Van Huynh Company: Re:birth review – a swirling portrayal of the exhaustion of exile

The UK-based Vietnamese dancer and choreographer stages a piece inspired by the horror and dislocation of war with experimental vocals from Elaine Mitchener

Re: Birth by Dam Van Huynh at the Place theatre, London.

Motley crew … Re: Birth by Dam Van Huynh at the Place theatre, London.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Choreographer Dam Van Huynh was a child refugee from Vietnam and his latest work, Re:birth, draws directly on the experience of finding himself displaced in the aftermath of war. As is often the way in dance, a very specific inspiration can become a much more amorphous piece of choreography, leaving only traces and impressions, in this case an atmosphere of dislocation, oppression and anxiety, all under a headache of thick red light and rumbling soundtrack.

Laura Kenyon and Marc Krause in Re: Birth.

Different ages, different bodies … Laura Kenyon and Marc Krause in Re: Birth.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

There are any number of ways that Van Huynh could generate these moods on stage, so the question becomes, why choose to do it this way? And also, why are they all in their pants? Here are seven performers, of different ages, with different bodies, a disparate group clad in motley costume, psychedelic leggings or gold shorts, a man in a shimmery slip, a lot of underwear. At first they struggle, they fall, they hold each other up trying to support heavy bodies and drag them across the stage. They run in circles, take flight and return to the group; there’s a naked headstand, a nightmarish bootcamp, and it all descends into something more chaotic and feral. The movement itself is not especially compelling, but it’s the cumulative effect that matters.

A thread throughout is the text, collated from a handful of writers, Vietnamese (Thich Nhat Hanh, Trinh T Minh-Ha, Ocean Vuong) and otherwise (Mitsuye Yamada, Audre Lorde). It’s delivered by experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener, her voice at first lost in a swirl of sound design, as if heading into a storm; later distorting into horror film tones. We’re seeing the confusion and exhaustion of exile, voices drowned out, the disquiet of finding yourself, unwanted, in a new land.

Only at the climax of the piece, when everything else falls away, can Mitchener’s voice be clearly heard. “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell the truth?” she asks, quoting Audre Lorde. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It is a payoff, certainly, but you can’t help feeling this piece could be more illuminating, more nuanced, en route to that ending.

Link to review