Contemporary dance is on an upward growth spiral. Siân Kavanagh speaks to the people who use their bodies and movement as a form of self-expression
There are some who live with a different mentality, who embrace dance but who also believe there is a need for all of us to do the same.
“Dancing is important in any culture or community as the ability to dance is inside us all,” explains John Huy Tran of Urban Dance Group. “Put on a piece of music, and a baby instinctually can find easily the rhythm. It is so human to let ourselves dance and allow ourselves to enjoy it as we do it.”
The Need to Move
Dancing can be a powerful tool of expression, and contemporary dance is all about storytelling through movement. Though this particular style is relatively new and has only been developed since the mid-20th century, it has become popular the world over. Vietnam has also seen a growth in interest, spurred on by the annual Europe Meets Asia Contemporary Dance Festival in Hanoi. Now running for five years, the celebration of this both physical and visual art has seen increasing numbers of dancers from different countries getting involved.
“Dancing is a way to release difficulties in your life, it’s the way you express your happiness,” explains Luu Thi Thu Lan of Together Higher. “When you feel something is right, you just need to move your body.”
To take a closer look at contemporary dance in Vietnam we spoke with dancers in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to find out more about why they dedicate so much of their lives to this form of physical expression. We connected with Together Higher who were the first contemporary dance company to form in Hanoi in 2002, as well as Kinergie Dance Studio in Hanoi and Urban Dance Group in Ho Chi Minh City.
Unlike traditional folk dancing, ballet or jazz, contemporary dance has less structure to the movement, and as Lan of Together Higher says: “You don’t need to have extraordinary technique to have strong emotional capability as a contemporary dancer.”
Together Higher Dance Company was established in Hanoi in 2002 after the success of their first contemporary dance project of the same name. Co-founded by husband and wife Ly Vu Long and Luu Thi Thu Lan, they use contemporary dance as a platform to share stories of social injustice that would normally not be told. Ly Vu Long studied contemporary dance in France before returning to Vietnam to share this new style with his wife and peers.
“In [Long’s] choreography for Together Higher he goes deep into personality, to express social issues, the uncommonly shared things,” explains Lan, “[Long] used to choose that to put it in his choreography. It’s telling the stories of people close to him that hold deep importance to him.”
The initial project was about training deaf people who had never danced before, teaching them contemporary dance movement, and allowing them to tell their stories.
“[The first Together Higher project] was very successful; the deaf performers wanted to be more open and communicate more with society,” says Lan. “They hadn’t been trained before as dancers and they immediately fell in love with dance.”
It was so successful that Long and Lan formed the dance company to allow for the continuation of more projects using this medium.
“It was an advantage to the hearing-impaired people as they already use their body to communicate,” explains Lan. “So their dancing was very in tune and emotional.”
Some of their more recent projects have been groundbreaking in including dancers who are HIV-positive, as well as opening up their stage to the stories and social injustices that need to be heard to the audiences of Vietnam.
“We want to share something distinct about the people around us, not influenced by foreigners, but by the beautiful life that we were living,” says Lan.
Untied From All Boundaries
At Kinergie Dance Studio, the energy in the room is electric. As Filipe Oryarzun, the visiting instructor from Chile gives guidance, his students are immersed in their movements for over two hours and are able to develop new moves quickly. It is an intense atmosphere driven by a desire to learn.
Do Hoang Thi Ngoc, the co-founder and artistic director for Kinergie Dance Studio has been dancing for 27 years — he first started when he was 11. He studied in Vietnam and France.
“Contemporary dance has given me freedom,” says Ngoc. “A feeling of giving and receiving of each dancer before being on the stage, permission to do what the emotion says and untie all boundaries.” The release of this style of dance is visible in how Ngoc conducts his class and holds himself; you can see his comfort radiate from him. His happiness is contagious.
As Ngoc starts his class, the students sit down in a circle and he addresses them gently, using his presence to guide attention, a kind soul with a distinct power of command. Once he has briefed the class, his students improvise to the music as they are watched over by Ngoc, who helps to direct the flow, while demonstrating how to feel and follow each other’s leads. The atmosphere is relaxed and focused, intensely enjoyed by all, and you can tell everyone involved is passionate about being there.
“Contemporary dance makes dancers feel [like they are] being themselves; they can share their emotions with other people through the body’s movements, not by saying it out [loud],” says Ngoc. “To dance helps you change the way you think, know how to share and listen more.”
Urban Dance Group (UDG) based out of Dancenter in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2 is a collective of 28 talented dancers focusing on urban contemporary movement, using street styles to create their own style of dance. These talented dancers have also brought their art form to television by performing successfully on So You Think You Can Dance Vietnam.
John Huy Tran, 37, the artistic director, has been dancing for almost 30 years and his passion for this art form and helping other dancers is evident is his excitement within the studio.
To watch John improvise with Hao, a contemporary dancer only seven years old, is a mesmerizing experience. Together they read each other’s signals and react to the music in easy harmony — at least they make it look easy to me.
One of the tough realities of any form of dancing is that every dancer has sacrifices to make. Dinh Loc, one of the UDG dancers, says: “Dancing can be difficult because of the injuries you get. Everyone at some point has an injury; sprained joints, twisted and torn muscles, stress fractures, sore backs. You sacrifice your body for expression, you ache for your art.”
“Dancing originates from oppression and a need for expression,” says troupe member Hong Nhung. “It is historically a way for people to physically escape, especially when the only freedom people have is dance. It can literally save their lives.” For Nhung, dancing is incorporated into her daily routine. She even keeps a journal to document her inspiration for future dance. It is a critical part of how she keeps herself happy.
“I love contemporary improvisation dance because there is no set direction,” says Xuan Thao, another UDG dancer. “You just need to use trust and release yourself to the music and your dance partner. You can find powerful ways to communicate using nothing but your body.”
There is one theme that runs true for all the dancers we spoke to. They believe that everyone should try dancing, contemporary or otherwise. Says Loc of UDG: “Whoever you are, you owe it to yourself to try everything once, because you never know what you might enjoy.”