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Meet the Choreographer Exploring His Refugee Experience Through Art

It’s easy to look at the current humanitarian crisis in Syria, in which we see many refugees making perilous voyages by sea to desperately enter Europe – and often the UK – and think of it as a relatively new phenomenon. The truth is, for many generations the very fabric of British society – our teachers, doctors, nurses, shop workers, baristas, cleaners, artists, builders, computer programmers, plumbers and painters – has consisted of people who came to the UK as refugees and immigrants.

Together with Western Union and the Western Union Foundation, we are sharing real stories of refugees to help breakdown the misconceptions that surround them. We’re all humans and neighbours, no matter our background.

Dam Van Huynh is an award-winning dancer and choreographer with his own company in East London. His contemporary dance projects and movement operas have toured the planet, and he now teaches workshops to budding dancers. He’s lived in Britain for almost two decades.

“I feel like I am a product of the UK,” says Dam. “My home is here, my company is here. I’ve been regularly supported by the Arts Council, so even my creativity is of Britain.”

Dam was born in the Southern region of Vietnam in a small village near the Mekong Delta. This was Vietnam just after the war with America, he tells me, and “it was basically a third world country.” Poverty was everywhere you looked, and if you were lucky enough to have food, you would hide it. But at the same time, he remembers his childhood through a filter of nostalgia. “You have a different sense of the world as a child. We would go to the delta in the evening and swim, and there was something about it that was grand and magical.”

But in the years after the Americans withdrew from the war, the Vietnamese government looked to punish those in the Southern region who had opposed communist rule, and Dam’s mother was left with two choices: stay and die, or flee towards dangerous uncertainty. During this period, many Vietnamese fled their country by sea, and they became known as “boat people”. Over the years, it’s thought that almost 800,000 blindly set sail into the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand in the hope that someone would pick them up.

Dam’s family began the journey when he was only four years old and it took two years. At first they were picked up by a coast guard and spent two months on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Eventually they found their way to refugee camps in Thailand before their papers were finally processed and they were granted safe passage to the United States.

Between the ages of six and seventeen, Dam grew up in the US. “When you are going through that experience as an immigrant, there is a sense of shame almost. I just didn’t want to stand out. I tried my best not to think about my culture or heritage. I knew I was different, so I tried my best to be invisible perhaps.” One afternoon, when bored with a friend, they decided to take a risk and attend some dance classes at a local community centre. “I fell into it and fell in love with it,” says Dam. “It made sense to me and it stuck. It was a perfect fit.”

He graduated from The Boston Conservatory (a college for performing arts), and began performing across the world, before moving to the UK where he founded his own company and has now lived and worked for 18 years. He sees the UK as his home. “I’ve been fortunate to have a career in the arts,” says Dam, “because you are constantly allowed this opportunity to reflect on yourself. I think it is through this medium of expression that I have been able to take stock and really look at my journey as an individual.”

Whenever Dam and his family first arrived on foreign soil as refugees, it was always local community centres that gave them the most support, guiding them on the path towards building a new life and settling down. As a result, it became his lifelong obsession to repay these organisations somehow, and in the last few years his story has come full circle.

“A few years ago, I started as a volunteer at a community centre for refugees in Hackney. The more time I spent there the more I realised they were struggling.” With his dance company already operating with a strong infrastructure, he decided to offer to merge with the charity and pool their resources. “We had a community centre that was dying and a dance company that needed a new home, so I joined the board of trustees and we formed a partnership where we can sustain each other as a creative way to get through the challenges of the current economic crisis.”

Now, what was once a struggling community centre has been re-branded as Centre 151. It’s become a place where migrants from East Asia and local Hackney residents can come together. Vietnamese food is served at lunch, dance classes happen weekly and there is even a meditation centre. “It’s not just about us helping each other,” says Dam. “It’s also a legacy thing. I am from the same area of the refugee experience as them, and I want to help them continue to do what they do in the UK.”

