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Dancers point to new era (October 18, 2004)

Body language: Dancers of the Viet Nam Opera and Ballet Theatre perform Light and Shadow, a contemporary work that attracted many spectators.

Fusing tradition with foreign influences, young choreographers are setting the stage for a new age in Vietnamese dance. All they need is funding. To Loc – Vu Toan report.

Sweat and tears: Young dancers rehearse The Light and Shadow.
This August, two young choreographers, Tuyet Minh and Hong Phong, caused an explosion of applause at the Ha Noi Opera House with a modern ballet inspired by a famous traditional cheo drama, Quan Am Thi Kinh.

"The story is very familiar to Vietnamese, so it is easy for spectators to understand the drama, but we still had a hard time choreographing the ballet, as we didn’t want to copy the cheo traditional dances. Of course, we also had problems with funding," said Minh, 21, who works for the Viet Nam Dance College.

"We used a solo dance, a key style in modern dancing, to replace the monologue in the drama," added 27-year-old Phong, of the Viet Nam Opera and Ballet Theatre (VNOB).

Veteran Vietnamese artists described the production as "excellent", "surprising", and "astonishing". The critics were impressed by the dance’s beauty, but also by its arrangement and production – Minh and Phong handled everything, from the choreography to fund-raising.

Village festival: An ancient Vietnamese opera inspired choreographer Hong Phong to stage a contemporary dance. VNS Photos Viet Thanh.
The choreographers’ efforts were even more daring, and their success more surprising, as current trends in music and dance lean towards hip-hop and pop. Traditional dances are gradually fading from popularity in Viet Nam, said choreographer Nguyen Cong Nhac, VNOB director.

"However, over the last decade, the renewal process has provided more opportunities for Vietnamese artists. Dancers now have a better concept of classical and modern techniques, and they are able to visit other countries to develop new ideas. Many Vietnamese artists, particularly the young ones, have succeeded in combining tradition with modernity, thus breathing new life into performances."

"Only young people can afford such risks. When I was as young as they are now, I did not dare take such liberties," he said. Nhac said there should be a centre for young talents that promotes events and activities to attract the interests of society and of investors.

The attendance for Minh and Phong’s performance proves there is still an audience for dance, but it is difficult to raise the money for original, innovative productions. Without support, performances of traditional, and even modern dances, may simply fade from view.

No flash in the pan

Modern dance did not come to Viet Nam until the country regained its independence in 1945. Traditional folk dances had dominated villages’ festivals, though none had achieved widespread popularity. However, in the atmosphere of reconstruction, dancing became a popular national pastime.

Almost immediately after achieving independence, Viet Nam again became embroiled in conflict until 1975. During these troubled times, the many dance and music groups that formed helped lift the spirits of their communities. Dances, mostly collective, created a joyful atmosphere for Vietnamese soldiers and people, even on some of the darkest days.

During the wars, most of the performances were held outside, and the stages glowed with kerosene lamps or bamboo torches. The dances focused on patriotic themes to inspire the soldiers and workers to fight against aggression and to work hard for their country’s development.

Professor Lam To Loc, former researcher at the Viet Nam Dance College, said an image of the late President Ho Chi Minh in which he leads a dance with Vietnamese from all walks of life provided inspiration for the country to win the war. Loc added the period marked a new chapter in the history of Vietnamese dance, as even during the war, many young people enrolled in dance schools in the Soviet Union, China and other countries. Most of the war-time composers and choreographers have left deep imprints on the history of the art and won popular recognition.

The Viet Nam Dance School, the first professional institution to train dancers, composers, choreographers and instructors in Viet Nam, was established in 1959. The school faced many difficulties in obtaining the proper equipment and in providing the right food to keep dancers healthy during the war. Even after their training, many graduates joined the fight by traveling to the southern battlefields as both soldiers and artists. The school survived, however, and upgraded to the Viet Nam Dance College in 2001.

New moves

As Viet Nam began to crack its doors to the outside world in 1986, foreign music flooded theatres in Viet Nam, and the traditional Vietnamese dances faded from popularity, causing many problems for those still involved in the art. The State curtailed their budget, but they needed money for training in order to regain people’s interest. However, the foreign influences pouring into the country provided a wealth of new material, and the remaining dancers were able to keep the flames of their art alive.

Loc said traditional Vietnamese dances have been transformed through contact with classical and modern European and Asian dances.

"The changes in traditional dances are in step with the rest of Viet Nam’s development," he said, adding the trend has met the need for art among the masses, especially the young. "The evolution of these traditional dances has brought them up-to-date, which is evidenced by the many awards, particularly at international festivals," Loc said.

Dancers usually begin training at seven or eight years old, when their bodies are still flexible. This rigorous programme lasts for seven to 11 years, until the dancer is able to earn an income through professional work, though this is not always the case. The monthly expenditure for each trainee is approximately VND1 million (about US$70), an overwhelming expense for a typical Vietnamese family, whose average annual income is about $400. The financial pressure is so great that it has forced many young talents out of the profession, which shines more light on the successes of Minh and Phong, both in their skills as choreographers and in their ability to find funding.

To help artists overcome dwindling funds, the Ministry of Culture and Information is drafting a Government proposal for preferential treatment for art students. Under the draft, the Government would increase scholarships for the trainees by up to 60 per cent and reduce or exempt their tuition fees. Veteran dance instructors insist that without such a programme, Viet Nam will suffer a loss of great talent.

Still, Minh and Phong have accomplished quite a lot through private financial support, which has created greater freedom of expression for young choreographers who welcome new trends and work hard for their success.

Of the six Vietnamese artists who entered the sixth Asian art festival, held in China in August 2004, four were the young choreographers Anh Tuyet, Quynh Nhu, Quang Minh and Huu Tu. Twenty-six-year-old Huu Tu, a prominent figure in dancing circles, has won various prizes, and his most recent work was staged during ASEAN Culture Week.

"If Vietnamese dance can find support, the country is set to make a name for itself in modern dance, as artists have been able to expertly blend their traditions with today’s trends. There could be several new successful productions every year, instead of one-night shows that get shelved the next day," Nhac said. - VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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