Written with photos by Hà Bi for Hanoi Grapevine
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The last performance of the contemporary dance piece “Method – Đa Thức” taking place at the Army Theater last night 21 Dec 2019 ended in an endless standing ovation. Movements transcended the boundary of the stage, leaving the auditorium overflowed with emotions an energy…
Vietnam’s essence in contemporary art
Before coming to the performance, I was fortunate to see a short excerpt on the scene. Right there, I was captivated with their use of Central Highlands’ folk music. But the complete dance piece did so much, combining Southern folk and modern electronic music.
The dance began with the voice of a Central Highlands mother and the region’s signature sounds such as the powerful echoes of gongs, the rapid and clear rhythm of bamboo gongs, the deep bass of the đing năm… The melody when gentle, earnest, rushing, hurried, at times mimic a murmuring stream flowing joyfully amidst a forest.
Alternating between music-filled dance sequences are those where the actors become ‘singers’. Duy Phương’s roar makes viewers think of a lion standing on a giant rock in the middle of the desert. Or when Tư sang the Southern lullaby ‘Cầu tre lắt lẻo’: “Ầu ơ… Ví dầu cầu ván đóng đinh, cầu tre lắt lẻo… gập ghềnh khó đi. Khó đi mẹ dắt con đi. Con đi trường học, mẹ đi trường đời…”. In this segment, Sang and Phương help Thành lift the rock, cradling it between his arms, as if it was a newborn. Tư and Thành’s warm voice and everyone’s memories of the lullaby made the part extremely touching. Somewhere in the audience, someone softly sang along.
On adding this song to the play, Ross McCormack – “Method” choreographer – recounted his joyful memories on his journey with the dance actors. Ross soon realized that Tư has a beautiful voice. But after trying out a few songs, it still didn’t feel quite right. Until he heard the melody of ‘Cầu tre lắt lẻo’ from a crew member. Ross adored the song, and then immediately added it to the performance. “Sometimes I sing the while sitting behind a motorbike taxi driver. He was very excited”, said Ross.
To get this piece of music, Jason Wright – “Method” musician – worked day and night on the materials collected during a short trip to Đắk Nông. He said: “This is a very special experience to me. Under the guidance of Mr. Phan Quốc Vinh, we met some artisans and began to talk, record, and discuss with each person in just about 1 hour. But what was brought back was of truly high quality. Jason said he was very interested in these sound materials, saying that the recording process in Đắk Nong greatly influenced the performance. On the stage, Central Highlands artisans’ music blended with contemporary sounds, becoming a lively reply.
After this tour, Jason and Ross plan to bring “Method” back to New Zealand. Jason will combine more of the country’s traditional music to create a harmony that transcends borders. As for Ross, he said if there’s more chance to perform this piece in Vietnam, he hopes Central Highlands artisans can join in so that everything is truly complete.
Divide and divert
Apart from the music and the dancers’ movement, “Method” is also impressive in the way it divided the space and divert these space with sticks and stones. The stones are like the “sovereign” land of each god in the world, constantly changing its roles and positions, depending to whom it belongs to. It is at times a territory, and at other a child, or a tool…
Later on, Vũ Ngọc Khải – one of the six dancers – happily recounted his challenging experience with the stones. “The choreographer asked me to stand on the rock. I dared not disobey. But it was very hard. I really like dancing, but sometimes just standing is already a challenge. Standing on the rock forthe whole 5 minutes really hurt my legs and make them tremble… It was not as easy as you saw tonight.”
And the two sticks, to be exact, this is where the audience feel the ‘reason’ of connection between the characters on the stage. Whether to pull, to push, to turn around or to bridge, it is what pulls them together in unison or put them in opposite positions. The stage space was fluid-like, flexibly divided by the dancers. At one point, the stage boundary expanded to the audience seats, as they stretched the sticks to the seat rows, pouring emotions over the edge of the stage.
At times, the viewer felt like this is a ‘war’ between gods, a sacred ritual, or a dispute. They connected, communicated through the sticks and stones and gained control over the stage. The space was split into pieces, when condensed into a mass; when clear and bright, when dark and dangerous… On that background, the dancers’ movements, which were of unique personalities, become prominent and attractive.
At the end of the performance, one audience member commented: “I have seen quite a lot of contemporary dance both at home and abroad. But this is one of the best. I think “Method” could totally ‘battle’ in the long run even on international stages. Quite a pity they only have 2 nights of performance in Vietnam!”
Perhaps in the near future, “Method” will return once (or several times) more, with a better stage and a packed auditorium. Or maybe, as Jason wishes, there will be Central Highlands artisans performing. In any case, the ‘poem’ created by the flow of emotions andmovements last night was still a good and satisfying start, an indispensable stepping stone for the next steps forward.
Translated by Hanoi Grapevine