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Alvin Erasga Tolentino

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It's very typical of the Filipino way of life to gather on Sundays, to have parties – a way of continuing to celebrate the culture. My parents had family friends, and often we would be invited to their homes for birthdays, or parties – just getting together is an essential thing for community-oriented celebration. Every Sunday there would be a place to go to. And also, there was the aspect of church – my parents were Catholic and went to church every Sunday. Most Filipinos would go to church on Sundays, so that was a centre for gathering.

But that changed for me when I left home. The aspect of Catholicism and going to church wasn't something that was part of me, even though my parents were devout Catholics. This is really because of being Filipino and having had all the experience of colonialism; being devout Catholics to this day is something that is deeply part of them. I think this is true for a lot of Filipinos – and I guess it's also a way for them to find community.

CA: Do you think that the aspect of ritual, from your experience of Catholicism as a kid, has influenced your work?

AT: Dance is very spiritual, in itself, and dance also is very ritualistic … I would say, for me, it's understanding the making body and the dancing body as a kind of spiritual entity in itself. Perhaps I can say that dancing is my religion. It's finding that sense of spirituality for yourself – I find that easily in creating and in dancing. Having been exposed to Catholicism, I think my interest is not so much the ritualistic aspect of it, but the notion that you can be a good citizen. You should be a good person – that's what I learned, throughout the time I was in Catholic school … treating others in the same way you want them to treat you. It's a universal thing. I love being able to witness the pageantry, more so than actually taking it as part of my life. And whether this ritual is related to my work … not so much. I think I find the spiritual and ritualistic realms in the dance in a very different way.

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CA: Was there dance in your life, as a kid?

AT: Greatly! It started when I was in pre-school, actually. Dancing in the Philippines is very much part of the culture because it's the way to express community. You can see it on the streets – people would have fiestas. There might be a gathering in the plaza, during the wonderful long evenings. This kind of festivity is part of life. That's how I discovered dance really, through public programs that allowed kids to find their way to express themselves through dance, or theatre or martial arts, as part of the school curriculum. We danced on the street – we would rehearse on the street, or in backyards – there's no such thing as studios.

That was my earlier experience – dancing on the street. Dance was also very much part of the thriving medium of television in Asia. Seeing dancers on television doing ballet, or a kind of semi-modern dance, or cultural dances really interested me as a kid. This was on Philippine TV. They love to imitate American television, though everything is sifted through the Philippines.

So I could see this dance connection through television. I didn't know how it would manifest but that's how I understood dance. Also my aunt, who I unfortunately have never met, was part of a very famous cultural dance troupe; she was a highly skilled flamenco dancer. She left the Philippines to live in Spain – while her company was travelling, she decided to stay in Spain. I think there are only two of us with dance interest in the family, but … she knows that I dance too.

CA: How did you find your way to dance as an adult?

ATPic03AT: My parents knew that I loved live art performance, and I loved dance … the cultural connections of dancing. But of course, in most Asian families, getting a good education and getting a good job, is the important thing. So when I was in Vancouver, at age twelve or thirteen, I told my mother it would be nice to dance again, thinking I might get involved with cultural dance – though I never did. Surprisingly, she was working with a company that was beside a studio – it was called IMMRAM Dance – run by Gloria Creighton … she comes from the tree of one of our pioneers in Vancouver, Paula Ross. Gloria studied with Paula Ross, as did Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget [founding/current artistic directors of Kokoro Dance]. Gloria opened her own studio. She teaches her own method of contemporary dance, which I would assume has been filtered through her studies with Paula Ross. I'd never met this woman, but my mother suggested I try a few classes, and I thought, “Why not?”

Sure enough, I was exposed to this thing called modern dance. At thirteen, fourteen years old, I had no definition of modern dance. I knew ballet existed, but I had not studied it. So modern dance it was, with Gloria Creighton, and I took class maybe once a week at night, during high school. It was glorious. I loved it – this was my saviour! All of a sudden, I met people who had similar interests. At the same time I thought, “What is this form? Why am I involved with it, and why do I love it so much?” … to the point that I didn't care for school; I would rather dance. I did request that, if possible, I'd like to train three times a week … My parents of course said, “No, we can't afford that, you can only go once a week.” But I found a way, eventually, because at age sixteen, I decided to get a job. I made my way toward taking more classes and being involved in the yearly performances. I performed for the very first time in Vancouver at the Firehall Arts Centre in 1986, during Expo '86.

