Featured foreign performers included Italian Borderline Dance Company, who managed to arouse the audience’s curiosity with simple, bodily gestures. Starkly contrasting with their minimal approach was the equally impressive Dance Company Moo-E. Focusing on fluidity and angularity, the Koreans wowed viewers with fierce technical skills.
But the most engaging performance of the fest was choreographer Kaiji Moriyama’s dramatic interpretation of Hagoromo — the Japanese legend of a celestial maiden’s feather robe. The otherworldly twisting of his body against the backdrop of flowing silks and climatic percussion propelled the audience to their feet. Moriyama’s spiritual sensibilities are closely related to the aestheticism of Nguyen Tan Loc, Arabesque’s director.
Fitting perfectly in with the high-calibre internationals was Arabesque’s seven-act production, The Mist. After just six years, Arabesque has become the premier neo-classical ballet troupe in Ho Chi Minh City. With alumni performing in Singapore and Germany, and new recruits competing in festivals in Korea and Japan, they earn praise for fostering cross-cultural collaborations and providing platforms for local talents to shine internationally.
The ballet tells a story of Vietnamese farmers. A rustic spectacle of bamboo bridges, spiral incense and conical hats, the show embodies all the charms and colours of the south. Considered Arabesque’s most acclaimed piece, The Mist is the first to allow the troupe to bridge the trans-Atlantic gap, touring selected American cities at the end of the year.
Besides performances, the festival offered multiple workshops at Le Thanh Theatre (25 Phan Phu Tien, Q5, Ho Chi Minh City). The themes included awareness of the body, as well as rapid creativity and floor movements. An average of 25 people participated in the intense one-and-a-half hour workshops. There were dance students, curious expats and even local celebrities such as Do Quang Dang, finalist in Vietnam’s 2013 So You Think You Can Dance competition.
Ngo Thanh Phuong, Arabesque’s choreographer and instructor at the city’s dance school, says that this kind of international exchange is what Vietnamese dance needs to thrive. “I used to give classes on horizontal movements,” she says. “Most didn’t take me seriously. After [Moo-E dancer] Kim Sung Yung’s seminar, a former student finally understood.
“I asked her, ‘Was there a reason why what I said didn’t resonate with you before?’ She replied, ‘No, it’s just that he is a foreigner.’” Laughing full-heartedly, Phuong continues, “Young Vietnamese dancers are too timid to venture outside classical boundaries. Without international support, we will always be seen as the crazy troublemakers.”
Besides the international diplomacy, Phuong is also active on the other frontier of dance, the technical side. Her latest experiment is a research project with RMIT Saigon. Under the direction of lecturer Paul Verity Smith, she and a team of two dancers, Minh Thu and Anh Khoa, have been meeting on the weekends to develop choreography that will complement new interactive technologies. The goal is for dancers to take sole ownership of their performances by controlling elements of staging through movement.
Wearing accelerometers and light sensors on their bodies, dancers trigger live recording and pre-recorded videos, as well as generate sounds for the stage. The result of the team’s year-long experiment is a 40-minute production called Intimacies. Loosely referencing a love story, Intimacies is a dance montage of the three people’s POVs against the backdrop of Ho Chi Minh City.
Technically speaking, the project has a high degree of originality. Tran Van Chinh, an RMIT student, has created the computer program Isadora specifically for the occasion. Her program converts the dancer’s movements into raw data, then outputs them as commands to manipulate the transparency of images being projected on stage. Such software enables a highly personalised experience that changes every time the show is being performed.
In the beginning the dancers struggled with getting used to the technology. Minh Thu explains, “I didn’t know what to do because I was still thinking about me triggering the sensors rather than letting them be extensions of myself.”
Phuong agrees. “It was a learning process,” she says. “We constantly tweaked our movements so as to not interfere with excess wires of our receivers.”
Both agree that having gone through the project, they have a more profound awareness of the physical presence of their bodies.
While Intimacies shines as a technological innovation, as a production, it falls shorts in presenting a cohesive narrative. Some of this has to do with the abrupt mixing of original noise-like music and found melodies. But mostly, it’s the choices in the pre-recorded images and use of props — which come across as randomised rather than deliberate.
For example, the second-to-last scene depicts a female performer dancing with multiple shadows of wooden chairs. Triggering the sensors, a four-second-delayed video loop of her in real time is recorded and projected back on the stage. Prior to this scene, most of the images used were close-ups of the dancers’ body parts. The introduction of a new inanimate object here seems out of place.
Irrespective of these points, Intimacies is a praiseworthy collaborative endeavour. Both Arabesque and RMIT have shown an exceptional dedication to creativity. And with overwhelming excitement and support for this collaboration, Phuong can rest assured that there will be more avant-garde projects to come in the Year of the Horse.
To learn about upcoming performances, head to arabesque.com.vn