Oct 30, 2012

When language fails

Filipino artists explore colonialism through interdisciplinary media

Cecilie Jensen

As a university student studying English literature, I am a firm believer in the role of language as a mode of cross-cultural and cross-temporal expression. Yet, if there is one thing I have also learned after more than two years of engaging critically with different literary forms, it is the obvious incapacity of the written word to accurately communicate certain experiences. Language simply falls short, for example, when trying to say something meaningful about a preliterate society that was dependent on entirely different verbal and natural modes of expression.

The MAI (Montreal, arts interculturels) is a venue for interdisciplinary art practices that seeks to overcome this shortcoming by exploring non-verbal media for intercultural dialogue. From October 25 to 27, MAI staged the multi-sensorial trans-cultural dance-theatre production, Colonial. The show, which toured globally, uses the human body, music, and visual arts to tell the complex story of the colonization of the Philippines by the Spanish in the 16th century, and the American occupation three centuries later. Colonial is a collaboration of five Filipino artists, each using their artistic talent to address their cultural heritage, and explore how to align it with a modern Philippines that now identifies with Western ideals.

The first of the production’s three parts transports the audience back to the pre-colonial jungles of the Philippines. Filipino-Canadian dancer-choreographer, Alvin Erasga Tolentino, gracefully dances on the small stage; a long and narrow mask covers his head, preventing him from seeing the audience or noticing anything beyond the small natural world of jungle sounds and shrubbery he moves in. Gradually, the background music swells in intensity, the rustling of leaves and bird-song are replaced by beating drums, and the sound of church bells makes itself heard in the distance, announcing the arrival of the Spanish colonizers.

The production’s second part begins with Tolentino crawling onto the stage and throwing himself into an uncontrolled, maniacal dance, as images of European and American cultural artifacts surround him on all sides, relentlessly imposing themselves on his natural space.

In contrast to this overt expression of the individual’s battle against overwhelming external influences, the production’s third and final act features a Tolentino who seems to have regained a state of inner equilibrium, his dancing becoming more controlled: we’ve returned to the present, in which the Philippines has gained its independence, but remains irreversibly changed by its colonial past.

Colonial is a fascinating and innovative interpretation of the past and present of the Philippines, and an excellent example of the interdisciplinary artistic vision of the MAI.

The MAI is located at 3680, rue Jeanne-Mance, bureau 103. For more information visit http://m-a-i.qc.ca/en

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