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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Choreographer Joe Tuliao finds meaning in TV, film, and dance projects, including ICON, grounded with good intentions

Joe Tuliao
Joe Tuliao (centre) helps protégés express themselves through movement at the Illustrative Society.

Vancouver dancer and choreographer Joe Tuliao looks upon a human life as one big masterpiece.

“All these sequences of life—all these scenes—are actually all part of a bigger picture, a bigger movie,” Tuliao tells Pancouver over Zoom.

This world view has led him to take on the role of life coach as creative director of the Illustrative Society. Tuliao has a long list of dancing and choreography credits, and he co-founded the society in 2015 to mentor the next generation of dance artists.

His newest production, ICON, reflects Tuliao’s perspective that everyone is the main character of their own movie.

ICON is just a combination of everyone’s stories, including mine,” Tuliao explains.

When he looks at the world from a higher perspective, he sees people navigating their own journeys of self-discovery. Ultimately, he feels that they must own who they are and find authenticity through life experiences.

Moreover, ICON, which is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Saturday and Sunday (May 18 and 19), aims to translate that through the young performers’ bodies and movements. The Illustrative Society describes ICON in its poster as “an immersive theatrical experience that challenges societal norms and celebrates authenticity”. Set in a black box theatre, it mixes acting with film, along with a great deal of dance.

“I’m creative directing it and I’ve choreographed it, but I’ve also had the cast involved in the production process of creating and collaborating with me,” Tuliao says. “That’s part of my mentorship for them.”

Joe Tuliao
Joe Tuliao guides the ICON cast through different movements.

Tuliao danced with Janet Jackson

He feels that his purpose in life is to boost the self-esteem of others, including the 20 students in the cast. One of Tuliao’s primary goals is to help them on their journey through life. His best friend, filmmaker Kevin Phillips, is collaborating with him for the first time on ICON. Other members of the creative team include associate director Julien Naud and assistant choreographer Kelly Blancas.

At the young age of 31, Tuliao has already accomplished a great deal in arts and entertainment. The son of Filipino immigrants, he grew up in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood and began dancing in Grade 3.

However, Tuliao reveals that he didn’t take dancing really seriously until after high school.

“I wanted to see where I could go with this,” he says. “I knew I wanted to get more professional and wanted to monetize my skillset, so I started teaching at Harbour Dance Centre.”

The Illustrative Society is collaborating with Rich Concepts filmmaker Kevin Phillips on ICON.

He taught at other studios as well. The same agency that eventually signed him, da Costa Talent Management, also signed Ralph Escamillan, the award-winning artistic director of FakeKnot.

“We danced with each other in some classes,” Tuliao recalls. “And we performed together with Janet Jackson back in 2016.”

Like many breaks in Tuliao’s life, this one happened serendipitously. Jackson’s choreographer offered a workshop a day before her concert in Vancouver. Afterward, much to Tuliao’s surprise, he and some other dancers were invited to perform on-stage with the legendary singer-songwriter and actor.

Another career highlight came when Tuliao was hired as associate choreographer on RuPaul’s Drag Race: Secret Celebrity. He found himself on-set alongside one of the Backstreet Boys, AJ McLean, and Mean Girls actor Daniel Francesci.

“It was really just a cool experience that I never thought I would be working on,” Tuliao says.

Joe Tuliao

Values drive career choices

More recently, Tuliao was choreographer on Joy Ride, a 2023 comedic film about four Asian American friends who travel through China. Directed by Adele Lim, it premiered at SXSW.

“It’s a celebration of Asian excellence in front and behind the screen,” Tuliao declares.

Moreover, Joy Ride aligned so well with his values. And after the interview, he received a Leo Award nomination for best choreography for his work on this production.

As his career progresses, Tuliao is placing a premium on working on projects with a good message and good intentions behind them.

That was certainly the case with one of his most recent initiatives. Tuliao served as creative director for the inaugural Lapu-Lapu Cultural Block Party in East Vancouver on April 27. Filipino BC and the Sunset on Fraser Business Association launched this large-scale event to celebrate Filipino culture through music, arts, and community activities.

Tuliao acknowledges that this event came with some risks.

“But I knew that the past successes have given me this platform where I feel I have a responsibility to take on that role and be that voice to help spearhead that for my community,” he adds.

In fact, he’s quite comfortable taking risks. His parents set a good example by taking the giant step of immigrating to Canada from Laguna in the Philippines.

“I’m so grateful for their trek,” Tuliao says. “That’s what gives me purpose. That’s what gives me drive. They took the risk to raise me here.”

The Illustrative Society presents ICON in association with Rich Concepts at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on May 18 and 19. The shows will take place in the Faris Family Studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre (677 Davie Street). For tickets, visit Tickettailor.com.

Follow Pancouver on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.