A Co.ERASGA production. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Wednesday, September 14. Continues until September 17
Sometimes we take for granted the cool cultural fusions that make this city, perched on the Pacific Rim, such a fascinating place to live. In a single day you can eat Thai street food served up with local craft brew at a sleek contemporary bar, go out and hear a band that mixes Chinese erhu and jazz drums, then indulge in a cocktail infused with lapsang souchong syrup.
These kinds of experiences come to mind when you watch Co.ERASGA’s new work fill the stage at the Scotiabank Dance Centre—two pieces that take the rich ancient traditions of Southeast Asia and retool them with electronic noise soundscapes into something entirely new and surreal. They’re dance works that probably only could have happened here, in this place on the edge between East and West. Choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino is reaching into his own indigenous Filipino roots and melding them with his contemporary western dance practice, but his ideas span several countries and their diasporas.
Both pieces feature striking imagery and build to an aural and visual chaos that gives way to trancelike calm. Tolentino, who usually works in solos featuring himself, clearly relishes the chance to sculpt and scatter seven dancers—five local, with two visiting Filipino artists—and it’s exciting to see his ideas spread across an expanded palette.
In Tracing Malong, he finds myriad ways to use the traditional Southeast Asian fabric, playing on its origins but also finding ways to create haunting new images. Legs poke out, disembodied, from fabric stretched into rectangles over dancers’ bodies. A chorus of women vocalize while twisting and throwing their malongs. A woman wraps hers around her like a hijab and floats ghostlike through a crowd. Dancers pull the fabric up into eerie, face-covering masks. And, in one of the piece’s most mesmerizing instances, the dancers enact a frenzied loop of wrapping and unwrapping the material around their necks, heads, and waists.
It’s all set against a cacophony of voice, found sound, and fragmented traditional instruments like clanging gongs and chimes that composer Emmanuel Mailly gathered on trips to Southeast Asia. The effect is dreamlike, thankfully never literal, somehow suggesting the complex history of regions and peoples, and the role of the malong to them, but then refracting it into something more abstract.
There’s a lot of layered sound, dance, and meaning going on here, and sometimes the piece feels on the verge of spinning out of control on its set lined with mismatched light stands. But Erasga creates a mood here, and effectively builds to an ecstatic state.
Mudras initially feels much more meditative, turning the hand gestures of yoga and eastern religions into full-body movements. Dancers run, lunge, and whirl, a delicate finger and thumb suddenly taking the age-old position and freezing into focus. At one point dancer Sophia Wolfe’s shuni mudra morphs into a kind of grasping claw; at another, Olivia Shaffer holds her hand positions while hopping around the stage. Tolentino, who has recently studied Thai classical dance, also borrows that form’s facial expressions, from the gaping, silent-scream mouths to the dramatically widened eyes.
The messages are less fully formed here, but the movement, by a team of fully committed dancers, is often mesmerizing to watch—building to a startling finale where the dancers shift from a serene, carefully held lotus position to silently face the audience in a blinding light that bathes the entire auditorium.
It’s like they’ve reached some higher trance state against the roar of sound. Tolentino, too, by creating a world that somehow transcends East and West, has worked a kind of trance on his audience.