Islander in the City by Pablo A. Tariman:


Denise Parungao with premier danseur husband Joseph Phillips.

As Ballet Philippines (BP) launches its 53rd season, one Filipina dancer of the company is bound to miss it.

Denise Parungao, last seen in Swan lake and Giselle, passed auditions and now dancing with New Jersey Ballet (NJB) in the United States. The other Filipinos in the company are Eunice Suba and David Lopena.

Said she: “I spent my whole career with BP, I grew up in it and it felt comfortable towards the end. With NJB, everything is new, but everything felt good and right. Of course, I felt pressured, mostly from myself because I want to give a good impression and I really want to do good.”

Denise said she left home with no company contract from any American dance company. But New Jersey beckoned and there was no harm if she auditioned.

The more she was enticed when she learned the company has a new director in the person of Maria Kowroski, a former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. “The presence of Maria Korowski in that company was the main reason why I auditioned to try my luck. After the audition, I was offered a job for the spring season, I took it with no hesitations. I couldn’t believe it at first.”

Her first NJB exposure was as a friend of Kitri in Don Quixote. “I have a variation in the 3rd act and I remember being so nervous dancing a variation in front of the company for the first time in rehearsal. It was like I was 15 years old again dancing in front of the BP members. It was nerve-wracking.”

A month later, she debuted as Kitri and Joseph (Phillips, her husband) was her Basilio.

Other roles followed. “It was significant milestone in my career that I got to dance the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux by George Balanchine and After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon. Both notable pieces are my dream dances that I didn’t really expect I’ll do ever. I am very lucky!”

There are no rankings in the company. “I am very blessed I get to do principal roles. How it felt dancing for American audiences? I don’t feel any difference. It’s just they don’t know me here, I guess that’s less pressure.”

She left the Philippines in November last year for her Nutcracker guesting. “Since I’m in the US already, I decided to audition. Also, to be honest, I want to try to dance with a foreign company.”

Denise Parungao during her last Swan Lake at CCP.

The first two years of the pandemic in Manila taught her the gentle art of coping even as she’s adjusting to her new life as Mrs. Joseph Phillips. The premier danseur built a studio in their apartment. “That’s the closest we can get to feel ‘normal’ at that time. BP also gave online classes all throughout the week which made us sane for two years. As hard as it was, we didn’t detach ourselves from dance, I think it made us more connected to it and to the people around us. The pandemic proved to me that if there is a will, there is a way. Physically, I stayed in shape through regular ballet classes and cardio exercises. I even did some variations (in our apartment) just to feel like I’m working on something and to get the feeling of performing again (even if it is just in front of my dog).

I also taught a lot of ballet classes online which I think helped me understand ballet technique more and hone my passion for teaching. I owe Joseph a lot. He believed in me so much he’s the reason I got to where I am now. Meeting him really changed a lot for me. I’ll be forever thankful for that. He’s not just my husband, he is also my mentor.”

Being married to a premier danseur has its good points. “As an artist, you always need someone who will check on you so you continue to grow. Having a partner who has the same job as you are really beneficial for the both because you help each other become better. In my case, Joseph (Phillips) has a big career. I get a lot of knowledge from him but at the same time it can be hard too. Maybe the hard part of it is you can say everything, and it can be taken emotionally especially me. I am very sensitive. Sometimes, we can clash. But as the saying goes, the truth hurts. I just know I have a lot of things to work on and he helps me with it.”

For now, she enjoys her dancing life even as she feels she is running out of time. “I’m at my phase where I should be dancing a lot and in my best shape. But I lost two years to the pandemic. Now I am trying to catch up and working hard. I think I left home at the right time. I found a perfect company to dance with where I am growing and evolving and pushing. I can say that I am very happy now and inspired to meet new challenges.”

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