20 Years of telling stories not told elsewhere: This ain’t no Hanoi Hilton

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2000, 2018 Maura Nguyen Donohue

(First published on the DI on August 4, 2000, this Flash Dispatch’s re-publication today is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . )

HANOI — Chao cac anh chi from Hanoi. I’ve been situated in the seat of a former enemy (to both of my half-selves, American and Vietnamese) for almost two weeks now. After only ten days in Southern China we decided to head to the capital of Vietnam so as to squeeze in a few days of language lessons. Unfortunately, Perry only seems to retain sentences that involve beer. This should make our impending visit with my mother’s family in Central Vietnam and our — ahem — wedding there interesting.

With its many lakes, shady boulevards and parks Hanoi is a more physically attractive city than Saigon. The maze of the charming 1000-year-old Old Quarter provides endless exposure to a rich cultural heritage. However, I have to admit to a heavy amount of apathy in my pursuit of contemporary performance here other than Quyen Van Minh’s Jazz Band (mostly Tom Petty and Nirvana covers). Art galleries abound but performances are harder to find. And my southern Vietnamese and American roots reveal themselves incessantly. The righteous rhetoric gets tiresome and I’ve been biased by a wonderful experience seeing work and talking to artists in the south three years ago about the challenges to artistry in a Communist country. Though people tell me today that things are better than five years ago, I must note that “better” is a relative term. That stated I was still able to enjoy yet another viewing of water puppets as well as a trip to the Central Circus and an unexpected audience for the ritual of an indigenous sect.

Based at the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Municipal Water Puppet Theater (Roi Nuoc Thang Long). At 40,000 dong for a first-class seat, I was able to see this troupe for 1/16 the price I paid to see them at Lincoln Center a few years ago. Water puppetry is one of the few indigenous art forms in a country that spent 1,000 years under Chinese rule, 50 under the French and another 10 dealing with the Americans. It originated among the rice farmers, who carve the puppets from waterproof fig tree lumber. The characters were modeled on the villagers, animals from their daily lives and creatures of myth and legend. 11 puppeteers operate from behind a bamboo screen in waist-deep murky water. The murk of the water conceals some of the mechanics, and allows the puppets to appear and disappear with ease. Many of the puppets have articulated limbs and heads. The series of vignettes depict pastoral scenes and legends. The show includes live music, and I was particularly pleased to hear Ru Con Nam Bo played live. I use this lullaby, played on the Vietnamese monochord, dan bau, in a work about abandoned Amerasian children, “SKINning the surFACE.”

Hanoi’s old-school circus (Xem Xiec) provided an intriguing evening. Many of the performers were trained in Eastern Europe. The relatively simple acrobatics (compared to those of neighboring China) were entertaining, but I thought I was having hallucinogenic flashbacks when the elephant started doing yoga and the monkeys riding bicycles in running shorts.

The most interesting performance I’ve seen (other than the ballets of ‘no-road-rules-traffic’ and ‘street-peddling-women-running-from-the-police-with-60-lbs-of-fruit/tea/soup /etc-in-their-baskets’) was when we accidentally stumbled into a temple ritual on our first day in town. Thanks to a side door and Perry’s newly acquired 80-cent flute, we were invited in to witness a Hoa Hao ceremony. Perry joined the musicians while sister Maeve, Dragon (an auspiciously named Yugoslavian we met at the border crossing from China) and I watched a middle-aged woman dance with incense, fire and bells for the next three hours. She worked her way through at least ten costume changes. With each new outfit came a new story told through movement and props. At one point, she was steering a boat; at another she was a woman selling towels from the bags dangling at either end of her pole. The vignettes each included a bouncing dance that seemed to represent travel and walking. In between each dance there would be a formal walk towards the altar before she’d drop to her knees and bless various gifts. These gifts (cigarettes, raincoats, fruit, cookies, noodles, money, facecloths, etc) were then distributed to the temple and to everyone in attendance. The ironic twist though is that Hoa Hao was started as a reformed Buddhism that embodied personal faith rather than elaborate ritual. Perhaps this is progress, perhaps prosperity. Regardless, they were wonderful people and we’ve since been to two of their homes for dinner. Between leaving the ceremony with bags full of goodies and being overstuffed at their homes, I’m amazed at the generosity of some in a country where the average monthly income is $50. I thought WE were supposed to be the haves giving to the have-nots!

For more information on choreographer-dancer Maura Nguyen Donohue, visit her dance company’s web site.

