Rhythm Nation: Growing In Dance With Gil Duldulao

APARA tank top. Photographed by Jack Marion for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Man Philippines.

Choreographer and creative director Gil Duldulao sees the world in the fusion of dance and music.

Born in Kalihi, Hawai’i, Gil Duldulao started out as a little boy who was looking to fit into his own skin. When he took a hip-hop dance class for beginners, his limbs took over. “I felt like it was a natural thing for me. It wasn’t uncomfortable or awkward. It connected with me and I felt connected to it,” Duldulao recounts with a smile.

Initially, he attributed part of his interest to his Filipino heritage, constantly being surrounded by music and relatives who could sing and dance in some capacity. However, the next 10 years would prove that the interest ran much deeper where he went through many agencies and was brought to multiple dance conventions by different choreographers. “They kept telling me that I need to go to LA and I need to pursue this. It’s kind of cuckoo, but I remember watching Janet Jackson’s ‘If,’ and I was like, I want to do that. I want to be in a music video and to pursue dance.” 

APARA tank top, .ARCHIVES boiler suit. Photographed by Jack Marion for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Man Philippines.

The desire to leave and making the jump are two vast distinctions, especially for a 17 year old, but Duldulao’s mother understood how her son yearned for much more. He learned about the EDGE Performing Arts Center (EDGEPAC) in Los Angeles. At the time, the center had a scholarship program where hundreds of hopefuls would come in from all over the US to audition for scholarship slots. “I told my mom about that, and I think she just saw that I was going nowhere. I wanted to grow in dance, I wanted to learn so much more, but it wasn’t in Hawai’i. And obviously, sending your child to go and audition—that’s a lot,” says Duldulao. “Then one day she says to me, ‘Go look in your Bible, I have something for you.’”

There, between pages of scripture, was the needle that moved Duldulao’s story forward: a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. 

Duldulao bagged his slot for a scholarship and found multiple agencies wanting to represent him. The next chapter of his creative life as a dancer had begun, and yet as he auditioned, he found that he was completely atypical of the male dancer most projects were auditioning for. “Tall, big, muscular men were so sought after and I was the skinny, 5’9” guy,” Duldulao says. 

On a day that will remain in his memory, he received a call telling him about an audition for Janet Jackson. Duldulao, funnily enough, had already taken classes for Jackson’s then-choreographer Tina Landon and some of Jackson’s dancers. It seemed like destiny. After days of grueling auditions, he seemed to be right. He would now be dancing for Janet Jackson.

“The first year, I was just a really shy kid and I just wanted to do the best job. I didn’t really talk to Janet for eight months,” says Duldulao. “And then we talked one day at dinner, she was across from me. Then she started calling me on my hotel phone.”

“I wanted to grow in dance, I wanted to learn so much more, but it wasn’t in Hawai’i”

He talks about their calls as something that began in kindness—an older, celebrated figure checking in on one of the youngest in her team. She, more than anyone, understood the Herculean weight of loneliness of a tour. And in connecting with her, Duldulao not only unsuspectingly opened the pages to significant future chapters in his creative life, but also formed a life-long friendship that would teach him much about the real necessity of music and movement.

It’s now been nearly 30 years of working with Jackson, many of them as the holder and translator of her creative vision. Each project that he’s executed with her is, unsurprisingly, rooted in a story. Her State Of The World tour in 2017, for instance, addressed very real themes of xenophobia, homophobia, police brutality, domestic violence, and more. “Our world felt like it was in shambles and politically everywhere. There was so much division, and there was so much misinformation,” says Duldulao. As they looked through Jackson’s catalog of music, they found a plethora of songs that resonated with the chaos of the time, which then were plastered on video. 

“I’m so connected to Janet spiritually. It’s like we’re always going through something, or she’s going through something. And I just went through that too. Creating has been my movie, or sometimes it’s fantasy, and sometimes I create fantasy, a fantasy world because I’m dying inside and I want to be there,” Duldulao shares. He also notes that those viral videos of Jackson in full control, dancing with extremely eager male fans to “Would You Mind” come from a personal place: “Honestly, that’s my fantasy in my head playing out. It’s something I never got to do myself. And even teaching her that or trying to practice on one of the dancers on one of those built-in things on stage, it’s hard. She laughs. She’s so shy. But again, it’s that Janet thing. Once you get her on stage and once that music comes, she becomes Janet on stage.”

NICOLÒ top and trousers, GUCCI loafers. Photographed by Jack Marion for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Man Philippines.

In 2023, the winds blew in a different direction after the pandemic. Duldulao himself suffered personal losses of loved ones passing away over the course of the last three years, and he felt that like him, most people were ready for an escape. “When we did the Together Again tour, I felt like people just wanted to be together again. Her catalog revolves around love, pain, the struggle, and then freedom. So we wanted to take the audience through those waves and rediscover why we fell in love with her.”

While many have noted Jackson’s protectiveness of her privacy, Duldulao thinks it is actually extremely helpful in the way they choose to tell stories together. “Sometimes I push her to give,” he says, “because when you’re on stage or when you’re writing an album or you’re performing, they get to see more of you.”

Outside of Jackson, he’s worked with a handful of high caliber talents like Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lopez, and Tina Turner. Comparatively, he finds that with the younger talents, their teams’ complete awareness of social media can impede the storytelling process. “I think they want to tell their story,” notes Duldulao. “I feel sorry and I wish it was different, or I wish it was about the music. I wish they would reclaim, they would claim more for themselves and their artistry. I wish it was about the writing and what you can do as an artist so that people get you and connect with you.”

NICOLÒ top and trousers, GUCCI loafers. Photographed by Jack Marion for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Man Philippines.

Duldulao has since found the need for a pause, relocating to London for some time and away from the density of industry professionals in Los Angeles. He still dreams of taking on Broadway or a scripted series, and bringing Jackson to various forms of media where their many other stories can continue to be told. “The things that inspire me are things like architecture. It’s walking and seeing how buildings are made and how you would create it through movement,” he says. “I think that’s what I love about London, and now I live here. It is a different type of loneliness than the last three years. It’s like a calming loneliness, whereas those three years in my old place, it was dark. And so being here, I don’t talk, I don’t have many friends, but it’s a different type of loneliness. It’s a space that I can create from.”

As he prepares to pick up the tour with Jackson this year, he’s rediscovered the joy in the purity of dance. He’s avoided teaching multiple classes for some time but only allowed himself to teach a few in London, and pleasantly found that he’s able to both dance and commune with others who are excited to learn from someone with his level of experience. “It is a different language,” Duldulao says thoughtfully, highlighting the importance of music and movement, “but I think it’s how I feel listening to music.” 

Vogue Philippines: June 2024 Issue

By GABBIE TATAD. Photographs by JACK MARION. Styling by TICIA ALMAZAN. Fashion Director PAM QUIÑONES. Vogue Man Editor: DANYL GENECIRAN. Makeup: Angeline Dela Cruz of Estée Lauder Philippines. Art Director: Jann Pascua. Producer: Bianca Zaragoza, Anz Hizon. Photographer’s Assistant: Eugene Del Rio.
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