Link to interview

Dance, like life, is fleeting from moment to moment

Walk me through the steps that take a piece from your imagination to the stage.
All my works begin with the artist and my self within the space. I believe a work already exist within a space between the collaborators. My job is to pull everything out into the open, then remove the elements that don’t belong. Whatever is left, regardless of whether I feel it is good or not, must be the honest reveal of where each collaborating artist is in their lives. Almost in a therapeutic process, I ask that the dancers participating in my creation leave everything out in the open: the good, the bad and the scary. I personally prefer dancers as they are without any pretense of being anything else. That is to say, it is okay for me if you have challenges within your life. I don’t wish for a dancer to pretend that everything is perfect. All I ask is that the energy be channeled through the work. This keeps everything real, honest and raw.

How many people are there backstage in a typical performance? (lights, sound, props)
Each production is unique in terms of its technical support. A standard production will always have a stage/technical manager who is often support by 1 or 2 stage crew members. A sound engineer will also be included for most premieres to ensure high standard of sound quality. The lighting designer will often be present for the premiere of the work after which time all the technical aspects of lighting will be pass on wards to the technical manager. Equally, there will often be myself as the choreographer/Artistic Director and a rehearsal director who will take notes at every performance to be delivered to the performers the following day.

How does dance differ from other arts (music, painting, sculpture) to create an emotional experience?
Dance, like life, is fleeting from moment to moment. You aren’t able to touch it; because it dissipates as fast as it materialises, you can’t contain it in a box to be treasured later. Once the experience has happened both performer and audience members are left affected by its fleeting memory and only retain an imprint of the experience.

Many people love to dance. How is free-form dancing different from choreographic dance?
I think for me the major difference between free-form dance and choreographic dance is the way it is framed and shared amongst people. Choreographic dance requires the final element of audience in order to complete its process whilst free-form dance needs neither such context nor final element in order to exist.

If someone wants a career in dance, say a teen, where should they start (what are the basics?)
When a young dancer (a teen) is beginning his/her development in dance, my best advise would be to take as many dance classes as possible. Engage with as much experiences both on the stage and in the studio as possible. The most important thing about starting a career development in dance is to ignite the passion and hunger for the art form. It is with this sense of passion that will be a young dance artist greatest tool for development through the demands and rigors of dance training.

Link to interview

Featured choreographer for Dance United

Dam, could you tell me how and why you became a choreographer?
I think for me, the idea of being a choreographer always started with a question – a why has she/he done that? I never had the notion in my head that as a dancer I would end up as a choreographer, it just happened through working with many different choreographers. I always questioned why and how choreographers worked and then one day, the questions of why and how overshadowed the activity and I decided to take some time to explore the answers. At that time I had been working with Phoenix Dance Theatre and they were closing that year, so it ended up being a good time to start exploring. So on a whim I decided to apply for The Place Prize which I knew was a great opportunity for young choreographers. I gave it a go and to my surprise it was successful and I think from that point I kept going.

Could I ask you to explain your methodology which explores the “division of the torso”?
I think this methodology came from my heritage and training in Graham, Limón, Cunningham, Ballet and Richard Alston’s work. As a dancer working in these contexts, there always seemed to be more possibilities in movement and so I started to explore this in my own body. As a result I found that I needed a way to share this with others and so I worked on developing a kind of non verbal communication based on the torso. Through the process, I discovered ten divisions of the torso which I call “chambers” because I like the idea that when there is empty space there comes lots of possibility, almost like using different rooms in a house. I then knew that I had to devise a way of communicating and sharing this theory so I have been instructing a class where this is set. The class structure will teach you how to access and structure movement rather than just repeat a movement like me, which is the least of my interest. I wanted dancers to understand the theory but then apply it in their own way so we could share ideas.