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Judson, secret origins and exiles: The San Francisco / New York dance dichotomy

momajudsonhalprin smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Anna Halprin, “The Branch,” 1957. Performed on the Halprin family’s Dance Deck, Kentfield, California, 1957. (Halprin’s husband was the noted San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin.) Performers, from left: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photo: Warner Jepson. Courtesy of the Estate of Warner Jepson.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000, 2018 Christine Chen

(To receive the complete article, first published on September 27, 2000,, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

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Judson & Johnston, together again, III: “Bach” and A Lotta Who Shot John

momajudsonrainer smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Yvonne Rainer’s “Bach” from Terrain, 1963. Performed at Judson Memorial Church, New York, April 28, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2006 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 2 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,  is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

I had a one-person organization a few years ago called FUM, meaning Fed Up [With] Media. I got the word from “Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” It would be a cover for writing letters to media objecting to everything. But I never did. I’m agitated enough just trying to sleep at night. A friend called me and said, “What’re you up to?” and I said, “Surviving.” Driving down the West Side Highway, I told Ingrid, who keeps changing lanes and racing cars a lot newer than ours, “I seriously don’t feel well.” Having established that, I looked ahead and noticed an SUV license plate right in front of us. It said “SURVIVOR.” I took it personally. After talking quite a bit with people about medical issues, I made up a fantasy organization that I haven’t tried to name. I see the country crisscrossed by networks of friends and families, online printouts in hand, filibustering to help each other survive the medical profession. And of course the insurance companies which have sold us down their rivers. At my gym one day, I accosted a young man wearing a bright green T-shirt with white lettering reading, “I am a doctor, don’t trust me,” asking him if he was in fact a doctor. He was, he said, smiling broadly and meaningfully. It’s nice to see art work in the gym. While I was watching The View the other morning, admittedly a really decadent thing to be looking at, esp. at 11 a.m., I had a FUM moment. The View is that unscripted free-for-all kaffeeklatch of four or five women led by the ageless Barbara Walters. Barbara was regaling her three fellow klatchers, who sort of huddle together parabolically on a couch or around a table constantly interrupting each other, with the great time she had had at the White House amongst the Kennedys celebrating the Special Olympics. She had been one of a hundred privileged guests. Special Olympics is a body we all hail and believe in, but Barbara’s explanation of how it came into being was scandalously omissive, and touched on one of my noir issues, i.e., the one where I can’t bear what happened to someone I never knew, and where media collude in covering it up. Barbara had to say that Rosemary Kennedy, the first daughter and third child of Joseph and Rose, was the inspiration for these Olympics, but she could hardly say what happened to Rosemary — that she had been retarded and behaviorally problematic, a potential embarrassment to her ambitious father, and was lobotomized (in 1941) and subsequently put away forever in her new vegetative state. Not that this is not common knowledge. But the subject on The View was not Rosemary or even the Special Olympics or for that matter the Kennedys; it was Barbara’s career-enhancing inclusion in a White House party, thus advertisement for The View. Anyway lobotomy would raise questions of madness, which would hang in the air like string theories. Had I been in the audience of The View, I would have interrupted the klatch and declaimed the truth, then been bounced right out of the show onto the tarmac on my arthritically inflamed foot. But then, I would never be in such an audience. Movement is required, for a start. You have to get there. In the 1970s, I was pretty active. I went to a Women and Madness (book title) party wearing a “Certified Insane” sign. I had been feuding with the feminist author of the book because I thought I knew more about the subject than she did. I wasn’t too mature then. But I did know more about the subject, having actually been mad. My sign was the picket type, reading “Certified Insane” front and back in big magic letters. The author was so threatened and upset that she called the cops, I guess for disorderly conduct, certainly not for breaking the First Amendment. In my memory the cops never came, or I left before they did. I was not the sort of activist who solicited arrest. As for art work or activity, it was never a feminist interest, except when the movement turned its attention to women who were artists. Down in the equatorial dumps yesterday, I was complaining to JM on the phone from California, who wisely summed up our times, saying, “We’re in a terminal period of awfulness.” It’s in this gloom that I have kept shambling along looking for a doctor for my foot, like Diogenes bent over his upheld lantern in broad daylight searching for one honest man. The foot is not popular with doctors. It’s too far away from the heart, the organ of course of medical preference. It’s far away altogether from world concerns, the blood of the Englishmun. At 11 p.m. one evening I caught Charlie Rose on PBS schmoozing with his guests Bill Gates and wife along with Warren Buffett who had just contributed an indecent amount of money to the Gates Foundation. I like Gates and his philanthropic spirit — I always wonder where exactly the money goes (if I had any money and contributed it to something I would accompany it right to its announced destination to see if it got there and if so who handles it and how) — and now I suppose I have to like Buffett too. But Rose’s real subject was not the desperate global plights to be alleviated by these new billions, but Rose himself as a friend of his fabulously wealthy guests. You know this as you watch him descend to unmitigated vulgarity, making his guests laugh with him over things mysteriously private (undiscovered no doubt even by them, or by the perpetrator, Rose), as they are forced to engage figuratively in sucking each other off. Now what you are watching are three schoolkids (leaving the wife out of this — she appeared to stay on point), laughing over their impossible mission. And you thought it was about saving the world. So FUM them. I wake up yelling sometimes. I had a Katrina-type dream. I’m one of Thoreau’s masses, leading a quietly desperate life. In our final phase of empire, I see Nero with his banjo everywhere, and the flames licking our skylines. I see GW talking about how “sad,” how “pathetic,” the new violence in the Middle East is! I read about “our shamelessly narrow definition of ‘torture.'” I get into a conveyor belt situation at a clinic to see a rare type of doctor, a foot surgeon. First you check in with a woman at a high wooden desk that surrounds her, and she isn’t smiling. At that moment, you should walk right back out. Heck, I can still walk. I just walk minimally, and with help, to avoid the pain it can cause. At the end of the beltway, not a single functionary en route smiling, I waited with Ingrid in a large bare square office for the surgeon, who when at last he came told me surgery is not a good idea, that I don’t look my age, and I should see a neurologist. They hand you around like a plate of cookies. On our way out I saw scads of overweight dejected looking people waiting their turn on lines of chairs, gazing vacantly, mouths slightly open, surely stupefied by drugs. Next I went to a doctor of anesthesiology/pain management, an intriguing-sounding specialty. He would inject me with the bad stuff I want, but I could tell he wasn’t going to care about me. That’s the only specialty that matters to me. He gave me a prescription for a drug called Neurontin, and after reading the list of its side effects I threw the whole three-dollar vial of 90 Neurontins out. Then I went back to the only doctor I’ve met who looks into your eyes with kindness, and who I hope to designate my de facto primary physician. He smiles gently in the long-suffering style, and under his white coat wears subtly mismatching ties and shirts. He’s clearly a man of art. He took my foot warmly in his hands and said you have to start using it more because it’s getting osteoporotic. And he can give me bad stuff in a way that won’t kill me. However I would never forsake the help or advice of friends. I’m very sad that Neno, our flower-store friend, sold his shop and is moving on, but Ingrid saw him on the street this morning and he told her to tell Jill to walk 500 steps every day. What a great idea! I’m going to try it. I’m so mature! Later on in the 1970s, quite a while after my “Certified Insane” episode, I did something that called out the cops again, but this time it changed my life. It was not one of my more artful events; in fact to be frank it was an act of pure violence. I was visiting the Fallsburg New York headquarters of a major guru, having accompanied a devotee there. Standing in line to be “blessed” by a bunch of peacock feathers wielded in air around your head by the guru, I ducked out of the way when I saw it coming. Later, alone in the huge dining room, I suddenly, and with no sublunar reason that I can conjure up, propelled with a mighty push a tall pile of dinner plates off a table onto the floor. They crashed and fractured into a winning mass of rubble, bringing me to the attention of the meditation authorities, who called the cops. I retreated in haste to the parking lot, and lurked invisibly around my mgb, waiting for my devotee friend. Two older women standing together materialized in front of me, about 20 yards away. One I recognized as the poet and potter MC Richards, who turned to her companion and told her who I was, using the epithet, “troublemaker.” Troublemaker! Such a common tag. After that, I stopped acting out in public. And so life goes on, said Gertrude in her book on Picasso. It may all be a lotta who shot John, i.e. a lotta hooey, as Judge Judy sometimes yells at her losers. Judy is abusive and awful, and I could FUM her to death. But where did she get this pearl?

