Vietnam Joins the Dance

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Vietnam, says Ea Sola, has no tradition of dance--and so she has set out to create one all by herself. The results are stunning, though it is easy to quibble over whether Sola's productions are strictly dance or whether they are some sort of performance theater or choreographed musical drama. During the course of her voilá voilá, which received its American premier at New York's Lincoln Center Festival '99 in early July, performers recite verses of Vietnamese poetry, hold conversations, sing wistful songs and play musical instruments. Hardly standard dance fare. But no matter how you label them, Sola's performances project intense energy and emotion. The staging and dance forms are starkly modern, yet Sola's aim is to evoke the passion, conflict and sorrow that pervades traditional Vietnamese village life. Her genius is to use the modern to emphasize the traditional. Consider her choice of dancers. These are not lithe young women and men doing contortionists' tricks in leotards. Sola's female performers are mostly in their 40s and older, with the broad faces of market women and broad bodies to match. The first dancer on stage has gray hair and looks like everyone's idealized Asian grandmother. Dressed in elegant modern versions of traditional Vietnamese village clothing, the dancers move with a slow deliberate grace. The movements seem part mime, part tai chi morning exercise, part butoh, a Japanese modern dance form studied and admired by Sola. On stage with the female dancers are male musicians playing a host of traditional instruments: drums, gongs, flutes, wood blocks, one- and two-string instruments. The music is a haunting blend of modern and traditional, which becomes all the more powerful when a cello, lonely and achingly sweet, is introduced during the final scenes. Born of a Vietnamese father and a European mother, Sola left Vietnam before the communists took over Saigon in 1975. Settling in France she studied drama and choreography and was involved with a series of avant garde dance and theater companies. In the early 1990s she returned to Vietnam to study a host of classical--if somewhat arcane--musical forms including 11th century poetic chants accompanied by wood-block percussion and 13th century court opera. Sola returned to her base in Paris and blended the ancient music with modern dance. Out came a unique new style that is surprisingly engaging. In 1995 she staged Secheresse et Pluie, (Drought and Rain), a poignant anti-war piece, which toured Europe and America to rave reviews. Watching voilá voilá, you're tempted to search out symbolism hidden deep in the movements and sounds. Is that the roar of approaching helicopter gunships in the drum rolls? The despoiling curse of Agent Orange is surely seen in palsied shakes of the dancers or in the inverted green branches they hold. Indeed, Sola encourages all this disassembling by offering up program notes studded with post-modernist cant attempting to explain the relation of loneliness/nature and nature/loneliness to verses of ancient Vietnamese poetry. But the real joy of Sola is not in deciphering the obscure references. Just as you don't have to know German to enjoy a Mahler song cycle, you don't have to understand Vietnamese culture to be moved by Sola. It's best simply to luxuriate in the passion of movements and sounds--and enjoy witnessing the budding of a Vietnamese dance tradition.