Dam, you are an Associate Artist with Dance United, so could you tell me a little more about that and what it means to you?
This was an opportunity that came to me while I was working in Hong Kong as the Artist in Residence at the Academy of the Performing Arts, where I spent two years researching this method of torso division. Dance United contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in working with them. At this point I didn’t know much about their work, but as I discovered more, I realised that it was a programme very similar to that which got me dancing, so it became more of a personal choice. I grew up in Los Angeles and there was a similar programme in my neighbourhood which aimed to keep young kids off the streets, engaged and exposing them to the arts which when you don’t grow up in that context, is something you don’t ever come into contact with. So I really believe in programmes like Dance United and when I work with the young people, I see myself in them and identify all the possibilities that came to me through dance. As a professional I have always had it in my mind to do something like this so I could give back to the community. It is important to give back and in doing so, my work with Dance United is very personal and I cherish it. At this moment, I work on commissions with them and when I can I observe their cohorts of disengaged young people, and share artistic advice with them on all levels. The Association has become a strong friendship so when they need me they call on me and trust that I am there.

Your piece Winding-Twist was recently performed for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Can you tell me how that came about?
The original event was hosted by an organisation called Only Connect who invited Dance United to show a piece. They selected my piece Winding-Twist which was originally created as a curtain raiser for my full length piece, Gesundheit! The piece is a duet for two male dancers, Jannick and Moshood and it was designed to get young developing dancers to work on a professional level. The dancers were so brilliant at it, I couldn’t get over how amazing they were, and Dance United chose it to be shown to the Duke and Duchess. The dancers were so passionate about it, so we couldn’t deny them the chance to perform it! The piece lasts only eight minutes and it plays on the idea of two very contrasting dancers who move differently but also intersect at points and therefore their movement path has lots of winds and twists, hence the title. It was a very intimate space so I felt very privileged to be there but it was also very nerve-wracking at the same time! Apparently it was the first piece of contemporary dance that Kate Middleton had experienced which was of course an honour and then as an artist, what more special way could you connect with the Duke and Duchess than through your art work?! Dance United were then featured in the Metro and Channel 5 news which was great as I want to be able to expose their work as much as I can, so I think it worked very well for both of us.

So, what are you working on now?
At the moment I am juggling a few projects. Most immediately, I have been granted funding from the Arts Council and the British Council through their Artist International Development Fund, to venture to my home country, Vietnam, and research with professional and local dancers there, trying to access what it means for them to be contemporary dancers in a still quite recent post-war climate. I was myself a refugee child and I am interested in how the nation’s history affects our movement. I am there to discover how it has affected them and how our different pathways can be put in one space. The other aspect of that project is to gather sound samples of music which is traditionally routed for me in the Vietnamese culture with my composer and learn how contemporary Vietnamese musicians are making music. The whole objective is to gather this information and potentially make a work that is more culturally derived. Being Asian isn’t something I have explored yet in my consciousness as a choreographer as I have always been strongly influenced by the Western side of my upbringing, but I think my two years in Hong Kong have awoken the Asian side of me as an artist. I will be there for a month in the beginning of January until the second of February, which will include a sharing with the local artists and the British Embassy. Secondly, I am juggling a large piece with Nuno Silva called A Darker Side of Fado which is another cultural heritage piece exploring the folk songs of Portugal. He has asked me to choreograph this hour long piece which will tour next Spring. Thirdly, I have just finished the R&D for a piece called Gesundheit! which features the curtain raiser Winding-Twist, and we are now in the second stages to complete the work and take it on tour. We are open for tour bookings now and the programme may feature the duet which was shown to the Duke and Duchess. Gesundheit! (produced by Step Out Art) was another cultural development piece and features a Jamaican vocalist who is a non dancer and two dancers one from France and myself, exploring the influences of China, Vietnam and even America and how they interact in one space. It has been a challenge but we have had positive responses from ACE and our partners and now we will be touring in 2014.

Finally, could you offer any advice for emerging choreographers?
Just do it! Something that I was told that has always stuck with me is “it’s a verb” get up and do it – dance is an action so do it, don’t wait for the funding or the right time. Some of the greatest works have been done with very little resources so be encouraged to start somewhere!

