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4-25: Southern Exposure
Pearl-Diving in Vietnam
By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2002 Maura Nguyen Donohue
HO CHI MIN CITY, Vietnam -- Itās
6 a.m. and Iām already sweating like a pig. My taxi passes throngs of Vietnamese
at the end of a morning workout. Soccer games have taken over the main streets
and the elderly gracefully shift through a local version of tai chi, or thai cuc
quyen, in the new park opposite the slick New World Hotel. Since my first return
to Vietnam in 1997, this space served only as an enormous wasteland, literally.
So Iām pleasantly surprised to see it green and occupied by a new class of urban
dwellers. Of course, you need to rise with the Vietnamese a couple hours before
the dawn to see it in use. In my family, a 6 a.m. wake-up call is sleeping in.
Iām on a bus once again, (see Flash
Dispatch, 2-8: Tet Comprehensive), hitting the road today with the Ho Chi
Minh City Ballet Sympony Orchestra (HBSO). Weāre heading into a four hour drive
to Phan Thiet, a beach front Īresortā complete with golf course, known best for
producing the Vietnamese culinary staple, nuoc mam. Nuoc mam is the pungent and
highly addictive fish sauce that accompanies just about every meal. And like the
members of Tran Huu Trang company, and as with every other tour bus Iāve taken
around the world, somebody is always late. Many of the dancers perform at discotechs
for extra money (a typical monthly salary in the HBSO amounts to roughly $30)
and last night a few of the dancers were out late.
There are two buses, one with the
HCMC Puppet Theater name emblazoned on the side, the other tagged as HCMCās Drama
Company. The HBSO, founded in 1994, rehearses in the most meager of studios. Until
six months ago its performers were dancing on a concrete floor. This is an astounding
contrast to the Vietnam Opera Ballet Theater, the company's counterpart in the
north. Last week, as part of a new Dance Theater Workshop "Arts Organizers" project
in Vietnam, I, along with Cathy Edwards (DTW), Peter Taub (Performance at the
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) and Minh Tran (Portland-based choreographer
& teacher) watched an informal showing in the VOBTās newly renovated 200-seat
proscenium stage. The new stage is just for small shows; the company usually performs
in Hanoiās Opera House.
Yesterday, as part of the continuing
effort on DTWās part to initiate and develop artist-to-artist exchanges via "The
Mekong Project," I taught a brief master class for the HBSO. In a fast and furious
session, I taught a short phrase from my work "Both," which premiered last November
at The Duke on 42nd Street. A little yoga, a little release, a little upside down
and the next thing you know theyāre rolling on the ground. Though too short to
allow the dancers any context or understanding, the exercise at least served as
an introduction to me. So today Iām spared from the role of "stranger with camera"
and instead get to play "stranger with camera who made us do handstands and bruise
our shoulders from rolling on the floor." Anyway, at least weāve all gotten sweaty
in the studio together.
We arrive in town, glimpse the outside
of the theater and head to a beachfront hotel where the company meets up with
the production team who arrived in Bus #1 last night. All told there are close
to 100 people here. The dancers and musicians have 90 minutes off before lunch.
So I drop off my bag and dash for the beach. This was an unexpected chance to
get into the South China Sea, on what I thought was going to be my first trip
to Vietnam without a coastal visit. Like a crazy foreigner I rip off my clothes
and jump into the ocean under the hot sun while my friendly Vietnamese chaperones,
Chau and Hung, head for cover. If you want to find a Vietnamese person in the
water, this is another place you need to get to early, or late in the afternoon.
Theyāre on an entirely opposite schedule from the tourists. They're still not
hip to the idea that sunkissed skin means luxury not peasantry -- as the arm-length
silk gloves, hats and sunglasses worn by every moped riding Viet woman will attest
The entire company gathers for lunch
before the production team heads back to the theater, and we head to shady lounge
chairs on the beach. Not a bad day gig. At 3 p.m. the dancers head to the theater
for a run-through. Weāre in an enormous, concrete amphitheater. The wooden floor
on the stage is uneven, with a linoleum dance floor laid down. Mr. Cuong, the
director of the ballet division of the HBSO, makes comments from a microphone
and the dancers begin. I soon discover that my sweet English-speaking guide, Chau,
and her boyfriend Hung are the leads of this story ballet. Iām also thoroughly
amused when I realize that itās the story of "The Supernatural Crossbow." I used
this for a piece at La Mama/Umbria in Italy last summer. Itās as good as any Greek
tragedy. A sneaky Chinese General sends his son, Trong Thuy, to wed My Chau, the
daughter of a Vietnamese King. The son is ordered to steal the supernatural crossbow
that has made his fatherās enemy invincible. Of course the youngsters fall in
love, but filial piety wins over romantic love; Trong Thuy steals the crossbow
and his father attacks the kingdom. When the king realizes his daughter gave up
his secret to her husband, he cuts off her head (the HBSO version has her killing
herself) and throws himself into the sea. Trong Thuy finds his dead wife, and
overcome with guilt and grief jumps into a lake. Itās said that from My Chauās
blood come Vietnamās finest pearls. It's a story chock-full of sex and violence.
