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Alvin Erasga Tolentino

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CA: Can you talk about the content and discoveries you've made?

AT: It's been a journey … two things really started it. While I was living in BC, I had the opportunity to work with Aboriginal artists. So the notion of colonialism is right here. Many times I've worked with Aboriginal artists, especially Victor Reece, who has passed away, and Sharon Jinkerson Brass from the Big Sky Collective performance group. Victor was a very well-known mask artist, and Sharon is a visual artist and video artist. We talked about colonialism, how that is a traumatic issue for them, and I always have felt a relationship with this because of my own background. That was in the back of my mind as a political issue, though not so much while I was working with them as an artist. Then I went back to the Philippines because I was touring there, and on the streets of Manila it was like night and day – the polarities of the very rich and the very, very poor. To see that poverty and people living on the street was sometimes quite horrendous. That triggered a lot for me. I remember walking in the street in Manila and wondering why this was happening, these deep wounds, the stress of poverty here. It's the notion of colonialism, really – years of subjugated life, of being oppressed, and the politics being corrupt, and not having a voice for its people. So that has been an inspiration for me too, asking the question of what I can do. Not that I can do something huge, but as an artist, what does one say about this?


CA: Do you see a social justice direction emerging in your work?

AT: It's more activist. The notion of cultural activism is very relevant to me now. I think that art is activism. As an artist and as an individual, when you create something, there's a political aspect – it's there, for you, for others too. So with Colonial, there's a cultural activism at play, starting with the question of what I can do as an artist. Can I actually incorporate what I'm seeing into my physical body and dance it – and how do I go about it? That's what the question was. It happened that in going back, I met this wonderful group of very special artists, and I wondered how I could gain access to their practice, their forms. I needed to return to the Philippines to research colonialism. That history was not part of me – I had a huge gap in being Filipino because of my immigration. I needed to claim that interest for myself and to create a commitment for myself if I was going to do this work. I needed to reclaim that past, to put it into my system, into my head, in order to understand. I needed to access it from the minds of people in my generation in order to know the history. That's where these four artists came in.

ATPic08One of them is a university professor, Dennis Gupa, a theatre director and dramaturg. He gave me the actual lineage of the country's history, from the time when the Spaniards came, when the oppression happened, to the time when the Philippines was sold by the Spaniards to the Americans for twenty million dollars … to the present day, when they are still there – and the aspect of colonialism is so present that people don't even understand or recognize it in the huge gap between rich and poor – it goes back so far.

That's been a major impetus. And it's very complex. In the piece, there are three sections and three characters. One of them is called “Babaylan”, which is an indigenous period of this priestess, who belongs to the earth. She is the vicar of this earthly world, without being colonized, when the idea of rituals and collectiveness is very much part of what it's like to be in a community. Then comes the fighter, “Katipunero”, who fought because they were subjugated, they were traumatized, fighting oppression, fighting for freedom and against the corruption over power, money and economics – leading to the disintegration of the country. The last section is called “Sinag”, which means “light”. We pose a question to the new generation – “You are the possible and the hope and the light. What happens next?”

That's the trajectory of Colonial. It's an hour-long, solo work.

CA: Do you see transformation as part of your responsibility as a dance artist?

AT: I think there is always a transformation that happens in the making of a dance. Within whatever piece I've created there is always a transformative aspect. It just so happens that some pieces I've made have a very clear political accent. I do not directly intend that, it's a recognition that it's there – it goes back to what happens in the community. We identify that and say, “He's creating a statement.” So, already, that boundary is set and people recognize it.

I did a talk in Montreal about art and activism and said I think there is that opportunity, especially being in Canada right now. What are our roles as artists? Also, Filipinos are the third-largest immigrant group in Canada now. There are a lot of new-generation Filipinos who don't quite know – are they Filipino? Are they Filipino-Canadian? And where is that history? How do they come to that history when for them it's a matter of survival, a matter of being sure that they cope with this whole system? I think art can provide an avenue of reflection, a window of opportunity. I think that dance and art has that capacity for them to just feel and to see, without having to confront that hard edge. It's partly educational for a lot of the younger generation. Back in Vancouver we make an effort to get youth to come and see the show, to recognize that this is part of their history that they can't lose, they can hold onto it as they progress in being a citizen, being a Canadian citizen, but also to know that they have roots.

CA: Can you speak about what you feel has changed?

AT: Canada is home. When I spoke earlier about my association with Vancouver, it's because I really honour the opportunity that was given to me. Those experiences have made me what I am, and those opportunities can only expand. Deepa Mehta [the filmmaker] said being in Canada has allowed her to tell the stories of India. It's very much like that – I am able to tell my story, and other stories, through my company. It's not handed to me, I have to work very hard to make sure that the platform, and the support for the company, are provided so that we can pursue projects we are really interested in. But it's recognized. I don't think I could do what I'm doing in any other country – maybe in a different capacity, but not in the same way. And I have peers in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto. It is important to me to feel part of this network of artists.


There are a lot of us. I think what has to change is really the platform for a more cohesive relationship with the community about the kind of work that we do so that presenters and producers can recognize that diverse artists are very much a part of the larger community. I think that the policy makers are going to be artists of colour, eventually. They need to be educated in the forms that we are creating, so they recognize that these exist and this must happen at the governmental level so that artists like me can continue to navigate and advocate for change. Also, within the educational system, it's so important that kids get a chance to see diverse forms. How do we make sure that this art form is really well supported?

The dancing body – the body that exists and also disappears in the very moment of performance. But … that's the magic! Maybe that's why I'm still doing it – it's special, it will never be the same as computers and television. It's a legacy in the moment. It's very, very magical.

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