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Letter from New York, 4-6: Out of the Past
Together Higher can go Higher
By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2007 Maura Nguyen Donohue
NEW YORK -- In 2002, I met Le Vu Long. I was on one of Dance Theater Workshop's Mekong Project-supported reconnaissance missions in Vietnam with Cathy Edwards, then artistic director of DTW, Peter Taub, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Portland choreographer Minh Tran. In the midst of an unfortunate attempt at a "Vietnamese Modern Dance Program" by the Vietnam Opera Ballet Theater (VNOBT), suddenly there appeared a duet for two male dancers full of contact partnering, sophisticated compositional choices and gorgeous dancing. After being subjected to continued delegate duties, I chased the choreographer, Le Vu Long, down the hallway and blurted out our group's shared excitement at encountering his work amidst the dredge that was (is?) dance in Vietnam. He had no idea what I was saying. Thankfully, his wife Luu Thi Thu Lan -- who also dances in his company --
got enough of it to tell him that we liked what we saw and wanted to stay in touch.
About a week later, I returned to Hanoi with Dao Anh Khanh and Nguyen Van Cuong, a couple of visual artists who had begun making installations and experimental performance and music, and led a workshop for the VNOBT. At the end of an improv section, Long and I danced together while Cuong played. Something clicked and a series of collaborative efforts sparked. Later that year, he came to the U.S. (as part of a group of 12 Vietnamese artists), then I went back to Vietnam, then we both went to Thailand for a Mekong Project residency and danced and cooked and fought and compromised and created and performed together, then he and Lan came to NY where we brainstormed new ideas and finally, in 2004, we collaborated on a new work at DTW, Enemy/Territory. (See Paul Ben-Itzak's Buzz preview and Alissa Cardone's Flash.)
The relationship didn't stop there. At the end of the year my company, Maura Nguyen Donohue/inmixedcompany, along with Downtown stars Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson, travelled to Hanoi, where we taught workshops at the Vietnam Dance College and shared a program with Long's troupe Together Higher. Then I had my second child, Long and Lan had theirs and we lost some serious momentum. It didn't help that the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been the primary supporter of all of the Mekong Project activities, restructured and the new leadership pulled the plug. Thankfully, Edwards and DTW remained loyally supportive to an innovative artist working in an unsupportive system and secured National Dance Project funding towards the creation of Long's newest work, "Stories of Us." In an extraordinary bout of "just-do-it"-ness, DTW also produced the company's recent tour of the U.S., despite Edwards's departure from the helm. Long and Lan brought their company of five hearing-impaired dancers plus Lan to the Dance Center of Columbia College in Chicago; White Bird in Portland, Oregon; On the Boards in Seattle, Washington and finally home to DTW for a run March 15 through 17. They negotiated their way through white-out conditions, cancelled flights, lost scenery, a Vietnamese-American population that divided between the angry and indifferent, multiple levels of mis-communication (imagine if you will the glorious picture of a post-performance discussion forging through English, Vietnamese, American Sign Language, the performers' own sign language and involved ideas about art and life and cultural context) and worst, perhaps, a certain kind of audience apathy.
The main story of their tour, as related in Claudia La Rocco's March 7 New York Times piece, is that Vietnam is still a divided nation in the eyes of those who fled the Communist regime after the U.S. withdrawal and Saigon's fall. Producers naively had no idea why Vietnamese-American communities wouldn't want to support the presentation of an artist originating from North Vietnam, the winning side. Did we forget it was a civil war we stepped into? Or could it be that Americans saw all of Vietnam as the enemy, and thus are insensible to the political divide, specifically that between those forced to flee and those who now rule the country? I have found it unfortunate, at times even silly, that the Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) populations have resisted anything that tours out of northern Vietnam (including water puppets). But I was privileged with a good Irish-American Catholic Naval officer father who married my mother and brought both of us back to the U.S., so I never directly experienced the horror of watching family members die in re-education or refugee camps. While I can't fully grasp why a modern dance company would be considered the enemy over three decades later, I can, in general, understand why certain populations don't want to support anything that effectively supports anything even tangentially related to their own incredible loss and devastation. Time and generational shifts in memory will work that out. But what I couldn't first get my head around at this event was how underwhelming the audience size was, considering the amount of previews and press coverage the tour enjoyed in each city. Deaf audiences showed up. Some young, intrepid Viet Kieu turned out. Where was everyone else?
