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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20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Last Call at the Butoh Foundry — Asbestos Kan Bids Adieu to the Hijikata Studio; Kasai Divine as “Lovely Jean Paul”

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2003, 2018 Maura Nguyen Donohue

TOKYO — Sunday, January 19’s show from Asbestos Kan, the company started by Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata, marked the final public performance at the historic Tatsumi Hijikata Memorial Asbestos Dance Studio. Hijikata is considered the creator of Butoh. However, he hadn’t specifically set out to make “Butoh,” per se, when he premiered “Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors)” in 1959. The controversial work was based on Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name and premiered during a Japan Dance Association showcase for new choreographers. It has since been cited as the first public showing of the performance movement that Hijikata later named Ankoku Butoh, Dance of Darkness. Four decades later, Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh has become an internationally recognizable form. Tragically, two days after the performance and on the 17th anniversary of Hijikata’s death, the Tokyo District Court auctioned off the birthplace of Japan’s most influential contemporary performance form.

Close to 75 people crammed into the unassuming basement studio (the back of a van parked outside serves as box office and coat check), slowly filling it until the only apparent performance space consisted of a small spot of about 10 square feet in the corner. Agoraphobic response to the crush of the crowd shifted into a growing claustrophobic panic that I was stuck, sitting with my knees pulled up to my chest, without possibility of escape. But these fears were quickly dispelled as a video of abstract, digital bubbles was projected on the back wall, sparse chanting audio drifted through the room, and a kimono-clad woman entered the space. She screamed, the sound of pounding taiko drums followed and “Edo Mandalam” directed by Hironobu Oikawa, began….

(To receive the complete article, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36 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. First published exclusively on the DI on February 12, 2003.)

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.

From the Body to the World: Kim Can Dance — Can I Capture Her?; Cambodian Story-telling from Eiko & Koma & Friends

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2006, 2017 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK — Dian Dong said that she didn’t think anyone had been paying attention when she and HT Chen were awarded a 2005 special citation from the New York Dance and Performance awards (a.k.a. Bessies) for their outstanding service to the community in NYC and NY State. Thankfully somebody on the Bessies committee had taken notice, and all you dance insiders should follow suit, punch their Mulberry St. Theater address into your hiptop and make it a destination in the future. While you’re at it, bemoan the recent missed opportunity to forge a new pathway, find good eats cheap and fast and get an up close and personal look at Sam Kim’s latest, which ran this past Thursday to Saturday.

To receive the complete article, also including Maura’s take on Eiko & Koma’s “Cambodia Stories: an Offering of Painting and Dance” and her own perspective on collaborating in Cambodia, first published on May 23, 2006, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) 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. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Pass Me that Gui-tar ‘Fore I Smash Another Beer Can on My Forehead: Stacy Dawson Goes West, Young Woman

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2002, 2017 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK — Stacy Dawson calls her first evening-length work, “Best Western,” a “hallucination that pays tribute to the legacies forged in the underbelly of country and western American folk music.” Like any good hallucination, the work, which played at PS 122 this past weekend, trips through moments of complete obscurity into flashes of incredible brilliance. It moves beyond the obvious Dawson staple of comedic lip-synching into a darker internal journey for denizens of a lonely and heart-broken realm. It’s her delirious homage to country music.

To receive the complete article, first published on February 5, 2002, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) 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. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

American Stories: From Civil wars to civil rites — Moving beyond John Brown with David Dorfman & Camille Brown

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009, 2017 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK — David Dorfman is a messy guy. A subversively messy guy. Not his army of superhuman dancers, nor his luscious, sweeping choreography. Not his design team, nor his vision. Not his workshops for corporate outreach, nor his master classes for athletes. Not his chairmanship of the Connecticut College dance department, nor his stewardship of one of our most important companies — his own. His is not an untidy craftsman, but David Dorfman is a messy artist. Messing with things in disarming, informal, personable, personal, complicated, volatile, well-meaning, demanding, unpleasant and thus deeply, vitally, importantly, and inherently American ways. He will not provide easy resolutions for the violence and chaos of our historic and contemporary foils. But, once again, with “Disavowal,” seen at Danspace Project, he remains ever loyal to banging away at our hostilities in a constant search for our shared humanity.

To get the rest of the article, first published on July 16, 2009, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions). Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . For more on John Brown, click here.