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Flash Dispatch, 3-9: Dancing Vietnam
From the Traditional to the Experimental, a Highly Subjective Guide to Dance and Dance Funding

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2001 Maura Nguyen Donohue

VUNG TAO, Vietnam -- Please disregard all previous commentaries from Vietnam. Okay, not entirely, but at least regard my earlier dispatches with some amount of objective disbelief until you can come here and distinguish for yourself. Like a travel guide's, consider my opinions -- and that's all they are -- a springboard for your own in-depth explorations. And not, as I've told too many complaining "Lonely Planet"-wielding tourists, The Bible. Of course, discerning Dance Insider, you already know to read these Flashes as such anyway. All opinions are subjective and likely to change.

I come to you now reflectively gazing towards the late afternoon sun as it sets over the South China Sea -- well, really, where the Saigon River meets the South China Sea. I'm enjoying a Sunday off at a backwater beach in Vung Tau, an easy day trip for city-weary Saigonese. It was once a favorite R&R spot for American soldiers, and the Vietnamese women who liked American soldiers, as photos of my young mother can attest to. It was also from here that thousands of South Vietnamese fled to the sea at the end of the American War. My gracious host, Mr. Mau, an old diver for the South Vietnamese Navy, tells me that until about eight years ago no one would walk in these parts. You never knew what would float ashore here.

Now most of Vung Tau is something of a carnival, Mau points out from his Honda as the two of us whiz by the newly developing areas that he calls "Corruption Town." But here at the less populated, rocky Mulberry Beach cove, overlooked by benevolent Christian and Buddhist statues built into the mountainside, we are nestled amongst deteriorating French villas built right up to the water. I can squint my eyes and almost imagine myself on a quaint Greek isle in the Mediterranean, except for the unfortunate signs of offshore drilling and Saigon garbage that float by on occasion. But, hey, it's a $7-a-night room for two (or three) with my tabletop desk sitting on a terrace just a few feet from the lapping waves. It ain't CNN's "Hotspots" but it sure as hell allows me some space to reflect on a very full, albeit soggy, week in Hanoi.

We'd skipped Hue, the old Imperial City, and survived a crowded and bumpy 23-hour bus ride. Somewhere on the trip I remembered an imperial dance form that I should have been looking for. I have yet to see any representation of it but looked for it four years ago when I first came to Hue. I'd since forgotten about it entirely, having only glimpsed about 30 seconds of it in an Anthro & Dance class film in college and a few photos in my National Geographic Vietnam War collection from the early 1960s. Hue's fading Imperial Tombs, considered feudal and politically incorrect, were saved by UNESCO. I wondered if they'd managed to retain any of its Imperial performing arts. It's certainly not in the standard mua dan toc (traditional) dance repertory anywhere I've been and I've seen enough mua dan toc for a few lifetimes.

Alright, I'm being dismissive again. Which brings me back to my original point. Some of my opinions have changed since my last two dispatches. I still don't care much for mua dan toc as it's offered today, but after seeing it taught and practiced in Hanoi by the best of the best I can at least respect it in some way. Though as sister Eirene asks, how can it take seven years to learn this stuff? This is based on training in Hanoi's Dance College, which offers seven, four, and two year programs of study with daily mua dan toc and ballet classes. But no matter how much more I appreciate the mastery of technique, it still irks my feminist sensibility to watch a form that's all about pretty, pretty, pretty. Pretty girls in pretty costumes gently stepping or rocking or shuffling along with the loveliest of hand movements, the simplest smiles and any of an array of props. I just want to tear this shit up. Dig? It rankles every ounce of my half American, women's college, deconstructive anthro & dance major, righteous babe self. But that's my issue. You might like it.

So...suddenly, four weeks into our trip, we were on OFFICIAL BUSINESS after a fruitful, though slightly-harrowing-at-moments, meeting with Mr. Nguyen Van Tinh, Deputy Director General and head of the International Cooperation Department for the Ministry of Culture and Information. Every time the smiling Mr. Nguyen would begin a sentence with "Yes, but first there is something I must tell you..." I thought we'd blown everything. But instead I found him, his assistant Mrs. Le Ngoc Thuy (U.S. specialist), and our assigned guide/translator (a.k.a. 'minder') Tuan all to be extremely interested in developing projects with the U.S. and facilitating any introductions necessary. I had unsuccessfully tried to get in to see the Dance College on my own and found it wasn't so easy in the seat of government, and thereby the land of red tape and proper papers. With their assistance we were able to visit the country's premiere traditional performance troupe, Vietnam National Music, Dance and Song Theatre (Nha Hat Ca Mua Nhac Vietnam) at its great facilities, watch several rehearsals of dance and music, and attend an event intended for ambassadors. Though U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson didn't show, I managed to meet someone from our embassy. The company is receiving a significant amount of support from the M.C.I. with ambitious plans to build a 1,000-seat theater on its grounds and hopefully, with help from some of its audience, to bring this company to the world. It is considered to be the country's premiere traditional performance troupe, with all of the dancers recruited from the Dance College.

