We get up close and personal with principal ballet dancers Jemima Reyes and Ian Ocampo, who share the stage as co-stars and passionate performers who’ve worked tirelessly to hone their craft.
The lighting equipment bathed the studio in a white glow. Two figures casted moving shadows across the wall as Swan Lake’s “Pas de deux” played in the background. Their audience was small, composed only of the team in charge of filming and photographing them for this very feature. The room was thick with tension as everyone collectively held their breath, raptly watching dancers Jemima Reyes and Ian Ocampo perform a sequence from Tchaikovsky’s famous production.
Strings swelled as the dancers entangled themselves in a physical conversation. Their glances lingered on one another while they moved back and forth in a silent dialogue.
Drawing Back the Curtains
Later on, the two explained the context of their performance. “They’re at a party, and the Black Swan—Odile—is trying to seduce the Prince,” Reyes shared. “That’s the time when she’s trying to capture his heart.”
Ocampo added: “Odile is trying to deceive the prince, because they [Odile and her father, Von Rothbart] suddenly gate crashed into his party. Odile and Rothbart casted magic inside the castle, mesmerizing the prince.”
Though the two dancers were performing a fictional narrative, some of it seeped into reality. The audience, if only for a while, had stepped into the shoes of the prince, enthralled and seized by an indescribable magic that permeated the room while Reyes and Ocampo moved.
As easily as taking off a coat, the two shed their serious personas, smiling and chuckling after finishing their dance. Performers play so many characters that it’s easy for audiences to forget the singular people behind them. From the start of a performance to when the curtain drops, there’s not much time to ponder on the lives of those who’ve dedicated themselves to the stage.
Which brings us, of course, to the question at hand: who are Jemima Reyes and Ian Ocampo, beyond their significant roles as principal dancers of Ballet Philippines?
Co-Stars, Partners, and Principal Dancers
Like most talented performers, Reyes and Ocampo have a slew of accomplishments attached to their names. After all, to achieve the status of principal dancer within one of the country’s most prominent dance companies is no small feat.
Reyes has performed in numerous productions, including Alice Reyes’ Rama Hari, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Giselle, and most recently, in Coppelia (alongside Ocampo). Ocampo has also starred in many productions throughout his career, including Darangen ni Bantugen, The Nutcracker, Paquita, Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, and of course, Coppelia. Both dancers have received accolades, scholarships, and teaching opportunities that reflect their hard work and commitment to their craft.
Reyes has actually known Ocampo since their high school years, when she was studying at the Philippine High School For The Arts and he was finishing his Summer intensive in the CCP Dance School. Their relationship onstage and backstage has only grown since then, with this year’s production of Coppelia marking their first time dancing together in a full-length story ballet.
Outside of the stage, the two individuals enjoy spending time together by exploring different cuisines, hanging out with friends, and finding ways to unwind after all the physical work. “We like doing hydrotherapy,” shared Reyes with Lifestyle Asia. “Outside of our dancing, we just do things that help us recover.”
As for exploring places to eat, Ocampo debunked an interesting myth surrounding ballet dancers. “One of the misconceptions […] is that we do not eat much. That’s far from the truth. Of course, we take care of our bodies by working, but [we] also nourish them by eating right,” he explained.
Perseverance Personified: Jemima Reyes
Jemima Reyes has been dancing for an impressive 25 years. Her mother enrolled her in ballet as soon as she was able to enter dance school. It’s a big commitment, but the drive to keep dancing is something very innate to Reyes.
“I knew it [dancing] was for me when I was challenged with dances and I’d tackle all of them happily. I felt in my heart that I made the right choice picking dance for college, which was initially my parents’ choice,” she intimated. “I thought, ‘I’m happy doing what I do,’ and I just couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else but dance. That’s when it hit me.”
It Takes Work
Like any artistic calling that requires constant practice and physical endurance, dancing has its hurdles. “Nothing comes easy. Achieving certain goals doesn’t happen overnight,” shared Reyes. “It can take months, years, and more years of both failures and success. For dance especially, everyday may seem the same but you as a person won’t be the same everyday.”
This is why Reyes values her passion and dedication as an artist. “You really need to love what you do. You have to choose to love what you do. But when you don’t feel like choosing love, you have to stick to your commitments and keep the discipline intact,” she continued.