Itās 5:15 now and the women are
applying their make-up in the hotel parking lot. Weāve apparently checked out
of the hotel, but have returned anyway. The women take over the benches around
the lot and pull out their compacts. Chau tells me the light in the Īdressing
roomā at the theater is no good anyway. We head into the hotel restaurant for
dinner, only to find out 15 minutes later that Mr. Cuongās old students have invited
us to join them for dinner. So after one full meal we all head over to a sidewalk
vendor where stools and low tables are set for over 20 people. The dancers eat
a second dinner of snails and beer before the show. Slightly begrudging the forced
feeding, and in slight awe at how much food these tiny women can hold, Iām warmed
to see Mr. Cuong -- a sad, quiet man -- smiling and surrounded by loving young
people. A beloved mentor, heās nothing like the gregarious manager who shouts
his hellos to me in Vietnamese, as if being louder makes him easier to understand.
Chau and I manage an early escape
from dinner, both hopping on the back of a Honda scooter. At 7:30 the orchestra
arrives, and by 7:45 the house is filling rapidly. Rows of concrete seats hold
the very young and very old. Pajama-clad grandmothers sit beside stylish middle
class Vuppies. The sky is clear, thereās an easy breeze in the air and the orchestra
is tuning their instruments. I could be in New York's Damrosch Park right now,
except for all the bare feet.
Itās 8:15, and not a note has been
struck. One cannot just start a show in Vietnam. Oh, no! First there must be a
presentation from the local official and then 20 minutes of speeches. Eventually,
the orchestra begins an interminable program. Though a proficient group of 30
musicians, theyāve programmed mostly a succession of dramatic Vietnamese ballads
sung by an amusing range of male and female divas, as well as an unfortunate composition
for Tārung and orchestra. Though I love the Tārung, this highland instrument akin
to a marimba wasnāt meant to be accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra.
By 9 p.m., I understand why none
of the dancers seemed concerned with warming up right before the show. The house
is packed -- a sea of black hair. A couple thousand in attendance. The orchestra
finishes with a rendition of "Bijet," and weāre into the changeover. In the dark,
I see Mr. Cuong running around moving set pieces, a hands-on director. These dancers
are his company, though he seems to have little say in how itās actually run.
Because this work is a Ītraditional
ballet,ā meaning it uses traditional Vietnamese themes and movements, there is
a high degree of pageantry involved. The movement vocabulary is very simple and
the long skirts worn by the chorus hides the sub-par technique. Chau and Hung,
obvious stars on the stage, out-class their fellow dancers by a long shot. Chau
studied with Tran Van Lai, whose company I worked with last year, and graduated
from HCMCās dance high school. Chau is the only woman en pointe and Hung apparently
the only man who can handle a double tour enlāair. Hung and his brother Hai, playing
the sneaky Vietnamese General with ferocious martial movements, both came south
from Hanoi to dance for the HBSO. Though some of the women in the chorus reveal
obvious training, Iām a bit surprised at the basic lack of technique among the
dancers. They make up for it with grace and smiles, and itās enough for this audience,
but unlike with their northern peers I have difficulty imagining this troupe on
an international stage. Some of the generation of dancers trained in Russia are
still working, such as Nhu of the October Ballet, who Chau tells me may be the
best dancer in Vietnam. But at this stage, the dancers in the south are working
with little to no exposure to outside training. So to me their skill level is
a reflection of the teaching and direction of Vietnamese artists.
One member of the company, Tan Loc,
has managed to get to Japan to study modern dance through a Japanese scholarship.
Just before leaving to return to Japan he tells me frankly that the biggest problem
he faces is a lack of initiative from the dancers themselves. They do what their
told but arenāt motivated enough to learn for themselves. Too often I observe
the same thing, but I think it's in part a reflection of the pedagogical model
here. I also wonder what it takes to teach someone from such a homogenous society
to risk being different. To desire the challenge. To seek the unfamiliar. To demand
better conditions, instead of accepting what you are told. The mind-set and circumstances
are so foreign to me that I find myself in constant conflict, shifting between
artistic disdain and knee-jerk dismissal to a strong desire to conduct what choreographer
Stephan Koplowitz, after his own trip to Vietnam last year, called "missionary
work." To return with teachers, videos, dance magazines, residencies, passports
and visas and scholarships. To offer enough tools and enough exposure for the
artists to decide for themselves what they really want to do.
Southern companies have been Īsystematically
starvedā by the north. As the directors of the HBSO and Chau herself tells me,
if there is an opportunity to go abroad to study, the north will get it. Unlike
some of the artists at the VOBT, the southern dancers are not enticing collaborators,
or inviting participants for new work, but I still have visions of Chau, Hung
and Hai at summer dance festivals in the US. Soaking up completely new aesthetics.
Seeing through a different lens. Removed from daily pressures of survival in what
is still one of the poorest countries in the world.
Itās 2 a.m. and Chau is giving me
a ride to my hotel on the back of her scooter. After the show, the dancers had
washed their faces and immediately loaded back into the bus for the return drive.
I glimpse a few late-night lovers still in the park and recall an article from
the Vietnam Economic Times stating that last year Vietnam became the second fastest
growing economy in the world. Itās all just a matter of time.
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