A Philippine Billy Elliot: the Manila street kids training as ballet dancers
Filmmaker seeks Kickstarter funding to finish documentary about a school that takes children living on Philippine capital's mean streets and teaches them classical dance
Father Rocky Evangelista points to a scattering of pocket knives and ice picks surrendered by street children the Tuloy Foundation has rescued in the urban jungle of Metro Manila. "When they say 'Father, I don't need these any more', that's a victory," he says.
"They can't find food in the garbage bins so they steal. They kill if necessary," he says, recalling how one child told him he had stabbed a policeman in the stomach. "He said, 'Father, you know, life is like that.'"
Despised as pests and preyed on by thugs, rapists, pimps and murderers,for tens of thousands of abandoned orphans and abused runaways life on the streets in the Philippine capital region is unspeakable misery. Amid the grinding poverty, they are easily lured into a life of crime and drug abuse, says Evangelista, founder of the Tuloy Foundation.
His charity cares for more than 200 former street children in Alabang, Muntinlupa City, providing them with food, shelter, clothing and an education at its school, Tuloy sa Don Bosco Street Children's Village, which is also attended by hundreds of other poor children. But these provisions are mere necessities, he says.
"A human needs to play, to laugh … needs to go to a higher level of living. If we want to train these children completely, we should bring them to the arts."
No one knows what orphan Jovit Dino, 17, must have gone through, but he used to hide in a cupboard, squeak like a mouse and need hugs to calm him, says Joonee Garcia, the school's choirmaster.
In recent years, Jovit has undergone a complete transformation, thanks to an opportunity to join ballet classes at the Academy One Music and Dance Centre, owned by Joonee's sister, Cherish Garcia.
"When he started ballet, he just got so into it. The next thing you knew he was teaching kids in school how to dance, and then he was choreographing," Joonee says. "He is also with the choir. Every time I see him, if he is waiting for me, he's got a leg on the balcony railing, stretching. If he's going from point A to point B, he will do the grand jeté. It's quite funny because he is just dancing his way throughout the day in school."
At Joonee's suggestion, Cherish offered ballet scholarships for 10 Tuloy children four years ago. Jovit is one of several who have flourished, earning scholarships for other ballet programmes in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Britain, and places at art school.
The children's inspirational story - more Billy Elliot than Manny Pacquiao - is the subject of an ongoing documentary project called Street Dance, by Manila-based artist and creative director Andy Maluche. It was the idea of a filmmaker friend, Greg Garcia, who is also the sisters' father. "I ran into a family conspiracy to trick me into doing the greatest project I have ever done," Maluche says, laughing.
The Garcia sisters introduced Maluche to Evangelista, who permitted him to film the children's progress on the condition that he did not probe their past and cause them to relive any deep-rooted trauma. He will use footage of children still living rough to highlight the contrast between the subjects' new lives and the appalling conditions they left behind.
"The story had everything - great visuals, a feel-good factor and the potential to become something very beautiful," Maluche says, describing his first film project as a tale of resilience and overcoming the odds.
He began filming at Academy One in June 2013. Bob Clark and Dale Tippin from One World Studios have now helped him launch a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to finish the project. Maluche expects shooting to wrap up in late 2017 and hopes to release Street Dance in January 2018.
He aims to raise US$38,000 from the Kickstarter campaign, which closes on June 8. The funds will be used for repayments and to complete filming, which includes commissioning original music and hiring an assistant editor. Once the work is finished, he hopes to premiere Street Dance at major international film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance.
"I am fascinated by how these kids are constantly changing and developing," he says, citing the example of 14-year-old John Edmar Semera. John was timid when he joined ballet class a year ago as one of Academy One's second intake of Tuloy students. He was a completely different person when Maluche interviewed him recently.
"He sat down in front of me with the confidence of a CEO of a large corporation. In a month or so, he will go to The Royal Ballet School in London for a scholarship," he says.
The children who have responded well to ballet have found inner reserves of the self-discipline its tough training demands, Cherish says. They have gained a sense of dignity and a newfound confidence, despite being initially withdrawn around their dance classmates from supportive families.
"They realise that they can do these things well and their personality changes, especially after their first performance on stage," she says.
"At first they were shy to wear their ballet outfits and talk to others. After a while they became very comfortable. They have made friends with the paying students, play games with them and share stories. Sometimes I have to tell them to go home because they like hanging out."
Kezia Dianito, 15, wouldn't speak or make eye contact before she started ballet. After her first lesson, Kezia told Joonee she also wanted to join her choir. "She started singing and the next thing you knew she was reading in church. Now she can go up to complete strangers and start a conversation."
The once fearful Jovit has taken leaps and bounds in more ways than one, and Cherish believes she will see him on the stage one day. Jovit, along with Celine Astrologo, 14, are two of only six youngsters in the country to be offered places on the ballet programme of the Philippine High School for the Arts.
Other promising Tuloy youngsters include Raymond Salcedo and Rodney Catubay, both of whom turned 18 in April. The boys were awarded scholarships last year to Jean M. Wong School of Ballet's International Summer Dance School in Hong Kong. They have now earned places at the Ballet Manila School, the educational arm of the national classical dance company.
"When you are a street child, there is only so much you can look for," Cherish says. "Something like dance is an equal thing for everyone. Worst-case scenario, there are many dancers that get jobs on cruise ships, in Disneyland, Universal Studios. They make good money. And, of course, best-case is they join a serious ballet company abroad, in Europe or the United States."
The ballet dancers have become the envy of Tuloy sa Don Bosco, Cherish says. "At the first audition four years ago, very few showed up. Last year they were lined up around the gym."
When she admitted a second batch of Tuloy children last year, she accepted 15, rather than the 10 planned, because of the keen interest. Despite the demand, Cherish is discerning. "I look at their physique first and foremost. It is a sad reality that classical ballet requires a certain flexibility and turn-out at the hip sockets - nicely arched feet, too. Then I look at their presence; some kids have it from the get-go."
Not everyone who is handed the opportunity has the dedication or interest to stick it out, however. Tragically, for some children, the pull of the streets - where there is excitement and the illusion of freedom - is too strong.
Cherish says four of the first group of 10 Tuloy children dropped out of ballet, either through a lack of commitment of disciplinary problems at the Tuloy school. She lost two students this year who were discharged from Tuloy sa Don Bosco after being given a number of chances. Cherish remembers one boy, in particular.
"He had fallen in with a bad crowd. We suspected he had started taking drugs and he was just a totally different child. He has come back since and hangs around sometimes, watching the class," she says.
"He was quite good, although a lot of times he was lazy and said he didn't want to do ballet any more. Later, when everything was taken away from him, you could see the regret, and I think that's sad. But it's sadly also a life lesson you have to learn."
Maluche is filming and interviewing all the Tuloy ballet students because, although there are notable stars, the story is still unfolding and the end is far from certain.
"One of the beautiful things about this project is that it provides a great stage for so many possible stories to develop," Maluche says. "As they do, the documentary might start to focus on specific kids, as opposed to all the kids. One personal story is more powerful than a general approach. Maybe there will be several stories. I have several terabytes of video."