To her, much can be learned from dance; many things she’s picked up throughout her long career continue to shape her as a person. She added: “Without it [dance], I don’t think my life would’ve been as meaningful.”
Finding New Ways to Excel
The pandemic affected many sectors, but the performing arts took one of the hardest hits. Tactility and physical presence are touchstone aspects of crafts like ballet and theater. However, COVID restrictions meant that dancers had to find new ways to adjust and keep in shape.
Factors like inconsistent internet connections and limited dancing space posed a great challenge for Reyes. “Dealing with that everyday was really frustrating. Overcoming it just really required lots of patience until it was time to go back to face-to-face [work],” she shared.
Reyes was also fearful of getting out of shape due to the strict lockdown. So she did what she could at the time, taking as many ballet and yoga classes as she could at home, while also practicing cardio and strength exercises.
“I was so paranoid to the point that I had to physically exhaust myself most days just so I could confirm that I’ve moved enough for the day,” she admitted.
However, it wasn’t all about hardships. Reyes stated that, in some ways, she had benefited from the pandemic. Her main silver lining was getting to go home and live with family; a luxury that’s hard to come by when one is constantly rehearsing.
“Work from home had been beneficial for me,” she told Lifestyle Asia. “I got to focus on improving myself in terms of technique because we had a lot of time to do just classes, and only a little bit of rehearsals, for our upcoming shoots.”
Making a Comeback
Like when the sun emerges after a storm, even the difficult days come to an end. Now, Ballet Philippines is back and stronger than ever with its 54th season. Reyes is incredibly happy, to say the least.
“Nothing beats live performances. The adrenaline, the nerves and the response we get from the audience. You get the most genuine reactions on the spot which is very rewarding,” she shared.
The dance company currently has two upcoming major productions. The first being Christmas Fairytales, an original ballet by artistic director Mikhail Martinyuk, and the second being Limang Daan—a Filipino period piece depicting 500 years of cross-cultural encounters with Spain that influenced Philippine art.
Reyes emphasized how excited she was for the company’s recent production Coppelia, due to it being a full-length classic ballet. “It’s really something I missed doing during the pandemic. It was also my first time doing it, so everything was new to me.”
Jemima Behind the Curtains
So who’s Jemima Reyes behind the curtains? The young performer isn’t one for establishing an alter ego. “I don’t know, I’m really just a person who’s ‘what you see is what you get.’ I don’t play mysterious,” she explained.
That said, Reyes shared that her friends and family are often surprised when they learn that she eats a lot. Seeing her petite and lithe frame, it’s not difficult to understand why. However, the dancer stated that she not only likes looking for new restaurants, but also cooks quite a bit herself. For the most part, she prefers spending her spare time resting.
“We also don’t have plenty of free time so I dedicate it to recovering from work days and chores,” she shared.
As for who she’d be if she wasn’t a dancer, Reyes is inclined to believe she’d be a television actress. “I think it’s something I [would’ve] liked to be before, but maybe if that didn’t work out I’d probably be working on a business plan. I’d like to have my own business and be successful with that,” she told Lifestyle Asia.
In the meantime, Reyes wants to continue to inspire and change people’s lives for the better. Though she has no exact measurements for how far she’s come in that area, she’s thankful for the opportunities she’s gotten to connect with people and become the best version of herself.
Dedicated Leader: Ian Ocampo
Much like Reyes, Ian Ocampo started dancing at a young age. Altogether, his vibrant career spans 16 years, including the time he became a professional dancer at 21. Now at 31, he continues to hone his skills and has even become a teacher to younger dancers.
The call to pursue dancing on a more professional level came to him suddenly and unexpectedly. “It was a random day at the studio. I was in college at that time; while taking class,I suddenly had a vision of how my life would be if I pursued dance,” he explained to Lifestyle Asia.
Remembering His ‘Why’
To say that Ocampo is hard-working would be quite the understatement. Ballet is, after all, a bit of an unconventional career for men, even in this day and age. The dancer knows this and embraces the challenges that come with it.
