, back when she was just five years old starting out at the Grace and Pointes Dance Center in this city. And after all these years – not to mention so much toil and tears – she has since earned the right to play one of ballet's most coveted roles: the Sugar Plum Fairy of that Christmastime classic, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
“The Sugar Plum Fairy is an iconic character in all of ballet,” says Joan. “Even people who don't know ballet will recognize it when you mention the Nutcracker ballet, it rings a bell. In other countries it is performed every year like a ritual, but that's not the case here in the Philippines.”
Joan, who is today a principal (or highest-ranking) dancer with Lisa Macuja-Elizalde's company Ballet Manila, says that she has danced for two full-length productions as well as several times in excerpts during variety performances in major supporting roles. “I have never been the Sugar Plum Fairy for the full length, but I have done the dances for different shows already,” she adds.
While this is undoubtedly not an easy role to master, it is not without its rewards: Joan won the bronze medal at the 2015 Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong for her performance of excerpts from the Nutcracker as one of her two dances for that contest, and last year she performed the ballet as a guest artist in a ballet school in India. It is as if the Sugar Plum Fairy in her far-off magical kingdom has lent Joan some of her magic as gratitude for doing justice to the role.
Nevertheless, none of this would have been possible had it not been for her extensive training that stretches all the way back to her childhood. During summer vacations she would fly to Manila to attend dance workshops put on by some of the country's most hallowed dance institutions: Ballet Philippines, Ballet Manila, and the Radaic School of Classical Dance.
“The first time I thought about ballet as a career was when [Philippine ballet icon] Felicitas “Tita” Radaic gave me encouragement and a citation. So I decided to move to Manila to learn from her and the other instructors at her school until I joined Ballet Manila in 2009. There I was trained by the directors Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso, along with other Ballet Manila teachers like Jonathan Janolo and Eileen Lopez,” recounts Joan.
All top ballet companies aspire to train and showcase elite dancers, but Ballet Manila's mission includes bringing about a widespread appreciation for ballet as well. “This is why we dance not only in the theater but also in schools, malls, and other venues in and outside Manila,” Joan says, adding that her most recent performance of the Nutcracker adagio was earlier this month at SM Sta. Rosa in Laguna.
More than just an art form, ballet has become to Joan a philosophy and a way of life. “Ballet has always been in my life, but the longer I stayed with it the more I grew not just as an artist but as a person too. It is through this art form that I discovered more about myself. I have unlocked secrets and sides to me I didn't know I had, found strengths and resilience when I thought I had none. Ballet made my life better. It is the love of my life.”