KVT – Inside and Outside the Box

KVT – Inside and Outside the Box

KVT-2012Performance Inside Outside 1

KVT with the queens of traditional music

A couple of weeks I came across perhaps the most intriguing installation and performance of the year.

It was at the Kim Ma Theater in a small, wood paneled, parquetry-floored performance area that was so inviting that any theater director visiting it would immediately start having day dreams about what they could use it for.

On this occasion it was used for six, 45-minute-long performances spread over two days.

SCENARIO: you entered the darkened space and came across three large, spot-lit, perspex boxes and in each was a female posed motionless with a traditional music instrument. For all the world they looked like those miniatures of dolls in quaint folk costumes that you can buy up at airports and tourist shops in any city.

You wandered freely around these boxes, their inhabitants clothed in traditional yellow costumes of Nguyen dynasty queens, perfectly still as if frozen in the act of plucking a string.

At times as you looked through the boxes and caught reflections, an optical illusion sometimes made it appear that these queen musicians were both inside and outside their boxes.

Performance Inside Outside 3

But wait!! One of the delicate and beautiful queens has a long, western masculine face, heavily stubbled. She has knobbly, large male fingers and enormous feet poke from the yellow tunic. You are startled, taken aback.

One by one the musicians, like puppets or wind up dolls, start to play and the music swells around the dark room. If you put on a headphone attached to individual boxes you can hear that particular players chords.

The music subtly changes and becomes more electronic, atonal and harsher on the ear and one by one perhaps puppet queens start to jerk and move in startling, intense choreographed dance. They rise to their feet as if beseeching the audience through unfocussed eyes.

Solos are played in these strange new sounds and eventually the puppets subside to their complacent, compliant starting positions, hands poised motionless over strings, and I leave the theatre still dazed and dazzled by it all.

PROJECT: ‘Inside/Outside’ was a research project supported by the Swedes that discussed, amongst other aspects, traditional Vietnamese music from a gender perspective. The researchers point out that less than a century ago all traditional music was played by men. Gradually women took over the playing roles, especially as the music spread out of the court atmosphere and into the public arena.

CONJECTURE: Nowadays when I see a traditional public performance the female instrumentalists are as demure, as emotionally withdrawn and as compliant as the figures in those boxes. One wonders if their male counterparts had to put on the same emotionless visages. However when some players are released from the imposed, traditional constructs in modern performances such as we see in ‘Cracking Bamboo’ for example, or when playing the new music of and with Tri Minh or Vu Nhat Tan, we see animated faces and new, more relaxed gestures…though rarely a departure from traditional costume.

Performance Inside Outside 2

The western male perplexed me at first (only because of his western-ness). The reasons for choosing the male were probably as simple as I try to make them complex in my febrile brain. And as I stated before the intense mind jarring visual effect of this hulking figure playing such a delicate instrument was pretty intense.

I could go on meandering for a long time about the ins and outs and other inferences that are still rattling around every time I discuss or meditate on the art work’s profundities, but suffice to say that if you’re into contemporary art, installation art, or theater, and didn’t get to see this event then, I’d have to say you missed out on one of the year’s best.

This excellent concept was by Nguyen Thanh Thuy; equally excellent choreography by Marie Fahlin, and brilliant music by Thuy and Max Wright and the Six Tones.

The actors were also magnificent.

Photo credit: Ngô Tuấn Anh

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.


  1. Agreed. This was unquestionably one of the best things to be seen in this city in a long, long while – subtle and elegant, near-perfect. All artists can learn from what they missed here. Brava.

  2. Jamie,
    …obviously so we can not learn from what we missed, but it would be great and vastly beneficial for the artists and the public at large if structured performances of this kind can be repeated… even though perhaps in other venues and over extended period of time…

  3. @Toniguy
    …oh yes… the fist and foremost question is always the cost… but, with funded projects like this one, it is very much up to the producers how they envision, formulate and propose the exposure and its duration, etc of their art to their funding bodies…

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