Award changes dancer Jason Garcia Ignacio’s life

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 1, 2009

Only eight years ago, he arrived from the Philippines, barely fluent in English, to study in New York on a scholarship from Ballet Hispanico.

On March 23 of this year, he received the prestigious Mayor's Arts Award as Outstanding Emerging Artist at Washington DC's Kennedy Center.

Welcome to the world of 27-year-old dancer Jason Garcia Ignacio.

"This is the highest award and artist can get in DC," Ignacio said. He has been with DC-based CityDance Ensemble since November 2007, while maintaining a commuting relationship with his partner Jon in New York. Last year, Washingtonian magazine named him one of the city's Top 20 Showstoppers.

"I wasn't expecting it at all," he continued. "I googled the other nominees beforehand and they were major directors and producers. I even told Jon not to bother coming."

When his name was called, he recalls that his legs were shaking and to combat the adrenaline rush as he made his way to the podium, he did a somersault on the stage.

"I'm enjoying the moment, but this is going to change my life," Ignacio said. Already, he has become an overnight celebrity in the Philippines and he's been approached by others who want to work with him.

Though the journey hasn't always been so blissful.

Ignacio was born and raised in Manila in what he describes as a lower income family. "We didn't even have a bathroom, but at least I had school."

He began studying dance at age 12 and then in 1997, the International Theater Institute of the Philippines sent him to study traditional ritual dance at the University of the Theatre of Nations in Seoul, Korea. As a member of the Earth Savers Dreams Ensemble, he traveled the world, before arriving in New York in 2001.

"As soon as I saw New York, I said 'This is the place for me,'" Ignacio recalled.

The first year, he stayed with a family in New Jersey and a teacher from the Philippines supported him while he studied.

He apprenticed at such well-known companies such as Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and worked and taught with the Martha Graham Ensemble and the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company.

He also has toured to different parts of the country playing Mistoffolees in "Cats", was a principal dancer in the off-Broadway show "Traumnovela," and even sang in a few cabaret clubs.

Somehow, he managed to have a little fun too: in 2003, The Web, a well-known gay nightclub in Manhattan, named him Mr. Gay Asia.

Ignacio has not been back to the Philippines since his arrival in America. "I do miss home. I was about to go at the end of May, but CityDance Ensemble needs me here when we go to Chile."

Still, his goal is to get back to the Philippines eventually, he said, "to be able to give back to my community, teach them the knowledge that I got here. There is so much talent in the Philippines, but we need more opportunities."

This fall, Ignacio will premiere his own work, "The Mountain," for which he has been given a grant.

The work is inspired by two mountains of his childhood in the Philippines, Mt. Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991 while he was there, and the man-made Smoky Mountain, a landfill that spews methane gas.

Those mountains will serve as a metaphor in Ignacio's piece, which he hopes will be a powerful piece about global warming. Music is being composed by Domenico Vicinanza.

Reflecting on how the forces of nature and talent have come around to help him with this project, Ignacio said, "There is no holding back when someone believes in you."

Ignacio plans to work hard while the moment is good. "This kind of thing doesn't happen often for someone in my profession. It's once in a lifetime."

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).