Of Grace and Grit: Two Filipinas Bring Ballet Front and Center on the Global Stage

 Christine Rocas and Jeraldine Mendoza rehearse Justin Peck’s  In Creases.  (Photo by Temur Suluashvili)  

Christine Rocas and Jeraldine Mendoza rehearse Justin Peck’s In Creases. (Photo by Temur Suluashvili)  

Jeraldine Mendoza and Christine Rocas are two young and vibrant Filipinas that have vastly different histories and family experiences. The former was born and brought up in San Francisco, while the latter spent her childhood and early days in the Philippine motherland. But both are tied together by a deep passion that exemplifies grace, beauty and strength. Mendoza and Rocas are ballet dancers who have excelled in the art for years. These days, they call the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago their ballet company and continue to captivate audiences with magical, exquisite and fearless performances. 

Jeraldine Mendoza

Being a first-generation Filipino, Mendoza’s upbringing fused the influence of the Filipino diaspora with an American way of life.  She grew up in what was largely a Western- oriented culture, but the delectable taste of Filipino food could not escape her.  Mendoza was also part of a big family that held gatherings at least once a month. “I was surrounded by unending laughter,” she says. “Most of my most favorite childhood moments were time spent with the family around delicious Filipino food.”

Mendoza’s parents, Joselito and Marieta, met at an architectural engineering firm in the Philippines before immigrating to the U.S. in 1983.  Here, they were blessed with three children, the eldest being Mary Jane, followed by Jeraldine and Christopher.  The family still resides in San Francisco, and it is where Mendoza established an impressive ballet career.  

 Jeraldine Mendoza performs the title role in Sir Frederick Ashton’s  Cinderella.  (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

Jeraldine Mendoza performs the title role in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella. (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

Mendoza began training in ballet at age five, mainly under the artistic direction of Galina Alexandrova at the City Ballet School of San Francisco.  She received a full merit scholarship to the “summer intensive” of the School of American Ballet in New York in 2009, followed by a traineeship with the San Francisco Ballet.  She excelled at training and spent her last year at the renowned Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow graduating in 2010, an experience she considers one of her proudest accomplishments.  “The whole year was dedicated to preparing for presentation exams: classical; acting; pas de deux and character,” she explains. “They challenge you immensely but also highlight your strengths.  I passed my exams with excellent marks.”  

Mendoza’s dance expertise was even highlighted in a May 2015 issue of Dance Magazine, its first international issue.  Titled “The Bolshoi Effect,” the magazine featured interviews with Americans who studied at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and are now successful professional ballet dancers.  

Mendoza has stayed on her toes ever since.  In her initial season at the Joffrey Ballet in 2011, she was nominated for the Leonore Annerberg Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts by artistic director Ashley Wheater and became the recipient of the fund.  The recognition brought her new exposure and ballet experiences globally.  

“I was able to commission a new work by world-renowned choreographer Yuri Possokhov,” Mendoza says. “The fellowship also allowed me to travel abroad to London, Amsterdam, Dresden, Hamburg, Moscow and Paris, taking classes with different companies, watching performances and immersing myself."


They call the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago their ballet company and continue to captivate audiences with magical, exquisite and fearless performances. 

Mendoza’s performances are vast and continue to grow.  Some of her lead roles include: Gerald Arpino’s The Nutcracker, Sea Shadow, and Light Rain; Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence; George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake and Liturgy; Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet; Anthony Tudor’s Lilac Garden (Caroline); and many more. 

While she cannot picture herself outside of ballet, Mendoza has a lighthearted and spontaneous attitude. She loves fashion, design and music and enjoys time with her boyfriend, fellow Joffrey dancer Dylan Gutierrez, who is originally from Los Angeles, and their baby Boston terrier, Kahlua.  While her profession calls for seriousness, outside of it is one outgoing individual in Jeraldine Mendoza.

Mendoza has had a good head on her shoulders since she was young.  The values she demonstrates are reflections of her successes.  “The time and effort put into your work will always pay off; there are no shortcuts,” she advises.  “Also, our careers and lives are too short -- learn from the tough days, appreciate the lessons and relish in the moments."

Christine Rocas

Christine Rocas tells a distinct but equally captivating narrative of her ballet career. Hers was an immigrant story where she had to confront a new culture and peer environment.  Rocas grew up in the Philippines. The daughter of Geronimo Rocas from Camalaniugan, Cagayan, and Milagros Rocas from Santo Tomas, Batangas, she has a younger brother, Frederick Rocas, also a dancer and company artist of the Alabama Ballet.  

