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Letting it Flow: A Conversation with Alvin Collantes

September 11, 2020

Written & Edited by Jessica Cen

Hey Frog in Hand friends!

This past summer, the Frog in Hand Summer Company 2020 members worked on creating videos as an educational resource and received insight and advice from industry professionals. We spoke with several “masters” in site specific performance, pedagogy, dance-theatre, and improvisation. One of the experts we interviewed about improvisation is Alvin Collantes a past collaborator (Creature, 2016) and friend of Frog in Hand. Alvin is a dancer, choreographer, and photographer who is the first certified Gaga teacher from Toronto. Alvin has taught and worked all over the world, including Israel and Berlin. I spoke with Alvin to learn about his work, his passion, and his wisdom. I found it inspiring to hear the way he encourages folks to find movement from within. Visit Alvin's website: alvincollantes.com

This blog includes highlights from our chat and has been edited for clarity.

Jessica Cen (JC): We are joined here with Alvin Collantes who is a photographer, teacher, dancer and choreographer, and also an expert in improvisation. May you talk about the background of your practice and how your journey has led you to focus on improvisation?

Alvin Collantes (AC): Hi, my name is Alvin. Basically, I started very late in dance. I was not trained so much in a structural form like ballet. Everything was very recreational for me and what resonated was free form movement. So, improvisation came at a time when I first started to discover dance and I went to a few institutions for summer school, but all of them were very structured like grand technique ballet and even contemporary dance classes were always in this form in how to meet it with precision and your anatomy. It was so structured that it was sucking the life out of me. What I found very beautiful with dance is that when I play music and move with whatever I hear and how I hear it and how I embody it, for me it has a lot to do with freedom - what I search for in dance. Improvisation became my thing and I started to perform as an improvisation solo artist in festivals and shows. Eventually, I started to train in this movement language in Israel called Gaga.

Gaga is a free form sensation-based movement class that allows you to tap into the many sensations your body can make, the stories of your flesh, bones and skin. It’s about finding meaning behind everything you do inside free form, through images, through the physical actions of moving different body parts, how it can produce many sensations of pleasure and passion inside of you that sometimes a structured class cannot provide. I was certified to teach this in 2018 and I am the first teacher in Toronto to be certified. I’ve been teaching it in Berlin and traveling around the world to share this language. It made quite a big impact to my improvisation as it gave my body of vocabulary to move around free form movement and how to articulate it.

Alvin by Fabien Kramer

JC: Wow, that’s incredible! So, improv can be really intimidating and as someone coming from theatre background, it’s always intimidated me. How do you teach others to be relaxed in the process, trusting their intuition, and strengthening the relationship between the body and the mind?

AC: Improvisation is a lot about admitting yourself in the moment, how you can let go of expectations, judgment, and fear… All of this negativity that you put upon yourself. For me, I bring that to improvisation, and I purge it out. I let it leave me. As I move and as I find more freedom inside what I do, I allow myself to let go of these things. That gives me this moment of relaxation, the space to be in the moment, the space to enjoy whatever I’m doing in that moment. So, it’s kind of like painting. You want to come with a clear canvas with lots of colours and brushes and just go for it. Let it come out however you feel. Allow it to manifest with the judgment and fear and everything. Let it come out of you! It’s how the expression can come alive. But if you come in with expectation, thinking you need to paint a beautiful landscape, tree, or river, sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you want because you get caught up in this expectation … you don’t become or live in the present moment if you are so consumed by the expectation of what you’re supposed to do. Improvisation is all about the work, it’s all about letting go, searching for freedom inside the movement you’re making to not judge it. If you fall, you fall. If you smile, you smile. If you laugh, you laugh. But whatever comes out of you, is completely how it should come out.

JC: You talked a bit about Gaga and how it’s all about sensations?

AC: It’s not a technique. I feel whenever someone says it’s a technique, it always comes from a structural curriculum with a certain exercise and phrases you have to commit to this “technique”. In Gaga, we call it a movement language because you can put the language in ballet, choreography, and other forms of technique. It’s a body of words and phrases that you can curate and layer in order to produce something specific inside free form movement. For me, what I love about Gaga is that it has many healing qualities to it, especially I was searching for how to remove blockages inside me. It talks a lot about listening to how you can achieve an available body. An available body means you can receive and send out information. Whatever comes to you, you can use it as a source, and also connect to your pleasure and passion and what drives you to move. You can connect to this level of awareness that you’re available to snap into many things. You are not just isolating a specific style, but you’re ready to embody different stories, ideas, directions and levels, surprising yourself, explosiveness, delicacies… There are many places that you an access when you have an available body and that’s what I love about Gaga so much.

Alvin with KDV Dance Ensemble in Las Casas Invisibles

JC: You’ve been all over the world. You’ve been Israel as you said before, you’ve been to the Philippines, Sweden, Austria, Thailand, and now you’re based in Berlin. You must have seen some beautiful improvisors. What are some qualities that make a good improvisor to you?