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. First published on the DI in 2006. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

Judson & Johnston, together again, II: Reviving Amsterdam & Schneemann ‘Newspaper Event’ in New Amsterdam

momajudsonpapersFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Ruth Emerson in Carolee Schneemann’s “Newspaper Event,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #3, Judson Memorial Church, New York, January 29, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., and P•P•O•W, New York.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,  is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

Once upon a few decades ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON — words I saw just last week, down the street on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here a click is involved. I’m trying to adjust. I adjust all the time, otherwise I’d be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even though I can’t go places on their running and biking machines. I mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore don’t mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly, but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know, I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state. An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which entails returning home. I’ve called it Segafredo after the first name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the whole place is distressed — the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is all of six inches from the wall it faces — a hastily hammered raggedy-edged vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else. If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble. Not that you can’t get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness, at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged — a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love. I fall in love with dead people — as who does not. It isn’t just my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living. I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all, to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E. Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to an unexciting life, this wasn’t easy to handle. I almost ran the four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers, which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend’s garden. Now, breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy it. I gave her my pen and she found a piece of paper in her bag. The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have something new at home — a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish windows facing south. By “our” I mean myself and Ingrid, who set up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website . My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid’s part, it’s a conspiracy of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no longer writing them and between then and now I have written books and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to know me. I’m a very obliging person, during the day at least, full of eagerness to adjust. At night I’m focused on nothing more or better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven’t entirely adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch trainers involving two teams standing at pool’s edge poised for a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off to the opposite team’s goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15 pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn’t budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds! At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise. A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress, dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn’t recognize her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly, “How did you know I was over 70?” Making me sort of gape. “How old are you in fact?” I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn’t be a day under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the “wording of it…so unusual.” The word “attacks” struck her fancy the most. “At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders.” I wish I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I’m clicking away. It’s a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.

©Jill Johnston 2005. Originally published on www.jilljohnston.com ; first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as Volume 1, Number 1 of the Jill Johnston Letter.