A Dancer’s Dream in Saigon

A Dancer’s Dream in Saigon

Emily Navarra – photo by Csaba Molnar

After two and a half years living in Saigon, dancer Emily Navarra has left her mark on the art scene of the city. As the organizer of the Melting Pot Art Festival and Standpoint Theories art show, she aims to bring together the scattered scene of music, dance and visual arts in the city while hoping to build a bridge between the arts scene in the two biggest cities of Vietnam – Saigon and Hanoi. Even though the whole idea seems to be quite ambitious for a mere dancer, Emily is step by step making her dream come true.

An American dancer living in Saigon

Emily Navarra holds a B.A. Dance Studies from the University of South Florida. Her work as a freelance artist has been presented in the US, UK, Europe and North Africa as well as South East Asia. And in Saigon, just like many other indie artists, Emily has a job as an English teacher to support herself.

As a modern dancer there haven’t been a lot of chances for Emily to perform in the city and in fact, the majority of her performances have been made in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. This may be due to the fact that, to some certain extent, Saigon is still somewhat resistant to experimental acts.

Emily said she had once considered moving to Hanoi because of the arts scene there. “I feel that Hanoi is much more in tune with experimentation and offers more platforms for artists to do this kind of work”. But now after 2.5 years she is still attached to Saigon with a desire to change the reality. “I could have easily packed up my bags and left HCMC a year ago but instead I accepted this as a challenge to embellish my artistry and learn from others regardless how long it would take.”

Saigon’s art scene from a performing artist’s point of view

Things have changed a lot in the Southern city since the last article on Grapevine about the music scene here one and half years ago. On being asked about her thoughts on the art scene, Emily said:

“During the time I’ve lived here, the art and music scene has grown immensely. Nguyen Tan Loc, director of Arabesque Company and Ngo Thanh Phuong, choreographer of Arabesque and creator of Open Stage Project are two of the most influential figures in the city at the moment. Besides performances, they also provide workshops which bring in many international artists. These two really encourage experimentation and are offering their dance company a lot of opportunities not to mention opening them up to other techniques in modern dance. Linh Rateau is another dancer who opened her school called Dancenter in District 2 several years ago. It offers a variety of dance forms from jazz to tap to hip-hop. It’s also the home of UDG Company who has been involved in Vietnamese music videos and other commercial related dance competitions.

Cargo Bar brings in many international bands and often has a local band supporting them. They have been spending a great deal of time building the indie scene here. The Observatory, Decibel Cafe, Saigon Outcast and Snap Cafe all bring in local musicians who play original music. They are huge advocates of experimental music and collaboration of traditional Vietnamese music fused with electronic and visual art.”

Emily Navarra, photo by Derek Miyamato
Emily Navarra, photo by Derek Miyamato

From the Melting Pot Art Festival…

In March this year, Emily worked on organizing the first Melting Pot Art Festival. This is a community art project offering a fun filled weekend for all ages. The festival took place for 2 full days at Saigon Outcast, one of the most dynamic outdoor spaces in town. The activities included an art exhibition, live music, DJs, visuals, dance with a stage open to all professional and amateur artists alike. Proceeds from the festival went to buying art supplies and musical instruments for disadvantaged youth in Saigon.

This year there have been 3 of these festivals, and both attendance and donations keep increasing. So far the 3 Melting Pot Art Festivals have raised 76 million VND to buy keyboards, mandolins, đàn bầu, đàn tranh for the children in 3 schools/orphanages in Saigon, and Emily’s goal is to continue organizing this event three times per year.

Asked if one of the reasons motivating her to organize this Melting Pot Art Festival was to have a stage to do her own thing, Emily stated: “I had struggled to find a platform for my work and thought that if I chose to take on organizing this festival, not only could I perform but I would also have an opportunity to bring other artists together who may have struggled with the same situation; a place to perform – a place to meet others – a place to be exposed and to have a voice in the scene here.”

Standpoint Theories crew, photo by Csaba Molnar
Standpoint Theories crew, photo by Csaba Molnar

…to Standpoint Theories Art Performance…

More than 7 months after the first Melting Pot Festival, Emily organized Standpoint Theories. Different from the concept of a community project, Standpoint Theories is a full-evening professional show featuring dance, electronic music and visual performances. Being a professionally-trained dancer Emily actually wanted to experiment with this project a long time ago but the collaborative performance only took shape in July 2013 when she “met the right people” via her own Melting Pot. Those are Space Panther – a three-member electronic musician group from the US, Thanh Tung Le (aka Crazy Monkey) – a visual artist hailing from Hanoi, and Matt Bender – a writer, all now based in Saigon. The first Standpoint Theories on 1st November was strongly applauded by the audience and the crew is planning a second show for early next year.

Full video of Standpoint Theories can be watched here:

…and a hope to bring Saigon and Hanoi closer

Apparently anyone that lives long enough in Vietnam can easily feel the separation between the two cities. There are endless discussions about the differences on every aspect of lifestyle, food, people’s habits, art and music while collaboration between the indie art scenes is still limited. And Emily is one of those who hope to change that fact.

“My hope is that between Hanoi and HCMC, we give ourselves permission to understand and be open to what others are doing. My hope may not be practical steps to bring these two cities together but I will continue doing what I’ve already done. All I know is that I have a desire to connect artists in Hanoi and HCMC for the remainder of the time I’m here. I will do my best in this as an individual and advocate for the performing arts in Vietnam but I’ll need all your help.”

Of course we can’t say there is no collaboration between the two cities. After all, there have been many art exhibitions and music performances of Hanoi artists in Saigon and vice versa, but there is always room to improve. The only question is how open both the artists and the audience are for more exchange and diversity. And as for Emily, if she is able to bring the art scene in Saigon together she is totally capable of bridging the gap between the two cities. And we always need more people like her, who talk not about the differences but actually work on creating opportunities for collaboration.

Words by PHM


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