4 min

The duality of Alvin

Tolentino celebrates sexuality and Asian heritage

Credit: Laura Jane Petelko

The blending of Eastern philosophy with the Western world has gained prominence in everything from music (like the Buddha Bar collection) to home decor and for those who seek a higher spiritual knowledge. As an art form, it brings simplicity and minimalism in sharp contrast to the consumer-driven West.

And in the world of contemporary dance, that duality of East and West is harmonized and celebrated by local queer dancer Alvin Erasga Tolentino. A Filipino-Canadian, Tolentino seeks to marry his Asian heritage and cultural background with his West Coast environment. Queerdom and gender issues are also integrated in the many solo, duets and interdisciplinary works that he has performed both here and abroad. His resulting work has been acclaimed, while the dancer himself has been called one of Vancouver’s most gifted male contemporary dancers and a performer that will change the face of culture in BC.

To support other artists and work that reflects both cultural and sexual diversity, Tolentino created a contemporary dance company in 2001 called Co. Erasga. He’s the artistic director. In promoting work that deals with issues of gender, sexual and cultural identity, Tolentino seeks to create a dialogue of love and art in our modern society by not being blind to it roots.

“It give me sense that there is more to dance than just moving,” he says. “It gets behind the cultural life and uncovers where the physicality of experience comes from.”

Understanding how and why the body moves in reference to geographic and cultural identity, Tolentino created a work titled Field 1 in a collaborative effort with the Ballet Philippines. They approached three Filipino artists living abroad to create pieces based on their experience of returning home. It was Tolentino’s artistic debut in his birthplace-a place he hadn’t been for 15 years-that he describes as a “turning point.”

“The connections were quite memorable and emotional. It was my first time working with my own people and speaking the language in a creative manner and learning their physicality. It was a rich blend, being able to give to one another, and create Field 1 that is based on the land and people of the Philippines.”

Six sold-out performances and rave reviews later, Tolentino hopes to reciprocate by bringing Ballet Philippines to Canada in a year or two. Meanwhile, he’ll be returning next year to create an even bigger project.

International travel and worldwide recognition are gaining momentum in Tolentino’s career. He’s performed in Switzerland, Japan and the Dominican Republic. Since his debut in Manila in February and a collaborative work with taiko musician Eileen Kage in San Francisco in May, he’s returned to work in Vancouver and prepare for his summer trip to Croatia and France.

“I’ll be representing Vancouver in a prestigious European dance festival. I’m very excited. The piece is gay-oriented with the themes of Asian heritage and multiculturalism that I’m throwing to the Croatian audience, saying this is what we are! I’m looking forward to the experience.”

September sees him in residency in Brussels where he’ll be developing a new work and preparing for that performance in November. Although Tolentino’s performances are sought the world over, his desire to remain connected to Vancouver, and the queer community that have supported him, is strong. He recently gave a “mini-performance” at Xtra West’s Heroes of 2002 award show because, he says, it allows him an opportunity to contribute back to his community.

Tolentino’s performance, though short, was breathtaking in its fluidity and strength. Stunningly graceful yet precise in movement, the likely neophyte audience seemed completely captivated by the sheer perfection of the work.

“When I first started dancing I wasn’t always open [about my sexuality],” he says. “I had a breakthrough six years ago. That as a gay dancer I needed to express that and blend it in the work. Once that opened up I understood the possibility of it and the diversity of the audience. It’s wonderful.

“There are so many gay artists and we need to celebrate it. It’s there. Eventually we can progress more and develop in a constant evolution with the new generation that can change and sustain it. That comes from celebrating the community and exposing ourselves. Not being afraid to tell the world that we are gay artists up front, there is nothing wrong with that. When it begins from that it makes a prominent statement.”

Tolentino says the gay presence and cross-cultural themes in his work are intuitive rather than forced as an issue.

“Dance is transmitting the soul of the body. The feelings, emotions, history, experience and vulnerability that is the architecture of being in the art of dance and dancing.”

Young Alvin felt a sense of isolation when he first moved to Canada at age 12. But he drew on the exposure to dance as a child in the Philippines and the festivity of its culture; as he grew, these provided the backbone for his artistic endeavours and he flourished in the new land. He dove into the world of contemporary dance, studying at York University and training with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, studying with some of Canada’s top dancers and choreographers. He’s performed extensively in the local dance scene, choreographed works and indulged in multi-media pieces that incorporate his love of the visual arts.

Now, it seems, he’s bound to leave our seaside hamlet for larger audiences. His partner in France has him considering dual homes in both Canada and Europe where he says he’s inspired by the antiquity, mannerisms and grandeur of Europe.

“The last three years things have developed so there is now an open, wide horizon. I’m very privileged. It took a long time to get here and now there is more work than ever. The company I built in 2001 is a big foundation for sustaining the creativity and developing it here.”

Tolentino’s goal though, is to retain his ties with Vancouver-both the queer and dance communities. Home is here, he says, and though he is taking part in the international scene, it’s in the capacity of “ambassador for the Queer West Coast.”