Danielle Kleiner: Dancing for her country

At this time of the year, when various pageants are being held to choose our country’s official delegates to international beauty pageants, one young Filipina could well stand out as a contestant. Anyone who sees Danielle for the first time would think this young, beautiful, lithe, articulate, and smart Filipina would be a run-away title holder. At the very least, her fetching smile and gracious ways would get her the Miss Friendship title. And after the judges see her perform, she is sure to be voted as Best in Talent. Add to this her casually cool and becoming fashionista ways, and you can imagine her romping off with more titles.

But our winning lass, Danielle Kleiner, has chosen a different path to do her country proud. She is instead representing the Philippines in the USA International Ballet Competition, whose finalists, coming from 17 countries, were chosen from 300 nominees based on the video presentations they sent to the competition committee. Coming from the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, Finland, France, Armenia, China, and the Philippines, these most deserving of the world’s young ballerinas will gather in what is also recognized as the world Olympics of ballet, in Jackson, Mississippi.

‘I think my strength in ballet is I’m a very good turner. I can turn a lot. I really love turning,’ said Danielle.

Daily Tribune recently interviewed Danielle in a dinner at the Manila Peninsula Hotel hosted by her very supportive parents, Franklin and Michie (nee Gaon) Kleiner.

Danielle shared with us that she started ballet, “when I was around 4 years old like I was just playing around. I was enrolled in baby ballet at the Corinthian Village dance school of Toni Lopez Gonzales when I was five years old.” Her parents saw her early interest when they once brought her to a ballet performance, “and all my brothers fell asleep while I was at the edge of my seat watching intently to the very end. I really loved it.”

Danielle was with Toni Lopez Gonzales until she turned 15 years old in 2014. “I was with Teacher Toni when I did my first solo role as a Sugarplum Fairy in Nutcracker. I was 13 years old,” she related. “What I liked about Teacher Toni was she had a different approach to ballet. She was more focused on the feeling, on just being there, being present, and being able to perform.  It was more the emotion that mattered, which prepared me for the bigger challenges. It was important that I had to feel it what I was performing. So, I was enjoying my dancing.

“It was tiring, of course. But when I look back, it was like I was never scared of performing. Because with her approach, she really gave us confidence in ourselves. Even though we weren’t as technically prepared, the fact that we were enjoying was very apparent to the audience.

At 15, Danielle had wanted to compete. “I was seeing all these ballerinas on social media and YouTube. Since I became more exposed, I realized I wanted to improve my technique. That was when I transferred to the Effie Nanas Ballet School.

“Besides, around that time, a friend of mine, a pupil of teacher Effie, said that they love competing. Moreover, her school in Shangri-La EDSA was near our home. So, as soon as I joined teacher Effie, I sent my video to the CCP ballet competition, but I didn’t get in.  I was shocked. I thought I was good at what I was doing.”

This eye-opener led her to “work more on my technique, which teacher Effie was very good at. She really pushed me. I am grateful to her because she really saw something in me.

“While teacher Toni was fun, teacher Effie was something else. She would never get mad, but you will somehow know and feel if she was mad. She has this aura, and you just want to improve. She’s strict and she’s firm. But she’ll never get mad and she’ll never raise her voice.”

In time, she would join competitions and she would make it but it was “quite a tough ride. Nothing ever comes easy, although if one is committed and one really is passionate about ballet, then one could improve and get far,” she shared.

Fast forward to 2018, Danielle competed in the Philippine run of the Asian Grand Prix. “I competed with other Filipinas and I placed silver. Those who made it next competed in Hong Kong for the finals of the senior division,” she related. For her performance in Esmeralda and Giselle, she received a bronze medal and was the only Filipina to receive an award.

All these years, she would join teacher Effie in travels where “we would be exposed to professional ballet, at the same time that we would take lessons from top teachers.” She also trained for a month in Korea in Julia’s Ballet Academy where she trained with a Russian choreographer. Of Korean dances, she said, “They dance cleanly. When you see them dance, they have the same style. I have my own style.”

Just recently before the pandemic, she lived in the United States where she danced with the United Ballet Theater in Orlando Florida until she packed her bags to come home and relax for a while, all the time keeping to her dancing at home.

While busy with ballet, Danielle has given equal time to her college studies. She is enrolled at the University of Asia and the Pacific where she hopes to graduate in an Entrepreneurship course in August this year.