At the Dance College, which, I'm told, is like everything in Hanoi far superior to Saigon's, we're witness to the effort of maintaining tradition through the study of mua dan toc. But, after watching a run-through of several dances, I can hardly distinguish between a standard traditional Vietnamese dance and one that is supposed to be from one of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam's Highlands.

The ambassadorial performance of the musicians from Vietnam's National Music, Dance and Song Theater reveals the unfortunate gulf between maintaining and assimilating traditional material, once passed on by elders and now taught conservatory style. Musicians led by "Eminent Artiste" Xuan Hoach shift between common traditional Vietnamese and rarer Highland instruments and compositional styles, with dramatic and contextual but easy shifts in a single performance. Familiar works are transformed by these artists. Xuan Binh interprets a famous Southern lullaby (also performed by Hanoi's water puppet musicians at each of their three daily shows and used in my "SKINning the surFACE") on the dan bau (monochord) in a perfect union of skill and personal style. Quoc Hung astounds the polite audience when he performs a Highland piece on the K'ni. It's a kind of wooden instrument held with the left hand, bowed with the right but also with a string running from its base into Hung's mouth. Somehow he uses this to control pitch. The effect is electric, like the beginning of Frampton's live "Show Me the Way."

When the group gathers under Xuan Hoach and Quoc Hung's guidance for a Gong Concert from the Highlands, we are treated to a rip-roaring time. Several percussion instruments are played while the concert staging includes a fake campfire, traditional barelegged garments and hoots and hollers from within the semi-circle of men and women. Next to these impassioned and inhabited performances, the dancing is contrived and insipid within the 2-hour program. As Eirene points out, musicians seem to be the only ones allowed to jam. The entire company is highly skilled. But while the dancers seem to only be doing what they've been told to, the musicians seem to be doing what they love.

But, I've gotten drastically ahead of myself. Before all of this happened we first met with Oscar Salemink at the Ford Foundation. He is an excellent resource and, as I mentioned in my last dispatch, the Ford Foundation is supporting some of the most important contemporary arts efforts here. Any focus on international exchange comes only if it is for the benefit of the arts back home. Salemink points out that too many Vietnamese artists who begin to have more international exposure are losing contact with the public here, and thereby not benefiting Vietnam at all. This sentiment is echoed by Tran Luong, a visual and installation artist and a leader of a vibrant and exciting group of young, educated and experimental artists around Hanoi. He, like Minh Ngoc in Saigon, though very interested in international exchange and also well traveled, is keen on bringing whatever he encounters back and sharing it with his community.

Salemink offers an interesting perspective on the Hanoi vs. Saigon dynamic. He points to the unfortunate mindset of too many VN art organizations who cite poverty as a reason for their minimal public outreach. They see or hear of foreign, state-of-the-art facilities and don't see the small beginnings for most artists in the U.S. and elsewhere. They are entirely unfamiliar with the little day-to-day activities that any artistic director must undertake to keep the work seen, produced, reviewed, financed, housed, costumed, rehearsed, etcetera. Members of the National Drama Company visited the U.S. as part of an exchange with the Pacific University in Oregon, funded by Ford and by the U.S. Embassy, which led to a successful bilingual, bicultural performance of "Midsummer Night's Dream." One incredulous actor noted how much effort the director of the theater had to put in, personally calling people to ensure attendance.

According to Salemink, and not surprising considering that the arts moved from being State sponsored (and dictated) into a market economy, the subsidy system has created a mindset which makes artists dependent on outside financial support rather then on their own talents, capacity and relationship with the audience. This makes for an interesting side effect to the overwhelming disparity between governmental support to the North and South that I bemoaned two dispatches ago. Salemink reveals that this actually has freed the Saigon arts community in a way I didn't recognize. Without the support, artists in the South have been forced to develop organizational alternatives. Small, semi-independent groups thrive in Saigon at IDECAFE or San Khau Nho (Small Theater Co.), etcetera. Because these organizations are dependant on box office proceeds, the artists themselves are growing increasingly involved in their own management and in meeting the needs of an active, young audience.

So, though it is Hanoi which has many young artists who are experimenting with form via exposure to Western ideas and methods supported by official international exchanges; and Hanoi which boasts a burgeoning contemporary dance community led by Australian- and Russian-trained Pham Anh Phuong and developing within the National Opera & Ballet Theater; and around Hanoi that I met some of the freshest, most exciting artists that I'd want to collaborate with; it is the Southern artists who are making things happen for themselves versus those in the North who must wait for foreign and state support before branching out. An interesting juxtaposition to my view of the arts scene just a few weeks ago. There's always another way to see the picture. A lesson well learned once again.


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