The job is one that we’re, based on all evidence, continuing to fail miserably at. As 2023 winds down, we’re continuing to ruin a planet where forests now burn every summer, oceans continue to warm, and species are disappearing at a rate that points to mass extinction.
Through it all we’re encouraged to embrace recycling programs, electric cars, and solar-powered green homes. But that doesn’t stop us from relentless consuming—buying things we don’t need, knowing that almost everything we accumulate, from clothes to furniture to appliances, will one day end up in a landfill.
As for everyday life, from the containers for your milk and juice, to the bags that hold your oranges and avocados, we’ve created an endless tidal wave of plastic.
Feel like it’s all too much? Veteran Vancouver choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino gets it. And he’s tackling the environmental mess we’re in with Accumulation, the new work from his Co.ERASGA Dance company.
“It’s incredible to think about what we actually need to survive, and the things that we accumulate that we think we need,” he says. “That leads to, ‘How do we deal with the concept of reduction and accumulation?’ It seems impossible—it’s incredible how much stuff that we think we need, especially in ‘first world’ countries, because we’re all about convenience.”
While the idea of changing how we live on the planet might indeed seem impossible, Tolentino understands that we still have to try. The award-winning Philippines-born artist hopes to spark conversation with Accumulation, which continues an interest in the environment that dates right back to his earliest work Sola. At the centre of the new multi-disciplinary piece, which combines dance, original music, and visual art, is a natural world in unprecedented crisis.
“I think the context of using creativity to address things is really interesting,” Tolentino says. “How else do you describe the impossible?”
The answer to that? The thinking is: if you can reach people by dreaming big enough, you can sometimes lay the groundwork for big changes.
Accumulation makes use of found material—some of it organic, much of it man-made—as a springboard for examining how we exist in nature.
“It’s pretty much debris,” Tolentino says bluntly. “We’re looking at Styrofoam, we’re looking at plastic, old fabric. Anything that’s really accumulated by humans, or is associated with human consumption. At the same time there’s the context in nature of life and death—the way that things like branches can die and then return to life again. The debris is a kind of representation of the possibility that if we act, something might return to life.”
It’s a meditation “on all this garbage that’s in front of us, and how we’re not separated from it,” he continues. “These are all things that we do on a daily basis that are seen as ‘normal,’ but I’m hoping that, through the act of creativity, there’s a contemplation of, ‘Shit—this is real.’ ”
The roots of Accumulation—a co-production of artists in Vancouver, the US, and France—can be traced back to pre-pandemic times. French composer and long-time Tolentino collaborator Emmanuel Mailly introduced the choreographer to visual artist Marc Gerenton.
“I was blown away by his work because he basically repurposed materials to make art,” Tolentino says. “A lot of his work, which I saw in a book that he gave me, had what looked like moving figures made of stuff like old wood. That triggered the collaboration, along with the fact that I love working with materials that have a relationship with nature.”
Stressing again that Accumulation isn’t the first time Co.ERASGA Dance has done work motivated by environmental concerns, the choreographer continues with: “It’s brutal sometimes to be in the world, because I feel like I’m literally in the garbage. That goal is get people thinking, ‘What if I really feel this, and take on the weight of all of this? And then, what happens if we do?’ That confrontation is what we’re really doing with the project. We’re forcing people to look at things from a much deeper perspective, rather than just what you’re carrying from the grocery store.”
Tolentino readily acknowledges that changing our behaviour on a global scale is something that might seem to be a challenge the human race isn’t up for. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from trying to change the course we’re on as a species. With Accumulation, he’s simply trying to do his part.
“More than any other time, we have to do something now—be more concerned and proactive,” Tolentino says. “I’m not a scientist, I’m an artist. So I have to go about things from the aspect of creativity. And I think little things do help—anything that we can do to create more interaction with environmental concerns is something that’s totally relevant to where we are at this point in time.”