Co.ERASGA's culture-crossing Passages of Rhythms discovers new dance and vocal languages

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      Dance artist Alvin Erasga Tolentino’s never-ending quest for cross-cultural exploration has found him playing with the sarongs of Southeast Asia, riffing on sexual identity with a Uruguayan artist, and tapping into Thailand’s classical dance forms and night markets. That’s on top of all the contemporary-dance creations the Filipino-Canadian has made that mine his homeland’s identity and history.

      But perhaps no other piece has pushed Tolentino into as many new realms as Passages of Rhythms—three duets that not only find him delving into the Indian classical dance bharata natyam and the traditions of flamenco, but culminate in his exchanging vocalizations with Quebec voice artist and composer Gabriel Dharmoo.

      “That’s what this work is about: to challenge myself as an artist and not be afraid to encounter these new genres,” says an upbeat Tolentino, sitting with Dharmoo in the Nest on Granville Island, where the new work will debut. “I always wanted to use my voice. And we’ve been finding it and playing with it and asking, ‘What kind of texture can I bring out of myself?’ To have the time and space to do that was eye-opening—and also to see how my trained body of the dancer moves with this voice.”

      His discovery, working with Dharmoo on this last section of the piece, was that you can’t really choreograph to vocalizations. “You can’t trap the movement,” Tolentino explains. “We have structure in the piece but the movement comes naturally with the voice.”

      “I don’t think I’d do well with choreography and he wouldn’t have done well with me writing a score,” adds Dharmoo, whose local work has included a premiere with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and a performance at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival of his music-mockumentary hybrid Anthropologies Imaginaires. “Basically, the process was getting to know what our language is.”

      That kind of negotiation is a big theme of Passages of Rhythms. Along with the collaboration with Dharmoo, Tolentino pairs himself with local Chinese-Canadian flamenco artist Kasandra “La China” and then creates a work with bharata natyam master Vaidya, with live percussion for both.
      All of the pieces explore the different rhythms of the body, he says, and all required finding that new, common language that Dharmoo talks about. That all fits well into the wheelhouse for Tolentino, who has been exploring hybrid identities and working with dancers of colour for much of his career here. But Passages of Rhythms has taken him into strange new adventures; he jokes that a good alternative title might be Alvin in Wonderland.

      The vocalizations require an energy and openness that Tolentino (who has more-than-average energy and openness to begin with) has rarely had to tap before. In rehearsal, Dharmoo and Tolentino circle and encounter one another in different ways, with all manner of musical clacks, blips, blurps, and shrieks coming out of their mouths. “When it comes out we hold on to it and make sure it resonates,” Tolentino explains.

      The bharata natyam part, in comparison, was difficult due to its intricacy, Tolentino offers. But it was flamenco that was the most challenging idiom for this contemporary dancer to engage with—mostly because of the discipline, the rules, and the mathematical precision.

      “It’s just very erect,” he says of the form, which pummels the feet while the upper body stands straight. “It took a while for me to bend the rules. Kasandra is saying to me, ‘You’re asking me to go down on the floor? We never do that in flamenco!’”

      Observing it all has been fascinating for Dharmoo, who is seeing an explosion of culture-mashing and hybridization in projects across the country. “It’s interesting to see what different artists of colour are doing, and that it’s not necessarily representing what the rest of the audience, or the dominant culture, will expect of them,” he says. “And that’s very exciting, everywhere.

      “I’m 38, and sometimes I think, ‘Where was this effervescence when I was 20?’” he adds. “For the ones that are 20 today, it’s more normal—and that’s so nice to see.”

      Co.ERASGA presents Passages of Rhythms at the Nest on Granville Island from Wednesday to Saturday (November 6 to 9).