Could it be that Hollywood has so effectively taught us over and over that Vietnam was simply a morality tale for America, that our 50,000+ dead soldiers meant more than the more than two million Vietnamese killed during the war, not to mention the more than four million dead or continuing to suffer from the legacy of Agent Orange? That the disappearance of an entire generation is not on our hands but on the hands of a primitive people? (Just for kicks check out the military officer explaining to fifth graders how Vietnam would be a lovely country except for the people, which you can find on You Tube.) That the war is barely taught in our schools? That we'd rather watch Mel Gibson's racist "We Were Soldiers" than see live Vietnamese share their contemporary selves with us? That the opportunity to see a true post-modern revolution, from almost as far away from Judson Church as you can get, at work, as it develops is not compelling?
Albeit small, the audience that transcended all this to make the opening night performance of "Stories of Us" was engaged and attentive, as evidence in a pre-show 'Coffee and Conversation' I led about Long's work. I spoke a lot about context, about the need to understand the general atmosphere in which Long has been making work. I've written at length (just search for 'Vietnam' on the Dance Insider search engine) about making art in a landscape monitored by a Ministry of Culture and Information. The focus, by those in charge, has been on creating a form of Vietnamese Modern Dance that ends up suffering from all the horrible outcomes that "fusion" brings to mind. The process has been entirely political, the generation of ideas and aesthetic completely inorganic and totally biased towards technical showmanship and entertainment. That Long has made it his mission to work against the prevailing Vietnamese aesthetic of 'pretty,' to work with dancers who didn't spend years in Kiev learning ballet or Paris or Sydney learning modern, to work with non-dancers, to work with non-dancers from the fringes of society, to work with non-dancers from the fringes of society creating dances about those at the fringes of society (he has worked in H.I.V. positive and AIDS communities as well) makes him a true maverick. Together Higher is the first independent, contemporary dance company in Vietnam. While Long and Lan are still members of the VNOBT, and have enjoyed a certain level of umbrella support from the VNOBT, they are not well-regarded by their own dance community. Our entire pre-show discussion was focused on pointing out that while what he is doing may not seem to some to be 'new' in a New York context, coming as it does four decades after Judson, where he makes his work it is totally radical.
That said, it is also still relevant here. And by here I mean wherever dance and innovation are discussed and made with fervor and rigor. Here artists are still working through social commentary, realness, underground, intimacy, vulnerability, power, craft, duration, sustained focus, exposure and alienation. We are just more used to going to further extremes in the process. So, despite my own best efforts and ardent desire to believe in the project, I too found myself wanting more out of "Stories of Us." I too needed to be reminded of context. As Gia Kourlas wrote in her March 17 New York Times review, "What may seem experimental to foreign choreographers turns out to be, on a New York stage, rather passe." I know that if I walked into the work in Hanoi, I'd have exploded with excitement and discovery. However, the context of DTW filled me with awareness of all the groundwork still left to engage for these artists.
The piece does wander and isn't as compositionally rich as some of Long's previous work. We are left to stew in each segment longer than seems necessary -- even further beyond the adjustment I often make for the pace of certain work coming out of Asia.
The intention behind the extensive length of the sequences is unclear -- we're not settling in for a duration-based process or to see the unfolding of some kind of minute accumulation. We simply are forced to watch a dancer remove unrelated scenic elements from the stage at an unhurried pace, in an uninteresting way, or a solo or duet go on without any shifts in dynamic structure or spatial patterning. I try to just "be" with it, rather than gleaning some meaning or impact but in the end even all of my contextualizing can't halt some serious fidgets, though many times simply listening (ironically) to Cuong's sonic landscapes is pleasure enough, a fantastic journey of its own.
The company did dance wonderfully. Some of the performers have flourished in the year since I'd seen them last. I know it's not from daily classes at the Trisha Brown studio, or any studio for that matter but they have deeply soaked in the seemless, silky style of moving that Long favors. The deaf, untrained dancers embody Long's aesthetic in ways that Lan, a gorgeous, revered ballerina in Hanoi and the only non-deaf dancer he works with, is still struggling with. Long's early frustration with being forced to try to set his work on only ballet-trained dancers led to this wonderful experiment and here I can see the obvious results of his exploration.
Lan has a captivating presence whenever on stage but during a romantic duet with Nguyen Duc Thang it is clear that she is still caught in form, not quite able to express modern movement with the same freedom as those unhindered by years of training in another, more rigid technique. Her shapes are still solid, the legs appearing lazy rather than released; by contrast, Dam Thuy Ninh's understanding of sequential movement is a joy to watch unfold. She shifts through involved progressions of movement with great ease. There are no explicit beginnings or ends. She rolls and flows continuously. Cao Xuan Huy and Thai Tran Linh perform athletic partnering that is soaked in their ability to physically listen to one another at a deeper level than most. Granted, while I still want the boundaries to push further, I can still marvel at the incredible growth of this little company and hope for its continued endurance in an unforgiving landscape.