Last year, Vancouver dancer and choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino started research for a new ensemble creation. Called Offering, the work’s premiere in the fall of 2020 was meant to highlight a milestone for his dance company.
Co.ERASGA is marking its 20th anniversary this year, and Tolentino was looking forward to a celebratory time. He and the six dancers in Offering were supposed to get back together last spring for rehearsals.
“When I’m creating a big piece, an ensemble piece, they’re all weaving together, they’re all touching, they’re lifting, they’re moving as a group,” Tolentino told the Georgia Straight on the patio of an East Vancouver café.
Then the world went into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The original idea for Offering needed to change.
“They said no touching, you have to be social-distancing, and so I had to figure out how to do the piece,” Tolentino said. From an ensemble, Offering evolved into a collection of six solos.
The change goes deeper than form. In a world ravaged by a pandemic, Tolentino recalled wondering how humanity could continue to create art, and make it meaningful in the face of mortality. “And so I thought, ‘Is there a way that we can think of dance as a prayer?’ ” the artist said.
Perhaps there’s something more about dance than an artistic expression of human movement. According to Tolentino, it’s not so much about having to please the spectator, but about achieving a spiritual experience.
As Tolentino explained, it’s a matter of dance movements “being sent to another realm, to another space”. The artist went on to say that he wanted to explore the “relationship of the body into cosmology, and how and whether there’s such a thing”.
“Can the body do that in dance? Can dance do that? Can movements do that? Can it be a prayer?” Tolentino asked.
The Vancouver choreographer asked the performers of Offering to think of a power that’s higher than humanly possible. He challenged them to imagine that they’re moving not only for an audience, “but that they’re dancing for this mysterious something”.
This brought coherence to the new concept for Offering. “Prayer allows you to be in the act of offering yourself,” he said, noting that a prayer constitutes a state of being “selfless”.
“Who knows whether your prayer has been answered?” he asked. “But you deliver it at that time. You had asked for something, or you say thank you. So in a way, it’s kind of like you’re giving yourself without a sense of return.”
In short, “It’s an act of faith.”
Tolentino emphasized that his notions of faith, prayer, and offering are not defined by belief systems of major religious institutions. The Manila-born artist goes back to the idea of alay, a Filipino word that literally means “offering”. He recalled that long before 16th-century Spanish colonizers introduced Christianity to the Asian archipelago that later became the Philippines, islanders had a concept of offering.
“When harvest happens or when they’re about to plant something, there’s a prayer, there’s an alay,” Tolentino said. Even “without the Christian premise”, human beings “believe in the cosmic, in the power of something bigger than us”.
“When we see something beautiful or when we are given something, we have a sense of gratitude,” Tolentino said.
With the pandemic, the Vancouver dance artist noted that the health crisis and its restrictions have prompted many to look inward. “Just the very idea of not doing anything, to be still, to be quiet, I think that’s really spiritual in a way,” he said.
It also reminds us of a higher power. “I thought Mother Nature was so powerful to do that: to force us to really look at what we’re doing to the world, look at what we’re doing to the environment, and look at what we’re doing to one another,” Tolentino said.
Offering reunites Tolentino with performers Molly McDermott and Olivia Shaffer. Originally from Edmonton, McDermott has many years to her credit as a professional dance performer. Shaffer hails from Vancouver, and she is also choreographer who studied dance at SFU.
Tolentino is also working with Metro Vancouver-raised Marissa Wong, who has performed in Montreal, Ottawa, and San Francisco. Rounding out the group of six are three Filipino Canadians: Joshua Ongcol, Marc Arboleda, and Antonio Somera. Dubai-born and Vancouver-based Ongcol trained in street as well as contemporary dance. Arboleda’s background includes contemporary dance and theatre. Somera has performed internationally.
“They are diverse and unique, as each offers a distinct style and personal quality,” Tolentino said of the performers.
Tolentino danced for many years before founding Co.ERASGA in 2000. The company took the maiden name of his mother, now retired along with his father. Dance, the Vancouver artist said, has enabled him to explore his identity as an immigrant and an openly gay person, as well as contribute to cultural diversity.
Dance also transports Tolentino to a magical place.
“There is a spiritual relationship in the power of dance that is sometimes not realized by artists,” he said. It’s reaching that “space of almost like being in nirvana”.
“You lose yourself from dancing, sometimes,” Tolentino said.
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