Dam Van Huynh: Moving into choreography

The choreographer Dam Van Huynh is an Associate Artist for Dance United and recently returned from a two-year residency at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Here the dancer-turned-teacher-turned-choreographer talks about how to set up your own company and why being a director is a little like being a therapist…

When did you decide to go from being a dance teacher to being a choreographer?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision; there wasn’t a lightbulb moment. My ultimate goal has always been dancing. Choreography came into the mix more as a question – every time you work on a new project, with different choreographers and companies, it is a question. I was curious, I suppose. I have an analytical mind. As those questions get bigger and heavier, you start to find solutions in your mind and in your body.

What made you want to set up your own company?
Looking at the landscape of dance, I saw some of the models for how people were assembling work. Being project-based reflects the financial times: you can just assemble for a short period, so it’s much more economical. But that model benefits everyone but the dancers ñ the choreographers get the fame for the work they set up, the organisations that support it get their moment and tick their boxes, but the dancers lose out on a certain amount of development. For example, they miss out on consistent training and having a teacher that studies your technique over a long period. So I set up the company, to keep hold of that development structure. The dancers are engaged, we all believe in what we’re doing and how we should work, we’re all committed to creating something and in exchange I will train them. It all just has a bit more consistency. But it makes it challenging, because it means I donít have any money.

What steps did you take to set up the company?
Rather naively, I just approached the dancers I thought would be interested and said, I can’t offer you money, but this is what I want to do. We found space to rehearse and had a little support from Laban and The Place. Then it was a matter of trying to find a way to sustain it. I’m sure that’s the wrong way to do it – it’s much better to get the funding, approach the right people and then set it up, but that’s the way I did it.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your career and what was your highlight?
The biggest challenge is always finding the money. It’s less about paying myself – although I need to eat – but about engaging the dancers. They are the most important thing; they are the living art itself. My career highlight? Seeing a theory or vision come to life.

What advice would you pass on to emerging choreographers and dancers?
If you wait for things, it’ll never happen. In dance, if you can conceive it, then do it. That’s my philosophy. It’s live art; it’s this momentary thing and you have to capture it. Expectations aside, you just have to jump and see what happens. Also, as a director or choreographer you are the father, the mother, the therapist, the seamstress, the technician, everything. It can be overwhelming, so if you stopped to think about it, you’d never do it. It’s a tough art form because you are pulling something out of nothing. Be clear in what you choose, invest in the art form and it will invest back in you.

Sensing Bodies

Dam Van Huynh’s choreographic language speaks of a clear physical elegance. Yet underlying this focused physicality is an energy that is powerful, sometimes bordering on frenetic. [Black Square], the work that he will be featuring at this year’s M1 Fringe Festival, displays these urgent characteristics.

Choreographed for and performed by the dancers of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, parts of the work feature large groups of people marching forwards menacingly in all directions before launching into a series of abrupt gestural movements.

A quick preview of his other works reveal that he is not always this fierce. Earlier works such as Mural Studies display his penchant for the beauty of the moving body – disjointed yet always flowing through with energy.

Attracted to his use of space on stage as well as the exploration of the possibilities of the body, I posed several questions in the hopes of finding out more. The response I got was humble and spoke of the need to constantly discover himself.
Being a dancer myself, I could not agree with him more – in the end it always leads back to the self.

LMW: The biggest difference between [Black Square] and your other works such as Collision, Mural Studies and Sudden Change of Event, after watching the youtube clips, was that [B S] seemed a lot more urgent, frantic, like there was almost a sort of menacing energy coursing through the work as opposed to the other three works mentioned. I am interested in finding out why, stylistically, [B S] seems to stand on its own as compared to your other works.

DVH: When I am creating a choreographic piece, I believe that the work itself already exists within the space and within the artists involved. My job is to bring everything out into the open and let the work reveal itself. In this manner, [B S] was influenced by the great number of dancers. The work was originally created for 21 dancers and at the time the collective group made a very strong impression of strength upon me. The stylistic difference of [B S] to my previous works may also be a reflection of my constant attempt at evolving and developing further my ideas on how I perceive movement. With each new creative work, I am able to reflect different aspects of my imagination, myself and the contemporary world in which I reside.