For the forthcoming International Ballet Competition, which will consist of three rounds, she will dance “Esmeralda” and “Giselle” in the first round. In the next level, she will dance “Sari,” a contemporary dance choreographed by Gia Gequinto and inspired by the mythical creature Sarimanok . And when, with our fingers crossed, she makes it to the finals, she will dance two classical pieces, “Medora” and “Black Swan,” and one modern, called, “Hello I’m Dani,”  also choreographed by Gia Gequinto, while its music is from the Ballet Philippines’ “Diyosa.”

The following are excerpts from our interview with Danielle:

Daily Tribune (DT):  how do you feel when you win a competition?

Danielle Gaon  Kleiner (DGK) : Motivated. Like I can do more. Refreshed also.  Not really contented, like you want more.


DT: How do you prepare for a competition?

DGK: The preparation is never easy. It has to be slowly but surely.  You don’t see any drastic improvement in a week. You’ll probably see it when you look back. Like three months, down the line. You’ll be like, “Oh, I used to not be able to do this. But I find it easier now.”


DT: What did you improve for this forthcoming competition?

DGK: I guess it’s the technique in ballet. Like, the turnout, higher extensions of the leg. Like, cleaner turns.

DT: Can anybody dance ballet? Or are there certain requirements to the body?

DGK: Well, anybody can dance ballet, honestly. It is said that the ideal ballet body is small head, long arms, long legs, short torso. Your torso has to be proportionate to your legs. Your legs should be longer and you have to have nice feet, not flat-footed.


DT: So, how often do you practice?

DGK: Now, I practice from Tuesdays to Sundays for the competition. I start at 10 in the morning. And I usually end at four or five in the afternoon.


DT: What are your advantages as a ballet dancer?

DGK: I think my strength in ballet is I’m a very good turner. I can turn a lot. I really love turning.

DT: How come you don’t get dizzy?

DGK:  Because you have to spot. Like, when you turn, you have to look at just one turn.


DT: When did you first aim for this international competition

DGK: Last year yet. Like, I was contemplating. It was always at the back of my head. Like I still wanted to compete. I wanted to see how far I could go.


DT: Have you been really practicing and giving your all to it?

DGK: I have. Yeah. I really have to sacrifice a lot of my time just for training.


DT: When did you know you qualified?

DGK: I sent my video around February. Then, I found out in March that I was qualified. They said it would be sent on this date but I received it three days earlier. I was in the middle of our ballet class and when I read the result, I was shocked.

DT: Were you hopeful?

DGK: I remember that at first, yes. And then, it was like the more I kept watching the video that I submitted, I was telling myself I could have done better.


DT: What do you eat? I mean, do you have a certain diet?

DGK: Actually, no.  But I need to eat because what I’m doing requires energy. I eat rice, but I just try to cut down on the sweets. Because I really have a big sweet tooth. And I love ice cream.


DT: What did you learn in Florida that you did not learn here?

DGK: I guess, strength training. Like, we incorporated a lot of exercise, how to prevent injuries and how to use the right muscles.  It’s more scientific. And for the dancing aspect, I think, it’s more of like the American style.


DT: How is it with Ballet Philippines?

DGK: Since we have a Russian director now, we’re trained more in a Vaganova style.

DT: So, what did everyone say when you made it to the IBC finals?

DGK: When they found out that I passed the USA IBC, they were shocked. Like what a big difference from how I danced before. It was like they called me the underdog or something.


DT:  Let’s shift gears. Who are your friends in ballet? Are you close to anybody?

DGK: Yeah. My best friends are Olivia Bugayong, Veronica Atienza, and Nicole Barroso. We bond by dancing. We go on sleepovers. We go out to eat. We watch movies.


DT: Who’s your favorite actor or actress?

DGK: Maybe Jennifer Aniston. I liked her “Friends” series. I admire Audrey Hepburn. I love her “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The classic. She’s just so graceful. I also like Grace Kelly.


DT: Do you have a boyfriend now?

DGK: Yes.


DT: What’s his name? Tell me more about him

DGK: Cesar Quiambao. Their family is from Pangasinan. He is taking up Management in Ateneo.

DT: What do you like in a boy?

DGK: If he’s maalaga or caring or nurturing.


DT: What are you brushing up on now?

DGK: It’s more on just being able to do the pieces again and again. So, I can instill them in my body, making them feel like second skin. Like second nature to me.


DT: Who do you want to thank for this coming opportunity to represent our country?

DGK: The Lord, of course. My mentors through the years and I should like to make special mention of our Ballet Philipppines artistic director Mikhail Martynuk. Of course, my parents who have been behind me from day one of my ballet exposure and education. I have also received support from my best friends in ballet,  my boyfriend, siblings, family friends and  my fellow ballet dancers. I am grateful for their support and I am happy to be able to represent our country. It’s an honor and I am praying to be able to do my best.