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Flash Dispatch, 2-8: Tet Comprehensive
In Mixed Company in Saigon

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2001 Maura Nguyen Donohue

SAIGON -- Well, I'm back in Vietnam again. Got back for the second time in the Year of the Golden Dragon and rang in the Year of the Snake in a proper celebration of Tet: Quietly with family. It's quite a challenge to return so soon, especially considering I'd just come back from a long-belated honeymoon/yoga retreat with 32 hours to finish a grant application, console a broken-hearted sister and pack for six weeks away. Thankfully the yoga put me in exactly the right place to address the constant efforts of desire and aversion that each trip here demands of me. And luckily, through the generous funding of Dance Theater Workshop's Suitcase Fund, I'm here expenses paid to do what I love: meet artists, establish relationships and see work. And you Insiders get to come along for some of it thanks to one of the Web's hottest sites!

With a long history of invasion and domination, the consequences of war are still a burden in Vietnam. Where there was once the concentration of work about the fight for "Liberation," or against war, since the 'doi moi' (renovation/reform/opening) policy of the late 1980s the arts have struggled against the influx and growing demand for work only fit for commercial consumption. As Vietnam seeks to industrialize as rapidly as possible, education has focused on science and technology. The government has discontinued much support for the arts and the general population lacks any significant amount of arts education. Outdoor public activities usually include rally-like song and -- ahem -- dance events. Artists compete with other forms of entertainment that are increasingly available to the average citizen: football matches, television, fashion shows and pop concerts.

And everything officially trickles down from Hanoi, though the enormous municipality that is now Ho Chi Minh City serves several million people. As playwright, director, journalist, actress, writer (and to any Cultural Officer you meet pain-in-the-neck) Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc puts it: "Our country is like a family with too many mouths to feed. Our parents 'up there' are too busy." Personally, I think it's less about a busy schedule and more about provincial rivalry. Though the country is now more than 25 years unified, the North continues to reveal itself as a sore winner, sharing few of its resources with Southern artistic efforts. That said, I still managed to meet up with some devoted artists.

The gem of my recent time in Saigon was the three days I spent with the independent October Ballet Company (Doan Ballet Thang Muoi). I made contact with the company thanks to the endless font of info that Tim Doling, from Visiting Arts, is. Along with having served as an interpreter and manager for OBC, not to mention marrying its ex-prima ballerina, Dang Thi Ngoc Nhung, Doling has also served as the director of the HK Arts Centre, was a researcher for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and authored an Asian Pacific Arts Directory as well as cultural development reports on Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. And he's likely to walk right past you New Yorkers in the next week or so as he and Nhung are expected to be in NYC checking out the scene and meeting with some other folks from the Mekong Project. For more info on this, click here.

OBC was established in 1982 by Saigon-based choreographer and teacher Tran Van Lai, who had trained in Russia and VN. In 1986 it received the Gold Medal in the National Cultural Competition, and Dang (Doling's wife) won the gold prize for her performance of "The Dying Swan." In 1994 OBC won first prize in VN's first National Ballet Competition. It's toured to Bangkok and Chiang Mai (Thailand) where company members met and studied briefly with members of the Martha Graham company. In 1996 the company concluded a residency at the Capital Ballet School in Canberra, Australia with joint performances with the National Capital Dancers.

This is an eager and warm group of dancers. As an independent company, and a Southern one at that, it is not often given much support from the government. Its members describe themselves as people who come together because of love and not money. The dancers are not paid. Everyone has another job, as a piano player, ballroom dance teacher or children's teacher. Tran pays the $400/night rental fee for the annual season at Saigon's Opera House out of pocket, and designs his own costumes and everything else. Sound familiar? He says he began an independent company because he loves freedom and that in the beginning, there were no problems because they worked for charitable events.

The company meets six days per week from 9 to 12 in a small studio next to Saigon's main park. When I met up with them, Minh Pham, a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) from France back for Tet, was teaching class. He's been dancing with the Toulouse Ballet for several years and befriended OBC's current prima ballerina, Ngo Thuy To Nhu while they were students in Kiev. The now-defunct Russian program would audition 600 children and choose 10 to study in Kiev with all expenses paid. Nhu was there from 1984 to 1992. The training is apparent in her and danseur Thai Dat Minh, who both reveal exceptional technical prowess. But, that said, each of the six company members offers enjoyable personal gifts, and my brief splash of hearty individualism in movement exposes that what certain dancers have not achieved in perfect balletic form they can make up for with freedom. Bits of yoga, karate, release and a-tti-tude challenged their ideas of right-side-up and introduced them to the idea of emotion in movement. I admit, I woke the first day I was to work with them so concerned over how an exchange with foreign dancers, no, foreign BALLET dancers would go that I'm still suffering from a mouth full of ulcers. But they chomped the shit up! And they did it, of course, apologizing the entire time for not being good enough. Typical Asian self-effacement while they learned the movement quicker than my own company, Maura Nguyen/In Mixed Company, and asked that I return the next day and the next day.

I ended up extending my stay in the city to work with them and will return in a few weeks to work more. They've asked that I set work on the company. The movement for a short piece I could set in a day. The real work for me is trying to teach passion and abandon and the artistry of individual interpretation to dancers who struggle with double dose traditions of conforming to the norm. But, that's what I'm here for. My one-woman Rambo mission: to bring down the government...through modern dance.

My last night in HCMC before hitting the road was spent on the road, actually. Minh Ngoc, my personal guide to the woes of an independent thinking artist's life in VN and one of the busiest people in theater I've ever met, put me and travel companion/collaborator/sister Eirene on the bus with members of VN's most famous 'cai luong' troupe, Tran Huu Trang Cai Luong Theater. Cai Luong has been described to me as renovated theater, modern theater and southern opera. It's sort of like a musical. People talk and then they break into song. Tran Huu Trang was established in the early 1950s and has three separate troupes and a school, where Minh Ngoc is currently one of the director/teachers. We were tagging along with troupe #3 on their way to Cu Chi (famous for its enormous underground tunnel system during the war with the United States).

It's 4:30 p.m. and someone is always late. There are six guys in the back of the bus playing cards and Minh Ngoc's 'students' are almost all older than me. We arrive like minor rock stars, thanks to the name emblazoned on the side of the bus. The stage, lights and sound system are already set up in the middle of a big field. The performers dress off the back of a truck -- this really is a bus and truck tour. Kids are sneaking past a thin rope to watch the performers prepare, while the rural audience roars in on their Hondas. The audience is a squirming mass of women and children with men standing on the fringes. Though I could have used a few occasional subtitles or a program with notes of some kind, the show still rocks. The performers are well-trained actors and singers and the rhythm of the music, an electric guitar, a violin, a keyboard and a Japanese samisen is fantastic.


(Editor's note: To read Maura's earlier dispatch from Hanoi, click here.)

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