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.