For more than 20 years, Vancouver choreographer and dancer Alvin Tolentino has been questioning the status quo. His original, full-length contemporary dance works have addressed significant topics, such as the archetypal place of men and women, the resilience of immigrants, spirituality, and colonialism.
The founder of Co.ERASGA had a simple question with his latest production.
“What do I want to say as an artist at this time?” Tolentino tells Pancouver over Zoom.
With Accumulation, which will premiere at Performance Works on Granville Island, he has returned to one of his great passions—the relationship between humanity and nature. Only this time, he’s incorporated sculpture into a shamanistic central character. Through this, he aims to force audiences to confront the impact of mass consumption in a very personal way.
“With the lighting and with the score, my body becomes something completely different because the sculpture slowly builds this massive garbage,” Tolentino reveals.
The creative team includes his long-time collaborator, French composer-musician Emmanuel Mailly, who also performs with Tolentino. French sculptor and visual artist Marc Gerenton relied entirely on repurposed materials—including plastic, paper, old branches, and leaves—in personifying accumulation. They worked alongside costume designer Meagan Woods, who’s from the U.S., and Canadian lighting designer Tory Ip.
Tolentino hopes that people who witness the growth of the “forest debris” in Accumulation ask themselves two questions: “Who am I and how am I related to it?”
He started working on this project with Mailly and Gerenton before the pandemic. They initially planned to unveil it in 2020, but it was delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions on rehearsals.
Tolentino centred previous works around nature
In recent years, more artists have begun addressing environmental degradation and the climate crisis through theatre, dance, music, visual art, and museum exhibitions. Tolentino, on the other hand, has been at it for a very long time.
“My very first full-length work [Sola] was about life, death, and rebirth of nature,” Tolentino explains. “That was in 2000.”
He returned to this theme in 2004 with Field. Co.ERASGA describes this as a cross-cultural interdisciplinary dance work encompassing the promises of the harvest and reflecting the force of one’s identity.
Tolentino says that in Field, he explored why a growing number of people in the Philippines no longer want to plant rice because of the unpredictable climate. He has insights into this because his paternal grandparents were farmers from a part of Luzon known as the “Rice Bowl of the Philippines”.
“So, I saw what it’s like for them to really figure out a way to live from the land and nurture the land,” Tolentino says.
In 2015, Co.ERASGA then addressed the forces of commercialization in Unwrapping Culture. For this work, Tolentino collaborated with renowned Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun.
When Pancouver asks Tolentino why he is so keenly interested in sustainability, he responds that a big part of it comes from living on the West Coast. Here, he says, there are incredible old-growth forests with 1,800-year-old trees. Moreover, the relationship between the body and nature has always been very close to his heart.
“I’m right on this land,” Tolentino says. “So, part of my work is also questioning, for me: what is my relationship with the land? What do I know? What do I witness?”
Indigenous collaborators had an impact
He’s also been enormously influenced by Indigenous artists dating back many years. He describes Raven Spirit Dance co-artistic director Starr Muranko as a “sister”. Tolentino also cites elder and knowledge holder Sharon Jinkerson-Brass and the late Tsimshian carver Victor Reece/Whe’X Hue as important influences.
In particular, Tolentino cherishes hearing about their relationship to nature and the context of ritual.
At the same time, he acknowledges that it’s gruelling being both the choreographer and principal dancer in Accumulation. In this regard, Tolentino appreciates the assistance of movement expert Donna Redlick, who coaches him as a dancer on how he’s interacting with the choreography.
“That’s been very helpful because when you’re inside, I’s very hard to critically look a everything from the outside,” Tolentino notes. “Then, of course, the video is here to help me assess, but it’s very different when it’s live.
“I think the challenge is really what keeps me going, because I love it,” he continues. “I love the challenge of being there performing, but also understanding how the choreography can work… It makes it very interesting as an artist to figure out what I know, what I still don’t know, and what else can do with dance.”
Co.ERASGA presents the world premiere of Accumulation at 8 p.m. from Thursday (November 9) to Saturday (November 11) at Performance Works (1218 Cartwright Street) on Granville Island. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students and seniors through Eventbrite. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.