In a new solo he’s rehearsing in a studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, Alvin Erasga Tolentino’s only prop is a Filipino malong, a saronglike, patterned tube of fabric. As he whirls around the floor, he uses it in multiple ways, tying it up traditionally into a skirt and then a turban, or pulling it theatrically over his head to become a haunting hooded figure.
“I am looking at this material that goes back to the indigenous people and another time of Filipino culture, but it’s still used to this day; people use it as a scarf,” says the Co.ERASGA Dance artistic director, whose new work is called Tracing Malong. “I said, ‘I’m just going to let the fabric speak to me.’ My work has always gone back and forth with notions of gender, and looking at this fabric, it’s not about gender. It’s not like here in the West, where only a woman can wear a skirt; in Asia both bodies can do that.”
Set to French noise composer Emmanuel Mailly’s score of angular electronic sound mixed with sampled traditional Filipino instruments, Tracing Malong is a perfect example of the way the long-time Vancouver dance artist melds the East and West, and classical and contemporary. And now this year’s Dance Centre artist in residence is bringing an array of artists with similar interests into town for Undivided Colours. Encompassing symposiums and master classes, the event culminates in two shows where four guest artists take the stage with solos alongside Tolentino: Javanese-born artist Didik Nini Thowok, who puts his own twist on traditional Indonesian styles; Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun, who has pushed the classical khon mask dances into contemporary territory; William Lau, one of Canada’s foremost Peking-opera stars; and Toronto multimedia dance artist Peter Chin, who has drawn from the stories of Cambodia and Indonesia in his work.
“What I really admire about all these artists is they work between the traditional and the contemporary,” says Tolentino. “In contemporary dance here, you see a lot of really western aesthetics, so I thought, ‘This is a way to really showcase what else is out there.’ In Vancouver, you can see the diaspora, and this is an opportunity to see those Asian aesthetics and that palette.
“The fact that there is a classical root is relevant,” Tolentino says of his own and others’ work, “but it’s trying to continue the ideas. How do we bring it to contemporary time?”
As Tolentino points out, several of his visiting artists are “rock stars” outside Canada. Klunchun, for example, is a celebrated master of khon in his own country and has collaborated with big international artists like Belgium’s Jérôme Bel (winning the European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margriet award for the effort); he’ll also be working on a new, full-length piece with Tolentino for next season (with the Vancouver artist already having visited Thailand to study khon).
The theme for Undivided Colours is dance, diversity, and gender, that last one a motif that makes its way into several of the works—and into a forum called Art and Gender, featuring local artists from a variety of fields, on Friday (November 7). Another free talk, on Sunday night (November 9), features the guest performers discussing Diversity, Duality, Body and Dance.
Reiterates Tolentino: “The importance of the idea of duality, the yin and yang, within the culture of Asia is so prominent and impor-tant, and it is not in the West. This is mythical duality. There’s a spiritual duality that is really accepted in the East, and we don’t do that as much in the West: it’s either one or the other.”
Gender is just one of several shared themes that will come up at the symposiums and shows, even though the participating artists live thousands of miles apart. And that’s the whole point of Undivided Colours: “It’s an opportunity to reveal those common threads,” Tolentino says.
Undivided Colours runs at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Friday to Sunday (November 7 to 9), with performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.