LMW: Watching the video clips of Sudden Change of Event and Mural Studies it is rather apparent that you have very strong ideas of the usage of space and its demarcations.

DVH: Space is everywhere: outer space, immediate space surrounding a body, inner space, etc. All of them combine to make my job virtually impossible. It is a good thing I love a challenge! Space itself is infinite. The challenge of working in such an environment is how to utilize it effectively. As a choreographer, I look at space as a variable that moves – rather than a variable that is fixed – to which the body moves through. I perceive space as almost a tangible element in which the dancers can throw, stir, carve or feel. In this respect, the surrounding space is constantly moving and affected by the dancers. As the body moves through the space, the viewing audience will reframe their perspective in order to view the dance, in doing so the space itself has shifted and moved from the original space to be potentially a new space within another space.

LMW: “A whole lifetime in this body, it would be a tragedy not to understand the vessel that you occupy.” This statement from the documentary 3 Minutes Wonder – Dam Van Huynh, Documentary really struck me. Your thoughts on how you will achieve this understanding of “the vessel” through your art.

DVH: “The vessel” in my mind is the door way from “I” the inner self to my surrounding world. My vessel that is my body connects me to what is around me. As I further explore and unveil the deeper layers of what is possible in my movement capability and challenge my own ideas on the origin of movement.
I begin to engage upon an understanding of myself. I believe that in order to better understand our surrounding world, we must first understand ourselves. In this respect, my art form has provided me with the tool to access my inner self and subsequently my outer environment.

Questions and Answers

How did you get the dancing bug?
When I was 14 my best friend had enrolled in a dancing course. And whenever he was taking classes, which were generally most of the day on Saturdays, I was short a best friend. He convinced me to join his classes and with very little interest in dance itself, I decided to join mainly because I did not wish to be bored by myself on Saturdays. Fortunately, my very first dance teacher was so encouraging and inspiring, I took to dance immediately. I have been dancing ever since.

How did you end up in London? Why choose to live and work here?
I ended up in London because in 2003, I had just left New York City and decided I wanted to dance abroad. I was travelling through London on my way to France for an audition when I came upon the Richard Alston Dance Company.  I made an audition and Richard offered me a job. I accepted and moved to London.
I have chosen to live and work in London because I feel good here. London has become home. I enjoy the vibrant energy of the city and the diversity. London reminds me of New York. They both are rich with culture, but I find London a bit more human.

Describe your dance/choreographic style in five words.
Physically dynamic and purity in movement.

What’s the one thing we need to know about your piece, Sudden Change of Event?
The one thing you need to know about my new work Sudden Change of Event is that it is an exciting piece full of energy and the movement vocabulary shall display a feast for the eyes.

You were a finalist in last year’s Place Prize, what did that do for your career?
Being a finalist in The Place Prize has tremendously helped me in my choreographic career. With the exposure from The Place Prize, there was more of a sense of association with me and choreography which had not been there before. I had been primarily a dancer in established companies so most people had always equated me as Dam Van Huynh the dancer. After The Place Prize, I had been contacted by several different organizations for choreographic commissions such as the British Museum and collaboration with Nitin Sawhney and the British Film Institute.

What was it like to win the audience prize every night, but not win the competition?
In all honesty, I entered The Place Prize competition with very little expectations. I was hoping at the very best, I would get into the finals so my work may be seen. Winning was the last thought on my mind. I hadn’t even considered winning one audience choice. I was more concerned with the idea that everyone would hate my piece. For me, winning the audience choice every night for ten nights was like winning the grand prize.

Where’s your favourite London dance floor? (could be a stage, a studio, a club, your bedroom…)
My favourite dance floor in London is studio 8 of The Place. It was my very first studio when I entered the UK and I spent about two years there. It is not lavish or Royal Opera House standard, but I feel at ease and comfortable there.

