Colonial is an utterly commanding and complex work steeped in concerns of foreignness tied to minority consciousness. It takes courage to go to the heart of identity onstage, but Alvin Erasga Tolentino, founder and director of the Vancouver-based CO.ERASGA Dance, does just that in this new, nuanced solo work. It’s a complex theme he’s treating: bridging the Philippine people’s colonial past and the contemporary ethnicity of the nation. But his principled approach to the subject matter–the colonization of mind and body–is immersive and entrancing. It’s also a personal narrative that he needed to investigate. Tolentino arrived in Canada at the age of twelve, settling in Vancouver. But the process of reconnecting with his country of birth, and his roots, ostensibly began when he started to perform there over a decade ago. In the last number of years, the dancer-choreographer has travelled to the Philippines to research and develop this personal and intercultural work. A key and genuine collaborator has been Filipino dramaturge Dennis D. Gupa, and together they have fashioned an exploration of ritual in performance as a sophisticated multimedia production. During the extended process, Tolentino engaged a number of Filipino artists to work with him on the show. Highlights include Jon Lazam’s stunning video imagery, which incorporates archival photographs of indigenous people during colonial rule and current black-and-white footage of jungle landscapes; Marie Angelica Armecin Dayao’s rich soundtrack of wild ambient sounds of the jungle, as well as acoustic instruments, such as the didgeridoo and human chanting, set against an electronic score; and the evocative costumes created by John Carlo Pagunaling.
Tolentino embodies three different characters in the three sections of the dramatic non-literal work. In the first he becomes Babaylan, a healer-spiritual figure, either a man or a woman, intimately linked with the pre-colonial shamanistic practices connected to a person’s communal life cycles (birth, baptism, courtship, etc.). In the middle section, he evokes the Katipunero/Katipunan agrarian guerrilla warriors who fought the Spanish colonial invaders. And finally he transforms into Sinag, (meaning “beam” in Tagalog), an expansive characterization, a link to freedom and enlightenment. The effective set, made of a stretched and etched finely woven fiberglass cloth (akin to the type used in gardening) is divided into two screens in a V-shaped configuration. The transparency of the screens allows for back projections and a silhouetting of Tolentino as he performs behind the canvasses. There’s also some very refined, accomplished dance, and immediacy to the performance. In the first traditional trance-like sequence, a bare-chested Tolentino, appears as a Babaylan. Wearing an elaborate headdress covering his face, a full-length skirt-like cloth and manipulating two bundled clumps of straw-like raffia, he performs with syncopated arm movements, as well as agile footsteps, moving forwards and back, spinning and shaking, subtly shifting his weight. He further employs a sensuous swiveling of his hips, circular upper-body rotations, and languorous head rotations. The scene reverberates with a sense of a place that no longer exists.
During the Katipunero scene, video images of military convoys and rickshaws suggest the violent confrontations that occurred between the colonial invaders and the native peoples. And the movements suggest suffering, with fists upraised the body contorting. As images of the church rise on the screen, dominating the background, Tolentino, as the resistance fighter, spins. But the rotations and gestures begin to lose their potency, reflecting the migrations and collisions within the culture, and only occasionally are there short bursts when strength returns. “Real pleasures await you,” is an ironic line from a Cola-Cola ad that flashes on the screen, indicating the impending cultural pollution. Tolentino retreats behind the scrim and, in the weakest moment of the production, a mini-documentary of the process of the creation of the piece is played. It’s a break that is understandable, as he needs to change costume and catch his breath, but the rupture of the momentum is regrettable. When he returns as Sinag, in a diaphanous long white shift, we still feel disconnected. He performs a gentler ethereal dance, perhaps indicating the transformation that is occurring within the society, as video images of young Filipinos accumulate and become a finely constructed mosaic. Differences of philosophy, opinion and approach are key to the show. Rummaging through Philippine history, Tolentino gives these “characters” a life, and a living memory. As Stuart Hall the cultural theorist wrote: “Migration is a one-way trip. There is no ‘home’ to go back to.” Colonial is a respectful, alternate opinion and approach to cultural perspectives that is rich, grounded and full of integrity.