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By Hedy Weiss
The Joffrey Ballet prides itself on being a “no stars/all stars” company, yet certain dancers invariably stand out, drawing attention even when they perform subsidiary roles or in the ensemble.
Christine Rocas has danced many leads with the Joffrey in recent seasons—from Ashton’s Cinderella to the duet in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. But the sheer loveliness of her onstage presence was perhaps most vivid last December when she was part of the Waltz of the Flowers in Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker, a section choreographed by Gerald Arpino.
The effortless beauty of Rocas’ arms; the combination of lightness and energy transmitted through her slight, ideally proportioned frame; the radiance of her delicate face; and her expression of the sheer joy of dancing captured the audience’s attention. She was wholly in the moment, and fully in tune with herself.
A chat with Rocas suggests that her blissful onstage presence comes with continual offstage doubts. While on a grueling midwest tour with the Joffrey not long ago, she admitted to being nervous because she was scheduled to perform two difficult roles the following evening: the innocent young girl in Robbins’ In the Night, and the soaring spirit in Arpino’s Round of Angels.
“I’m always scared to do modern things,” the classically trained Rocas confesses. “I feel insecure about them, and try to learn from other Joffrey dancers who have more experience with contemporary choreography. I try to be spontaneous, but I know I look funny at first.”
Yet difficult roles have been coming her way with increasing frequency, and not only such full-length classics as Giselle and Cinderella. Edwaard Liang tapped her to learn a pas de deux in Age of Innocence, the work he created for the Joffrey in 2008, and he has used her again in his latest work for the company, Woven Dreams, in which she danced an exquisite duet. She was chosen to perform roles in new ballets by James Kudelka and Jessica Lang and to meet the daunting challenges of Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
“Christine is a very quiet person,” says Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director. “She is a bright, committed dancer who delivers beautiful performances. I saw her gifts when, almost overnight, she learned the choreography for Cinderella, replacing a dancer who became pregnant. She worked so hard every day as she really found Cinderella, which I think is like her own story.”
Born in Manila, Rocas, 25, said her mother enrolled both her and her younger brother (Frederick Rocas, now a dancer in the Alabama Ballet) in gymnastics and ballet classes. “Our ballet teachers were Filipino, but they trained in Russia and we often had Russians come to set ballets on us. They were really tough, but my mother was tough, too. She watched every class and gave me notes.”
Rocas dreamed of the dance world beyond the Philippines. “But it was just a fantasy,” she says. While dancing for Ballet Manila, she frequently was sent to competitions. In 2005 she became the silver medalist in the New York International Ballet Competition and received the Arpino Award, a one-year contract with the Joffrey Ballet. “It was an opportunity I had to take,” she says.
Yet as Rocas admits, “I was not at all grown up. I had led a very sheltered life. My mom came with me to Chicago and helped me get settled. But then I was on my own. And I liked it.”
Rocas credits several of her partners with helping her along the way, including Mauro Villanueva, her Albrecht in Giselle, who she says taught her “to not overthink things.” But Rocas still struggles with her self-consciousness. “And sometimes I have trouble understanding the idea of a piece. That was the case with the Balanchine until Bart Cook, who set it, explained I should think of myself as a violin.”
Rocas spends a lot of quiet time by herself. She nourishes her slender figure by cooking lots of Filipino rice dishes and stews. (“I have a huge sack of rice in my apartment.”) “I am just grateful for every opportunity that comes my way,” she says. “I still think back to how thrilling it was to get that contract to the Joffrey. I never imagined it would be possible for me to dance with such a famous U.S. company.”
Hedy Weiss is the theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Thrown in last minute, Rocas learned Ashton’s Cinderella almost overnight. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey.