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Alvin Erasga Tolentino

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ATPic05It was a complex time – complex in that I needed to get to know the different companies and who might possibly hire me. Eventually, my goal was to dance for others, to make that my full-time work. Over the course of two-and-a-half years, once I was exposed through the work of Lola within the dance community, I started to work more and more – for Kokoro Dance, for Jennifer Mascall, for Kinesis Dance, Karen Jamieson, EDAM and other independent dance artists. All of a sudden I was going back and forth among all these companies – I sort of became a dance whore!

I did that for ten years, before I made the decision that I had to stop or I would lose my own artistry – because what I was doing was basically interpreting the work of other people … which I really loved, because it was my way to understand my peers, to understand the milieu, to understand the notion of performing, understand the kind of work that was being made by Vancouver artists and to know that I was a working dance artist.

CA: Working with all those different people, whether Lola or Kokoro, at the same time as emerging and evolving as a creator yourself – did those areas dovetail?

AT: Somewhat, because it gave me an idea of the kind of aesthetic that was being produced and provoked the question: “If I was to make a dance, what would it be?” That was very important to me and was always present – also, to understand aspects of choreography, how do people make dance? What kind of techniques and aesthetics are in play? Kokoro Dance was doing butoh, Peter Bingham was doing contact improvisation, Karen Jamieson was investigating Aboriginal dance. It was a huge spectrum and each technique was very different. That offered me the complexity of endless possibilities and the understanding that contemporary dance has a huge scope and voice and that there is much opportunity. My big question was, “How will I direct myself to be a performer and creator – on my own and for other dancers?”

I took my time, to honour the notion of experiencing people's work, understanding what it's like to tour, understanding how a non-profit arts organization functions – how does a dance company function, what does that entail? There was much that I had to learn during those ten years.

CA: And all of that informed your own progress?

AT: Yes. I knew I needed to build my own company and to dedicate myself to creating my own work. That's what I did in 1999 – incorporated as a non-profit arts organization.

CA: I'm curious, as someone living in the East do you think of yourself as a Vancouver – or West Coast – dance artist? How do you “place” yourself? Or do you?

AT: I'd say I'm a Vancouver dance artist because I live there and it is home base – the roots of the company, all the things that surround the company are there too. In terms of aesthetics, I'm not sure, because I think there is a changing dynamic of aesthetic that is happening in Vancouver dance just now. Exposure is very important. Big companies are coming to Vancouver. So I think there is a transition of aesthetics. Also, people are leaving Vancouver to perform their work and experience what is going on internationally and nationally. This is important, I think, and is feeding the kind of work that is being created at this time in Vancouver.

Through touring, I've had some exposure for my work and have managed to see work outside. Also, I've lived in Toronto, and partly in Montreal, so I have a sense of the aesthetic there. When I was in Vancouver, I was working with multimedia and then, mid-way, understanding my place in a diverse community as a Filipino-Canadian, understanding what that is for me, looking at my history and vision.

Paradis/Paradise

CA: Is that what you meant when you said nostalgia came with maturity?

AT: Somehow that began to tie in when I started to build a company. I wanted to know, “What can I offer to the company? What kind of signature can I create?” When I was building the company, the notion of “diversity” was very important. In all the grant writing, in all the obstacles of existing as an artist, the question of “diversity” is very important. Recognizing my identity was very important, so I needed to understand what that is for me, and I had to go back to the Philippines to actually understand – and that's when the nostalgia began. It's interesting – I had a period dancing within a Western aesthetic, and when I started building a company, I needed a renewal of something, returning to my roots and understanding my identity. I needed to go back to the Philippines to know what I had left, what was there, what was the gap. I needed to question how I could incorporate these things in my practice that I never had in ten years of dancing for others.

CA: What did you do?

AT: I received a Canada Council grant to go to the Philippines. I wanted to immerse myself in the community, to go back to all those cultural dances I'd first known. What were they? Why did I learn them? Then I started to meet contemporary artists also working in the Philippines in contemporary dance. They were working on preservation of cultural works and the indigenous aspect. I was seeing how they took indigenous work into contemporary practice, seeing the integration and preservation of that into the language of dance of these contemporary Filipino artists.

I also started to understand the big companies that are working there. I was able to meet the directors and to sense the politics – what is dance to them, and how does dance exist. I learned all of this. Then I realized this also exists here (he laughs) … things like access to wealthy people who have a lot of money to support work!

I met and got along really well with Denisa Reyes, the director of Ballet Philippines at that time. She decided to commission me to create a work for the company; she was inviting three international artists who were living abroad to create for the company on the theme of Balik Bayan – it means “returning to country”.

All of that became an impetus for the work I did in the next little while.

ATPic06CA: Serendipitous, meeting this theme on your journey …

AT: Yes, interesting how things collide – the notion of identity, self-reflection, the need for cultural interpretation, living in Canada, being a diverse artist, and how that dovetails into the political system of the company, the funding bodies and within the community. As you know, Vancouver is a very diverse city with a huge Asian community.

CA: Do you often go back to the Philippines?

AT: I've been going back quite often because I've built relationships with some of the artists and communities, and to provide some kind of a voice. I've trained some of their kids, when I tour. I've had the opportunity to work with the University of the Philippines, to tie my work into the university setting. I don't mind using that connection. I think it's important right now. I think dance has not really gone into a shift there, maybe because there is no access to education; what I mean by education is more about discourse than training. Also, there are a lot of institutions where there is a structure, but not enough infrastructure in terms of accommodating talented dancers, because of lack of resources – it's a Third World country. So for me, a Canadian, to be able to go back there to show my work, to be able to do some minor engagement, to be able to train artists, to tell them about the work that I do, to tell them that in the West there is possibility to do this, is really relevant; it's important. It's a huge outreach component of my company, that we can do such work when we tour. It's been integral for me, to know that I can reach out in this way – it's really essential.

CA: Your parents must be very proud!

AT: Yes they are. Well – my mother still asks me, “Aren't you getting old to dance?” (He laughs.) She's very straightforward and asks, “Is that how you plan to make a living for the rest of your life?”

CA: Well, why not?

AT: Yes, why not? They're thrilled. They come to see my shows, every time. They are very supportive. I think I've gained their respect and understanding. And I'm the only artist in the family. For them it's sort of like, “We don't know what he's doing, but he's doing it!” It's hard – they are really good parents – they have traditions they hold onto, but they have also acculturated themselves into new forms and have one son who is a practicing artist.

ATPic07

CA: I'm curious – what is your practice at this point in your career?

AT: There was a time when I was very diligent and strategic, training and going to classes, right up to my mid-thirties. Then I really needed to reconfigure how I work, and to balance the kind of work I'm doing, especially when I am creating and performing – in a combination of company and solo performance – I do both. So for those periods I have to figure out how to train my body. I'm doing a lot of yoga now, and doing my own training – that means at the kind of capacity that I need for the work – I still integrate my pliés and my ballet barre. It also depends on whether it's vertical or horizontal work I'm doing – floorwork or standing. But over the years I've learned to concentrate on my own class, going to the gym, going to yoga class. I try to keep my body as active as possible. I don't do classes as rigorously as I used to. I am having to respond to the age of my body – and also what's good for it. I think injury happens when you're not active. I stay in tune with my body. When I'm dancing onstage, there's a certain adrenaline rush – but I've learned to pace, because if you let go, and use it all, there is no one to replace you, especially if you're doing solos. It's being mindful, being intuitive, being active. It's dedication too and how you sustain the dedication. I would not change it for anything. I'm enjoying it. I'm really happy to be doing what I'm doing, and managing to perform.

CA: You've just come from Montreal. Can you speak about your performance there?

AT: It's an international creation, actually – the project is in Montreal, Vancouver and the Philippines – for the twelfth season of my company. The work is based on colonialism. As you know the Philippines have been colonised for over 300 years. My return there two years ago inspired this work – every time I go there I get very inspired because it's such a complex culture. In this project, for the first time I collaborated with people from a new generation of Filipino artists – dramaturg, video artist, costume designer – associated with the University of the Philippines. We spent several research periods there and brought the work to Vancouver for the completion and premiere with my company. The MAI – Montreal Arts Intercultural – also undertook the project. They gave me residencies and also presented the work. I'd had a relationship with the MAI for several years in the past, and they have produced my work; they are one of the Montreal theatre organizations, and also a visual art centre, that caters to artists of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

I've just premiered the work in Montreal. Really great response! And we were doing theatre residencies all last week. Now I'm into dormant time before we travel to the Philippines for the Asian premiere in February. The world premiere was in Vancouver, two weeks ago.

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