Alvin Erasga Tolentino weaves new dance from fabric of tradition

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      Filipino contemporary dancer Kris-Belle Mamangun knows the deep significance of the malong—the tubelike, intricately printed fabric that plays an important role in many regions of the Philippines. “I come from the southern part of the country, and when I was born my mom wrapped me in that fabric,” she says of a cloth that can be used as everything from a blanket to a prayer mat to a bedsheet to a skirt or turban. “I have a connection with the malong.”

      Mamangun is sitting at the Scotiabank Dance Centre with fellow Filipino dancer Ronelson Yadao and Vancouver choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino, whose new work, Tracing Malong, features the fabric.

      But, though he’s researched its traditional use, Tolentino is employing the malong—alongside its related sarongs from Thailand and Indonesia—in much more abstract ways. In rehearsal, Mamangun, Yadao, and five Vancouver dancers huddle under the fabric with limbs sticking out surreally, or pull it eerily over their faces like masks; they whip it on the ground, or pull it up over their bodies, the opening becoming a gaping mouth. The swirling imagery is made all the more dreamlike by French composer Emmanuel Mailly’s gongs, chimes, found sounds, and electronic music—all inspired by his trips to Southeast Asia with Tolentino.

      The approach has pushed Mamangun out of her comfort zone, considering her cultural and sentimental ties to the malong: “I don’t want to limit myself. I need to see it as an object, and that’s challenging. I have to let go a little bit and say, ‘You’re just a fabric sometimes,’ ” she says with a smile.

      It speaks to the Philippines’ incredible diversity that working on the piece has had the opposite effect on Yadao. Growing up in urban Manila, then spending two years dancing for Taiwan’s acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, he never felt connected to the malong, which has its roots in the indigenous cultures of the south. “To me it was just an object. But with Alvin’s stories behind it, it’s taken on a life of its own,” says Yadao, whose only experience with the fabric was using it in his early folk-dance training. “Now I see that they all have different weights and touch and texture.”

      Co.ERASGA Dance.
      Yvonne Chew

      Pushing the age-old into the new is exactly Tolentino’s goal. “The question that I have for this project is ‘How does an artist like me look at traditional art and make it a part of this time, so this traditional part is not static?’” explains the Filipino Canadian. “It’s not just something that you wear. Behind this fabric is an incredible story of life and dreams.”

      In a double bill he’s calling Collected, Traces, and Still Here, he does the same thing with the ancient mudras, the finger gestures used in performance, yoga, and spiritual practice throughout India and Southeast Asia. Tolentino became even more interested in the mudras while working with classical Thai dance artist Pichet Klunchun in Thailand, and then seeing the symbolic gestures in 800-year-old stone carvings at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

      “They tell a story; it just depends on what culture you’re with,” he explains, spiralling his long, graceful fingers above his head to show how many ways the gestures can be used. “So how does the Asian static tradition become new dance? It’s deconstructing it, pulling it out and making it part of this new creation. I have to imagine a way to make it come to life.”

      The works are the culmination of years of intense travel and cultural exchange for Tolentino, who has forged a special bond with the contemporary-dance community in the Philippines—a community whose young ambassadors he now brings here to perform.

      “The dance scene there was dominated by classical companies, and now contemporary dance is growing in Manila, but not that fast,” explains Yadao. “I think Alvin’s work in Manila is very important because the artists are being exposed to a different process for contemporary dance. When we hear about contemporary dance in Manila, it is still very much coming from the context of contemporary ballet. But with Alvin you have to work with him, not for him.”

      And just as he’s pushing those dancers, the Co.ERASGA artistic director is introducing languages and traditions like the mudras and the malongs to the western dancers here. At the same time, Tolentino admits, he is also pushing himself.

      “This is very unusual for me because I work with solos and duets,” he admits, before heading back to rehearsal. “It’s very different for me to venture into this.” It’s brave new territory, and yet it’s as old and familiar as the comforting wrap of a malong.

      Co.ERASGA presents Collected, Traces, and Still Here from next Wednesday to Saturday (September 14 to 17) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

      Choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino.
      Jojo Mamangun