What’s your all-time favourite dance piece, and why? (you can have more than one – I know it’s hard to choose!)
Perhaps narrowing down one of my all time favourite dance works is a bit of a challenge. However, one of the works that sits at the top of my list would be, Piano Phase by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. I enjoy the complexity within the simplicity of the work. For me, the piece is edgy and makes me hold my breath until it is over. The complex time and subtlety of the weight shift all have to be in perfect harmony in order for the dancers to be in sync. The challenge of such harmony is what reads the most to me for this work. As a dancer, I feel the challenge of taking on such a work would be thrilling – as I love a good challenge – and as a choreographer, I have great admiration for the imagination of the work.

What’s your secret talent?
My secret talent is that I am able to independently wiggle and spread my baby toe without the involvement of any other toes. Ok, Ok, this may sound simple, but in fact it is very difficult to move the baby toe separately of the rest. I recommend you try it. It is quite the challenge.

What do your feet look like?
During a heavy rehearsal period, my feet generally look as if they have been beaten and battered.
The rest of the time, my feet look like they are recovering from being beaten and battered.

What will you do on your next day off?
On my next day off, I will take a trip to the south of France and lie on the beach and eat as much ice cream as my stomach can handle.

Sweet Tooth On Tour

Sweet Tooth On Tour

SWEET TOOTH marks the culmination of five years’ research by vocalist Elaine Mitchener into our love of sugar and the historical links between the UK sugar industry and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Dam Van Huynh was invited as Movement Director for the work which was successfully premiered at Bluecoat, Liverpool in November 2017.

SWEET TOOTH will be next presented in London and Southampton on 22 and 23 February.

More info and tickets: www.elainemitchener.com

Metamorphosis Method Workshop

Metamorphosis Method Workshop

Van Huynh Company invites Iratxe Ansa and Igor Bacovich to deliver a week long Dance Intensive at Centre 151.

Iratxe and Igor bring their internationally renown Metamorphosis Method, a physical and dynamically challenging movement exploration practice.

Metamorphosis is a process of transformation and growth. It is a process of maturing, whereby dancers become artists. This method leads dancers on a path that calls for disciplined, focused and intelligent hard work. It encourages creativity through guided exploration – a nurtured and trusted environment where artistic knowledge is transferred and explored.

Iratxe Ansa is a former dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater, Compañia Nacional de Danza, Lyon Opera Ballet, Ballet Basel, Ballet Gulbenkian.

Igor Bacovich is a former dancer with Bruno Listopad, Krisztina de Chatel, Nanine Linning.

More info and registration: www.centre151.com

Metamorphosis Method Workshop

Introducing Dance Bridges Festival

Introducing Dance Bridges Festival

We are delighted to introduce the second edition of Dance Bridges Festival. In 2016, Dam Van Huynh was appointed Co-Director of Dance Bridges Festival alongside Festival Director Vanessa Maria Mirza, committing to further support this truly special project. Dance Bridges Festival is an international dance festival with an emphasis on building artistic and cultural exchanges between international and local dance artists, showcasing and promoting cutting-edge and exciting contemporary choreography through live performances and film screenings.

We are extremely proud to present this year’s programme with 70 artists from 17 countries visiting Kolkata to present their work and lead workshops for local artists and audience members. Van Huynh Company will also lead the Choreographic Residency over two weeks with local and international dancers leading to a final presentation of the work in progress as part of a Site specific performance at Daga Nikunj. We will also present a Duet “Under This Weight” as well as some of our repertoire in collaboration with artists of the Festival (Crossover Project).

Please join us in Kolkata between 22-29 August to share some time with us in this unique city and discover some truly special artists.

Introducing Dance Bridges Festival

Beijing / Canterbury Cross-Cultural Project

Beijing / Canterbury Cross-Cultural Project

In collaboration with Canterbury Christ Church University and Beijing Normal University, Van Huynh Company has launched a cross-cultural project involving students from both dance academies. The final presentation of this unique international collaboration will be performed by dance artists on Friday 16 June in Canterbury.

Stay tuned for more information!