There Where We Were

In Vietnam, a Western-style dance with home roots

A Ho Chi Minh City performance looks familiar, but with a sense of Vietnamese history



HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – On the stage of the European-style opera house here, Ta Thuy Chi dances history in an artfully contrived clearing in a tropical forest. Her seamless movement, whether turning, or walking, or lifting her arms, or tying a scarf to the branch of a tree, comes from a deep place in her body we might call her soul.  She dances more in sorrow than in anger, the solo providing a coda to the second piece on a program titled, in English, “There Where We Were,” a jointly choreographed concert by Chi and Nguyen Ngoc Anh, working together for the first time.

The French Colonial-style opera house. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The French Colonial-style opera house. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This was a glorious ending to a concert that began all too predictably with a piece whose English title was “Beyond the Line.” Choreographed by Anh, it traveled familiar territory to Western dance followers despite being performed by Vietnamese dancers in Vietnam’s biggest city. It would have fit right into Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s recent program at the Schnitz, or one by Hubbard Street of Chicago, or Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance, which is logical enough since Anh has danced with that company.  The costumes alone reflected this Terpsichorean globalization: the two women were in tight black briefs, red tops and pointe shoes; the two men wore only red shorts.

As did the music, a bombastic electronic score by composer Nsu’t Quoc Trung, who is a judge on Vietnam Idol (yes, they have one, too).  “Beyond the Line” begins with the four dancers, their backs turned to the audience, a strip of lights glaring out at the audience, walking slowly upstage. Bamboo-colored stretchy tapes form a set piece, fanning out from the top of the flies, stage left, reminding me of a piece by Portland’s Minh Tran, in which he used a similar device, originally invented by Alwin Nikolais. We next see one of the men, curled up on the floor, then twisting and contorting his body, struggling to get free of what might be a cage or a prison.  I thought of the images of prisoners of war at the War Remnants Museum I had seen earlier in my stay in this city formerly known as Saigon, which has a metropolitan-area population of more than 9 million. Eventually, the dancer escapes confinement and walks forward.

A series of solos, duets, trios and quartets follow. The women, Nguyen Thi Chuc Quynh and Ngo Thuy To Nhur, show off their classical ballet training with fouettés and pirouettes; the men give a more contemporary thrust to their jumps and turns. There’s a little of this, and a little of that in a farrago of dance forms that includes contact-improv, Chinese acrobatics and the African tribal-dance-influenced, joint-separating movement of such American choreographers as Bebe Miller.

Much of this works, with the exception of the classical ballet: that looks pasted on, like an ill-conceived collage. Anh and Khai’s sexually charged wrestling match, reminiscent of the contest between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Ken Russell’s 1969 film of  D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,”  was  the only section of the opener that seemed to me to derive from an organic impulse. But on reflection, “Beyond the Line,” which a program note states is about being “brave enough to break your limit,” is infused, whether consciously or not, with 20th century Vietnamese history.

“There Where We Were,” the middle piece, and the work from which the concert takes its title, starts with Chi walking down the aisle of the opera house, wearing western street clothes and a stylish backpack.  In silence, she arranges books and notebooks on quasi-pedestals placed as I recall on a covered orchestra pit.  A slightly kitschy animated cartoon of children at school and at play is projected onto a screen, and New Age-sounding music begins, setting a wistful mood for a piece the choreographers said in a preview in “Viet Week” is indeed about nostalgia. Spoken text in Vietnamese and French also accompanies this piece; Trung was responsible for all the sound.

"There Where We Were": the cover story.

“There Where We Were”: the cover story.

The screen goes away, and the curtain goes up on a gigantic seesaw on which Anh and Chi, costumed in stylized versions of children’s clothing, do a slow, balancing dance.  A kite comes down the aisle, seemingly on its own, and black light shapes such as we’ve all seen employed by Imago and Do Jump over the years. After performing a charming, innocent duet, punctuated with hand gestures reminiscent of the Chinese opera that is the main influence on traditional Vietnamese dance, Chi disappears. The stage darkens, and Anh changes his costume, donning a pair of jeans and a shirt, the worldwide uniform of youth, and a long scarf. As the lights come up again, he makes a childlike drawing of a cottage on the base of the seesaw.  A red balloon heart pops up out of his shirt and bursts:  he loves the occupant of the cottage.  This, it seems to me, is another acknowledgement of Anh and Chi’s roots in l’école de la danse, a twist on the opening scene  of “Giselle,” with Anh clearly representing Hilarion, the gamekeeper who truly loves the peasant girl, not the philandering aristocrat whose deception causes her death.

Chi emerges from the base of the seesaw, they do a cheerful challenge dance, and then with slow, controlled movement, grimacing like butoh dancers, they part. Much dry ice fog engulfs the stage, while the set is changed to the forest clearing of the closing piece.

This memory of childhood and first love was jointly choreographed by 33-year-old Anh and 27-year-old Chi. The intent was to pay tribute to childhoods they say were “peaceful, happy, and full of joy.”  They also wanted to make a gift to their parents, since for a number of years both have been pursuing their careers abroad, Anh in England, where  in 2008 he received a Critics Circle Dance Award as Outstanding Male Artist, and Chi, who this year received her Master’s degree in choreography from the Beijing Dance Academy, in China.  Her early training was in classical ballet in Ho Chi Minh City; Anh comes from Hanoi, where he began training in the same form at the age of 10.

Chi’s long years of training in classical ballet make the concluding solo all the more remarkable.  Her dancing is so natural, so much part of the forest setting, that she reminded me of accounts of Isadora Duncan; and certainly Anh’s choreography (he made the solo) follows Duncan’s dictum that movement carry no artifice or contrivance. The solo ends simply, with Chi tying Anh’s scarf to a branch of the tree, echoing a Buddhist ritual. And again, I could not stop myself from thinking about the war that took place before these two artists were born, but must be well-remembered by their parents.

I saw the show opening night, October 25th, the next to the last night of a twelve-day visit to the country, half of which was spent in Ho Chi Minh City, where the influence of the French is everywhere, in the architecture — the main post office was designed by Gustave Eiffel; the Museum of Fine Arts is housed in a tiled and balconied French colonial mansion — and some extremely formal gardens.

I was impressed by the size and nature of the audience in a country where there is little theatrical dance of this nature. Anh, in the Viet Week preview, hoped that the audience would be “willing to open their beings from body to mind to receive the show.” While the house, which has the horseshoe shape of the Palais Garnier, wasn’t full, a respectable number of seats were occupied by young Vietnamese in casual dress, with a few foreigners and a sprinkling of older people decked out more formally. When the curtain calls were taken, the floral tributes were lavish and aromatic and the applause respectful, from an audience dominated by the young, something I wish I saw more often at performances here in Portland.


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