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Flash Dispatch, 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 to.

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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