Dennis Gupa, theatre director behind Colonial, Co.ERASGA’s provocative exploration of the colonization of the Philippines, is sitting in a plastic chair, watching Alvin Erasga Tolentino reconstruct a section of the performance. A multi-media dance piece conceptualized by the two, Colonial premiered in Vancouver in 2012 and toured the Philippines in early 2013.
The show was a hit on both sides of the Pacific, and Tolentino is currently preparing for a second tour. With an expected audience of over 3,000 people, Tolentino says he feels like Lady Gaga. “When does contemporary dance reach that many people?” he asks.
Tolentino moved to Canada in 1983, but he keeps close ties to his birth country, the Philippines; he met Gupa in 2007 while touring there. When they began Colonial, Tolentino wanted a collaboration with Filipino artists. As Gupa puts it, “We were concerned with the honesty of the vision, and Alvin is a daring artist, strong enough to say no.”
Gupa helped Tolentino bring four new generation Filipino artists to the project: Jon Lazam, videography; Angelica Dayao, musical composition; John Carlo Pagunaling, costume design; and Jonathan Tsang, lighting.
The project was not without controversy. Its Filipino audience challenged the artists’ politics, along with Tolentino’s empathy for the country’s post-colonial issues today. On one level, Colonial responds to Gupa’s questions about Filipino politics: “I wonder,” he muses, “why are we engaged in disputes between the US and China. Why don’t they just leave us alone to follow our course? In some way our government is still participating in colonialism.”
However, the question of the artists’ politics is a sensitive one. In the Philippines, politics is still dangerous if taken too far. “We still have desaparecido,” says Gupa, referring to the Filipinos who were allegedly kidnapped by authorities. “We are moving out of that era now, but art has a responsibility to challenge. Part of being an artist is to transcend the fear of death.”
In exploring colonialism as a dancer, Tolentino had to bring up forgotten memories and embody the pain experienced in those days past. “The process strips me,” he says. “I have to empty my body, like meditation, in a way. I give it as a physical offering, a prayer.” Similarly, for Gupa, the project revolves around what’s been lost and what’s been found. “We have debris from the past,” he says. “Can we do something with the debris? We can reclaim it. We have archives, but there are other ways to engage with the memories.”
Gupa says he’s become sensitive to conversations that have arisen as a result of Colonial. “When the project is responded to, it gives us a chance to expand it and make it deeper. We’re going to an area that celebrates their Spanish ancestry. I am excited to bring an anti-colonial view to that audience.”
Colonial’s opening falls on the Philippines’ celebration of independence from Spanish rule. This coincidence represents, for both Tolentino and Gupa, the tour’s essence: it was a long, episodic and communal process where the pieces came together in serendipitous ways. Through it, both had the feeling that this project was meant to be.
Colonial will be presented at the Scotiabank Dance Centre June 11 and 12. For more information, visit companyerasgadance.ca. For tickets, visit ticketstonight.ticketforce.com.