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!