AC: For me, I just want to make a little bit of a clear difference. Gaga is not so much about improvisation, it’s about free from movement. It’s more about allowing the body to find the level of awareness to be available for improvisation, creating movement, and composition. When I see people in Gaga class and they check how they can make their body available and then, towards the end of the class, when I put on some music, they improvise and just spit whatever comes out of them. This becomes very powerful because you build the language in the body and when you give the space for improvisation to exist, you start to understand the potential of every dancer. From traveling all over the world and seeing each dancer grow inside Gaga class and seeing them improvise after understanding what the body do in terms of availability, you start to see their influences, their identity, their suffering, and what they are dealing with. Dancers in Asia are very different and dancers in Europe are very different. It’s very different than dancers in Canada. Each dancer has their own story and especially the society in which they exist, they bring that to how they improvise, they allow it to come out of them because it’s a way for them to speak in relation to their pain, suffering, and challenges, in relation to their achievements, abilities, what they feel strongly about, what they feel passionate about, and their fantasies. It’s all about the society they live in and the identity they’ve built in this world.

JC: Improv can be used to improve physical capacity and technique, used to create set choreography, and used as a spontaneous performance in itself. May you talk a bit about those different kinds of improv?

Alvin with KDV Dance Ensemble in Las Casas Invisibles

AC: Improvisation is all about allowing yourself to articulate. Surprise yourself so… it doesn’t become monotonous. It’s a continuous thread. It’s like when you’re telling a story and you don’t have a script or agenda, you just speak whatever is on your heart and mind, whatever is in the moment, whatever you smell, whatever you touch, whatever you taste, whatever you see… (laughs) It’s a way for you to articulate how to tap into these places of different stories, levels, scenarios, moves, and feelings. These layers of improvisation make it rich when you allow yourself to be surprised by what you do. This is when the artist can become so captivated because it has this level of uncertainty and spontaneity. It has this spontaneous effect to a the viewer. It flirts with danger, suspense, unpredictability and when you give the dancer this time to improvise, it makes the space come alive. It creates tension, vibration, different emotions that sometimes in a structured choreography cannot produce.

JC: It sounds like improv is an art of letting go, showing different facets of oneself, and being a spontaneous performance. Do you have any tips on how people can improve their improv or become more confident in the art of improv?

AC: Improvisation can also be such a great tool to create choreography, to be a vessel to create movement, and to create a structural composition. It’s great to have an idea whether it be intuition, story, feeling, other materials like books, movies, textbook, shows, poems… whatever you feel drawn to. From this starting point, you build your improvisation experience by layering. What can I do from this starting point to layer it with information to direct me where I want to go, where I’m interested in going, where I want to dive into, where can I go that can surprise me, that can bring out places inside me that are new and are unpredictable and that has this “wow” moment. It’s like when you’re digging for clothes in the vintage store and you’re like “Oh my God, this is the one!” (Laughs). So, for me, improvisation is this experience. You start with an idea and a direction looking at the pile of clothes, you see a colour and you go pick it up and you start digging and diving. You put layers inside of it. How can I dig, what can I do, where else can I position myself (laughs), where can I look, how deep do I look? You search for this wild moment inside improvisation because you just listen to your intuition, instincts, and you add layers that make the starting point rich with where it can take you. When you start listening to what already exists and all these layers that can arrive, you find these wild moments inside improvisation.

Alvin with KDV Dance Ensemble in Las Casas Invisibles

JC: As you were talking about finding different things inside of you with improv, what if one day you’re just dancing but nothing comes out…

AC: Creative block!

JC: (laughs) Yeah!

Alvin leads a "Dose of Pleasure" class in Berlin

AC: When you have a creative block, use it as a source for movement! You ask yourself, “what am I blocking today, what is stopping me, what am I bothered by?” Maybe you had an argument with a friend, or your partner, and you come into the studio and you’re super blocked. Maybe you can use that as a source and staring point for improvisation. Recognize the state you’re in and use it. How can I let go inside it? How can I peel layers? How can I find the pleasure of being inside this blockage? What can I do to search for freedom? What can I do for passion? What can I do to give myself this moment to dig deeper into discoveries? When you bring yourself in the space and recognize what is blocking you specifically, you start to create movement. You’re taking things with you rather than ignoring it. And then it becomes meaningful because you understand the root of the blockage and you’re using it as source for movement and inspiration, as a starting point, to add layers of information that can make it rich!

JC: Lastly, what inspires you, what gets you up in the morning, why do you teach and dance?

AC: What gets me out of my bed (laughs) and drives me is because what I teach it comes from a personal place. In Gaga, movement, and improvisation, I talk a lot about your blockages and my blockages. I am honest in the space and when I am honest with myself and reveal so much of what blocks me, I use it as a way to work. How can I find the pleasure inside this moment? How can I have the passion to move with this limitation? What can I do to search for freedom inside the things that are blocking me? I may not be in the best situation in my life, maybe things I’m running away from, but if I recognize it and use it in this moment in teaching and share it with people, I’m already setting myself free and using it as a source for movement that is rich and meaningful full of information because it comes from a deep and personal space. When I leave the class feeling free, passionate, and happy, I know it nourishes and heals me and lights a fire in me and I understand my potential. When I bring this to the class, they also understand this potential when they feel it. It transmits, they consume it and understand it, and they start to let it affect their life in how they can grow and recognize their blockages.

There is movement inside what I do and that’s what drives me. I’m not separating teaching dance and dancing as a way to escape my life. I use teaching movement, improvisation and dance to tackle my life, to understand the root of things, and to make it even more rich by allowing myself to recognize how to set myself free with what I teach and do.

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