CA: What did she teach?

AT: She did Graham and a lot of jazz-influenced movement – that was her forté, and she was able to manipulate those forms and find her own language. It was a mixed groove – not just for adults, not just for young kids. I think she saw potential in me so she made sure I could come to class, that I was encouraged; we talked about where else I could go to dance. I did that until I was about seventeen. I could really talk to her and she gave me feedback. Where would I find dance in Canada? Could I go to university or college to study dance?

I knew that was what I wanted to do so I investigated York University. By going to York, at least I would be attending university to study dance. But I think I was a bit of a rebel by the time I was seventeen. I knew I would not be a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor – I was going to be an artist.

CA: Was there pressure from your family to pursue a recognized profession?

AT: Not so much pressure as a need for me, after high school, to go to university – and how would I go about that? After high school I left Vancouver. I was bored with Vancouver and thought there was nothing there for me at that time. Also, leaving home and leaving the city was something I needed to do for myself – I needed to explore. So I left – I took the train and went across Canada to Toronto, at age seventeen. Then I went to New York City. I took classes at the Graham School and at the Limón Institute, I really immersed myself in the milieu. I tried to figure out, “What is this thing, modern dance – and what can I do with it?” The fact that I could go to university and study this – it was daunting … I could hardly believe this existed!

I auditioned for York University; I also auditioned for the National Ballet School … believe it or not. They didn't take me, said I was “kind of old” – by then I was eighteen. So I went to York, eventually. Among my classmates were Shannon Cooney and Rochelle Hum; William Lau was there too, though not in my class. My professors included Anna Blewchamp, Holly Small, Jean-Louis Morin, Yves Cousineau, Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, Karen Bowes, Selma Odom; music for dancers was taught by John Oswald. That was a really interesting time, to be able to study the Limón technique, the Graham technique, be exposed to repertoire, to dance history, to know that this huge world existed. And to realize that people had jobs, and I, maybe one day, could earn a living as a dancer! Also, I recognized that I was one of a few male dancers – though I also knew that being an artist would be very difficult. I knew that early on.

ATPic04

During my first year at York, I auditioned for the School of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and they took me! So I moved to Winnipeg, stayed there for a whole year and studied technique with David Moroni and other male teachers in the school, and got a solid background in ballet training. I wondered if I could make it as a ballet dancer … did I have the potential? But then, I understood the politics of it, the organization and what it's like to be in that system. I thought, “I can't be a prince if I don't have blonde hair – impossible!” I knew that right away and knew I would have to be a very brilliant dancer to make it to soloist. Also, being exposed to modern dance first, it was really difficult for me to transition to classical – but the training was phenomenal.

Then I met Anna Blewchamp again, in Winnipeg; she was remounting The Wise Virgins, an original work by Gweneth Lloyd. That reconnection with Anna gave me a faith, an understanding of how important modern dance was to me. I thought, “I want to go back to York.” So that's what I did. I went back to York for a second year. Then, at that time – the early 1990s – I needed to go back to Vancouver in the summer to do a summer school at Simon Fraser University. Everybody was there – Peggy Baker, Irene Dowd, Grant Strate, Linda Rabin and Annabel Gamson, who reconstructed work by Isadora Duncan. It was really fascinating! I met wonderful people from all across the country.

I was in a class of Peggy's [Baker] and Lola MacLaughlin was there, and I knew she was looking for dancers. I was presenting a classical solo in the Dancing on the Edge festival. She saw me perform and approached me to ask if I would be interested in dancing in her new work Eternal Return and I said, “Sure!” Then I was back in Vancouver. That was the beginning of my independent career, and I didn't even finish my degree. I was already working; I had a job, and that was truly a turning point.

CA: What came next for you? You worked with Lola and began doing more of your own, independent work …

AT: While I was at York, the idea of studying repertoire gave me the premise that there was such a thing as being able to choreograph. I was very interested in learning; I managed to show bits and pieces here and there at York. Then at the Royal Winnipeg I made a solo and showed that. I knew I was very interested in creating work and dancing it. Being an independent dance artist meant that I was working for other choreographers and, at the same time, working on my own choreography.

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