In Colonial, dancer Alvin Erasga Tolentino finds the lost voices of his homeland

Working with artists in the Philippines, dancer Alvin Erasga Tolentino finds the lost voices of his homeland in the multimedia Colonial
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To the throbbing sounds of percussion, dance artist Alvin Erasga Tolentino moves violently amid two huge video screens, spouting English, Spanish, and Tagalog while projections of Catholic churches, American cola ads, and World War II planes roll by. It’s rehearsal time at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre performance hall, and these are highly loaded images. Together, they conjure the Philippines under colonialism, a provocative theme that has obsessed Tolentino for the past few years, prompting an ambitious new piece that has taken him back to his birth country to work with artists there.

“My mind is always in the Philippines because it’s my homeland, and more so I think because I’m a little older now. I immigrated here at age 12 and had to readapt in western society—and being an artist, I wanted to know more about who I am and more about my roots,” the lithe dancer and Co.ERASGA artistic director says earlier in the day, sitting in the Roundhouse’s café with his dramaturge and cocreator Dennis Gupa. The theatre artist is from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, and is collaborating with Tolentino on the new solo, Colonial.

“Colonialism is quite huge for me as a dancer: your body is colonized in a lot of ways, and how do you decolonize the body? How do we decolonize all the things we do on a daily basis? How do we deconstruct that? There’s the psychological trauma, the aspect of religion, the aspect of power and wealth—it’s all part of the package. It’s so ingrained that it’s hard to actually remove yourself from it.”

The advantage for Tolentino, it turns out, was that by living outside the Philippines, he could have an outsider’s perspective on what happened there. “But I needed someone actually living in the country to guide me, and tell me what is the residue of it in our new generation, and how is the new generation going to move forward.”

Fortunately, as early as a decade ago, Tolentino was already taking his dance to the Philippines and forming those connections. Through his performances there of Field, an artful exploration of rice farming that was also inspired by the Philippines, he was able to connect with Gupa in 2007. And through the theatre director, he then brought on video artist Jon Lazam, composer Angelica Dayao, and costume designer John Carlo Pagunaling for the Colonial project. Because it’s been easier for him to head East than for them to all fly here, Tolentino has made several trips across the Pacific in the past half-year to work on the piece.

To understand what Tolentino, Gupa, and the team are wrestling with in their multimedia work, it helps to know a bit about the complicated history of the Philippines. To oversimplify: until the mid 1500s, its archipelago was inhabited by a variety of indigenous peoples who lived off the land and sea. When the Spaniards came, they stayed for the next three centuries, building schools, altering the language, and introducing Catholicism. But the battle for independence at the turn of the last century just replaced that colonial power with American rule, interrupted briefly by Japanese occupation during World War II.

Speaking to Gupa, you realize that colonization continues in the cultural realm. And it’s a topic that isn’t often deeply discussed or questioned in the Philippines, where, he says, he and others grew up studying mostly European- and American-oriented history.

“If you go right now into the department store in Manila, you would see a lot of American films rather than Philippine-produced films. And if you’re not into a critical mode, that’s just part of your life and you wouldn’t have any problem with it,” he explains, laughing wryly about the fact that even his own first name, like those of so many other Filipinos, is English. “To confront it means to break down everything in you, and that’s horrifying, because as you break it down you realize, ‘I’m a victim and I just accepted that and I never had any true, authentic voice.’ We are all victims of greed, of amassing power. And to confront it, there are so many voices you have to hear, and some of those voices are really lost voices.”

The way Gupa, Tolentino, and their creative team have decided to present all those voices is to break Colonial into three sections. In the first, Tolentino explores the precolonial Philippines via a character he calls the Babaylan, a healer-priestess whose movement is drawn from indigenous dance. “We wanted to look at the natives, and the very beginning. What was it like when there were no visitors or settlers?” Tolentino says. “So we wanted to look at the folklore, the practice of mysticism and primitivism and the ritualistic way they used the body. There was an actual god before the Catholic god, and the gods were the gods of the natural world.”

In the second section, with images of advertisements and church crosses, he is the Katipunero/Katipunan, a warrior from the colonial era. And in the third, he becomes the Sinag, a Tagalog word that both Gupa and Tolentino translate roughly as “enlightenment embodied”, and the piece is a dance of freedom and hope that a new generation can somehow transcend foreign domination and find their true selves.

In Tolentino’s view, the piece should hold particular relevance for Vancouver’s vast population of Filipino ex-pats, with Filipinos now ranking as the third highest number of people immigrating to Canada. But he also wants it to speak to the effects of colonialism on a wider scale. As he puts it: “I’m living in B.C. and I’m aware of the history of indigenous people here; I’ve worked with them. So it’s in our back yards also.”

Colonialism and its hundreds of years of history are huge, heavy topics for one man to take on in an hour of dance—albeit in a show enriched by the intricately researched video imagery, costumes, and music of his homeland. But Tolentino sees Colonial as only the beginning of what will probably turn into a three-year exploration with his far-away collaborators—even if it means a lot more jet lag. And it is a show he will take not only to Montreal, but to his homeland as well.

“The more I go back to the Philippines, the more I realize the wealth of its history and culture,” Tolentino says, “and the more I get fascinated with the fact that there is so much to be discovered and worked on to put into my art form.”

Co.ERASGA presents Colonial at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Thursday to Sunday (October 4 to 7).

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