Rocas started dancing not with ballet but by being part of a rhythmic gymnastics program, which her mother initiated her into.  "My parents wanted my brother and I to be very active children so they enrolled us in various sports, one of which was gymnastics,” she says.  “I took up ballet to supplement my gymnastics training with my first class being at the Candy Africa-Piedad Ballet School.”  

 Christine Rocas performs the title role in Sir Frederick Ashton’s  Cinderella  (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

Christine Rocas performs the title role in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

Three years later, Rocas found herself with a full scholarship at the Ballet Manila School under the directorship of prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.  “This was the beginning of my love for ballet,” she recalls.  “I was so inspired by teachers and fellow dancers that, with time, I slowly veered away from gymnastics and made the decision to commit to only ballet."

Performance has been a familiar refrain for Rocas.  She was a member of the 1997 Philippine Gymnastics Team for Rhythmic Gymnastics and represented the country in international competitions, such as the Asia-Pacific Games and South East Asian Gymnastics Championship (SEAGCON). She showed the same fortitude and determination in ballet immersion.  In 2005 she competed in the New York International Ballet Competition and was awarded a silver medal, as well as the coveted Arpino Award, which led to a year contract with the Joffrey Ballet.  “This was definitely the mark of a new chapter in my life,” she recalls excitedly.

At the Joffrey, Rocas has explored characters and movement.  She gives due credit to director Ashley Wheater and Graca Sales, both of whom “shaped the artist in me that’s beyond just the technique of being a dancer.”  A few noted performances from an impressive repertoire include: Apollo, Giselle (Giselle); The Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy); Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Romeo & Juliet (Juliet).

One of her most memorable moments as a dancer happened as part of a 2014 fundraising performance for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  Rocas was grateful for the opportunity to perform in a show entitled “After the Storm” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “It was so unreal to be sharing the stage with amazing artists in the world, including Lea Salonga, Lou Diamond Philips, Darren Criss, Philippe Quinit, Apl.de.Ap, Charice Pempengco and Rodell Rosel,” she recalls.  “Being part of something so meaningful for the country I love was such an amazing feeling."

Rocas has a deep appreciation for music and finds it to be an inspiring element in her dance routines.  “Finding the billows, the wafts, the swoons, trigger a deeper initiation of movement and even character development.  Sometimes, the story is already in the music.  I just have to feel it,” she describes beautifully.  

While Rocas works furiously at her ballet skills, outside of that, she enjoys quiet time and moments of introversion. "I like to read and craft,” she says of her hobbies. "Mostly crochet, but I really enjoy trying different projects. I browse Pinterest for fun projects and try it when I have some free time."

A shared connection

Mendoza and Rocas never knew each other personally before joining the Joffrey, but they quickly established a familiar connection in the most magical way.  “We were both Filipinas and talked background upon meeting,” narrates Mendoza.  “Lo and behold, we found out we are distant relatives.  My mom’s half brother is married to Christine’s grandmother’s cousin.  How weird!"

A funny coincidence indeed, but passion for ballet links these two Filipina dancers so deeply. They exemplify the meaning of hard work and a keen resolve to excel. They don’t need outside validation of their achievements and they continue to explore ways to become better in the field that they have grown to love.  Nevertheless, both advocate for a sense of balance.  

"Discipline and dedication are a must in ballet…complete focus and unwavering attention in the studios at all times. However, do not deprive yourself of the joys of a personal lifestyle. A healthy and happy person translates to a beautiful artist,” advises Rocas.

 Christine Rocas as Diana (in black) and Jeraldine Mendoza as Sylvia (in red) in John Neumeier’s  Sylvia.  (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

Christine Rocas as Diana (in black) and Jeraldine Mendoza as Sylvia (in red) in John Neumeier’s Sylvia. (Photo by Cheryl Mann)

Jeraldine Mendoza and Christine Rocas made headlines in May 2016 when they assumed the lead role with alternating performances in the Joffrey’s production of Sir Frederick’s Ashton’s Cinderella. The show was organized to mark the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s 60th anniversary celebration and its 21st season as a Chicago company. With mesmerizing, impressive and highly energetic performances, both ballerinas have propelled Filipino creative talent onto the international stage. Their successes reinforce what Filipinos with a strong work ethic and an innate passion to excel are capable of achieving.

For information on the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, visit www.joffrey.org


 Serina Aidasani

Serina Aidasani

Serina Aidasani divides her time between New York and Chicago. She works in marketing communications and public relations.


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