“Almost all of the boys that got into ballet are scholars. For me and for most of the boys, it’s a way to have a better future,” he shared. “Most struggles are financial, [including] the dilemma of choosing between finding a new career to help our families or waiting for our careers to flourish.”
Though credit where it’s due, Ocampo did a lot more than wait for opportunities: he’s been earning them for years, not just through his talent, but also through steadfast commitment and initiative.
“I worked hard by guesting for dance schools and other dance gigs all over the country to have money, seven days a week,” he intimated.
Luckily for Ocampo, it wasn’t very difficult to stay focused on his goals. He credits his friends and family for providing a strong support system. “Even though dance is not a natural career for men, my family understood that this is where I will excel, so pressure was cut in half. That’s why focusing on my dreams to be a professional was made more meaningful,” he told Lifestyle Asia.
Flexibility and Versatility
Ocampo also took a hit from the pandemic, as he had to accustom himself to practicing in a small space. “I think that really took a toll on my mental health. But as artists, we’re resourceful and creative, so we were able to maintain our daily dance classes,” he explained.
Indeed, the ballet industry stayed afloat by taking advantage of online platforms to continue their work. Ballet Philippines established digital spaces for its dancers to ensure that classes and rehearsals wouldn’t be sacrificed.
“It gave us something to look forward to and hold onto during those tough times,” said Ocampo. “In life things might not always be in our favor, but if we are true to ourselves and what we do, it will always lead us to the right path.”
Making a Comeback
Thankfully, live performances have returned and Ocampo is feeling great about it, like many other dancers. He believes that while the pandemic was certainly a harrowing experience, people can translate the things they’ve learned from it into different works of art.
The dancer looking forward to more opportunities to perform for people. He’s particularly excited about the upcoming Limang Daan. “There’s always something exciting about an original ballet made for you,” he elaborated.
Ian Behind the Curtains
Much like Reyes, Ocampo is fairly straightforward in the way he presents himself to the world. “I don’t have an alter ego. To be honest, I’m a ‘what you see is what you get’ type of person,” he intimated in similar fashion.
Still, there are layers to the young man, who enjoys plenty of other things beyond the realm of dance. “I’m an avid fan of basketball and mixed martial arts, though I cannot play and practice both because of my line of work. [However] I still watch and play through console games,” he shared. And if he wasn’t a dancer? Ocampo believes he would’ve pursued his childhood dream of being a soldier.
Though his career is a far cry from guiding a battalion on missions or the front lines, Ocampo still flexes his leadership skills. “My life’s purpose is to impart something to others by means of inspiring and educating people,” he explained to Lifestyle Asia. “I believe I’m getting there already: I’m a teacher and coach of the next generation. For me, that’s my life purpose after dancing.”
I approached the principal dancers after their shoot to ask them what their favorite part of performing Swan Lake is.
“Physically, it’s very challenging. In the full-length Swan Lake, the lead portrays two characters, and they’re two entirely different characters, because one is good [Odette, the white swan maiden] and one is bad [Odile, the black swan maiden],” shared Reyes. “The thing that really hits me about this character is that she’s the swan queen. She’s the queen of this whole group of other swans, and it really makes you feel like the principal dancer of this big, beautiful company.”
“What I like about this ballet is how regal yet natural it is,” Ocampo stated. “It’s regal because I’m playing a prince, yet natural at the same time because he feels the same way as the local people. He falls in love, he gets deceived. It’s the same feelings and situations that other people also experience.”
Identity seemed to be the common theme in these responses. Though it’s enlightening to draw back the curtains and look for the real people behind the characters, perhaps a part of the whole experience is letting their skills do the talking too.
Every spin and leap is the product of an indomitable human spirit. There’s an inextricable link between dancers and their craft: much like how there’s no Odette without Odile, or the same way a stately prince is still a human with feelings. We can take the dancers away from the stage, but we can’t take the dance away from the dancers—and the world is all the more vibrant because of that.
Photos: KIERAN PUNAY OF KLIQ, INC.
Sittings Editor: MAWI FOJAS DE OCAMPO
Styling: KIM LUNA AND MJ CALAYAN
Art Direction: AGATHA ROMERO
Make-up: PAM CARREON
Hair: JUSTINE OCAMPO
Shoot Coordination: MAE TALAID
Shot on location at AGC STUDIO