NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
During the 70s, 80s and 90s, Uyen Nicole Duong (Duong Nhu Nguyen) (b. Vietnam) enjoyed her serious hobby as an amateur dancer/actress, from her college days at the School of Communication, Southern Illinois University, all throughout the first 10 years of her law practice. Her first professional theater appearance was in the acclaimed musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, produced in Houston, Texas (1979). She then quit acting to go to law school in 1980. She returned to stage work in 1990 via her training in musical theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York City, and Pasadena, California. While practicing law, she performed periodically before small audiences in productions off Broadway, in Texas, Virginia, California, Singapore, and Malaysia. She handled roles such as Lotus Blossom in the controversial remake of Teahouse of the August Moon by The Arlington Players and The Dominion Theater, Virginia; Imelda Marcos in a political satire produced at the Strand Theater by the Galveston Bar Association, Texas; and Estelle, the ingenue, in J.P. Sartre’s No Exit produced off Broadway by a group of lawyer-actors associated with the International Bar Association. The law career kept her from accepting many roles of various types offered by community as well as professional theater groups. Her last dance performance for a Vietnamese audience was at age 35. Her last dance performance before a non-Vietnamese audience was at age 40.
In the following piece, Uyen Nicole described to us how she came to love dance as a child in Vietnam, how she pursued dance as a cross-cultural young adult in America, and how she remembered her last public dance performance at age 40, in Houston, Texas.
VIET PERSPECTIVES MULTILINGUAL FORUM
I have a notion about modern dance. Modern dance, to me, is the means of artistic expression for today and tomorrow, where the human body in its time and space will continue to complement other media such as paints, sketches, or words, in the fluid process of portraying the world of the present and the future. It is the breaking of rules in order to apply rules, by someone who has mastered the rules (a point easily illustrated through the relationship between ballet techniques and modern dance). In means of expression such as modern dance, one learns to free the artistic spirit.
It is because of this notion that I decided to write this personal essay on modern dance, free from any research. I want this essay to reach my own Vietnamese ethnic community. Our culture is quite rich with the written words, from Chu Han, Chu Nom, to Truyen Kieu and the pre-war works of Tu Luc Van Doan. Yet we can be so bare and scarce in dance and movements, and at the same time so abundant in prejudices and judgment. In occasionally appearing in dance solos for Vietnamese charity events in Houston, I have heard comments accusing me of aggression and lewdness (ho hang; bao dan). I took solace in the recognition that my culture is not accustomed to seeing dance as artistic expression. Dance as an art form is often mistaken for pure entertainment or even an invitation of a sexual nature. The body becomes the flesh, rather than a tool of communication for the artist.
Yes, in writing this essay, I can rely on books on modern dance, attempting to appear scholarly, but all that does is to make me into a poor imitation of a dance historian. For the purpose of digesting my modern dance experience as an amateur dancer, books will not teach me how to sense and feel, if I haven’t sensed or felt already. Senses and feelings, I think, are the essence of dance, and of art. The techniques and discipline are to free those senses and feelings into tremendous energy, not to restrict them. I can repeat what the books say and compile a bibliography, but how will they teach me the power of creativity — something I must personally experience and attest to?
I understand that in my ethnic community of first-generation immigrants, there are people who have never seen or experienced modern dance. I will not attempt to describe this art form, detail by detail, but, rather, will rely on my words like an impressionistic brush to invoke the imagination of those readers who have not visually been exposed to modern dance as an art form. I will recapitulate here what modern dance means to me:
–movements on bare feet — the image of freedom and the return to the basics of our physical environment.
–simple, innovative costumes — the body and its movements do the task of communication, not the costume! Costumes are to aid in communicating, not to speak on their own.
–the creation of bareness or austerity for the stage. The dancer creates the sense of cutting through her space in order to speak to her audience with her body. Therefore, her environment – the stage and props — should not engulf or overpower her.
–the creation of grace and power from the most simple gesture or awkward movement — without modern dance, where could one change a swing — whereby the dancer almost stoops into a squatting position — into something so beautiful and powerful?
–grounded-ness in the textual fabric of fluidity — an exhibition of strength, symbolic of the relationship between a communicator and her perspective — the message is: “I express from where I stand, before I leap into the nothingness of my space, and only because I want to return to where I stood before. My clumsiness is my strength, my honesty, my beginning, as well as my ending. I am a human, standing on earth, and even if I speak to God, I will do so as humans, children in his image. I don’t wish to turn into birds or flying angels to communicate. I don’t pretend to be beautiful, and in my grounded starkness, I become beautiful without ornamenting myself!”
Modern dance to me, therefore, is the contemporary human experience captured in the form of dance.
Thoughts of modern dance always rekindle in my mind the names of two noted American dancers: Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. Thoughts of Ms.Duncan reminded me of a tempest and its velocity, perhaps from the story of her death told to me by an artist friend. I was told that Ms. Ducan loved wearing long scarfs. She was a tempestuous woman with a passion for fast cars. One day, in driving a convertible while wearing a flowing scarf, she died tragically in an accident because her scarf — the signature of a dancer — got caught in something! It was a story as exotic and tragically inciting as with most lives of the great artists — how they came into, and departed from, this world!
Thoughts of Ms. Graham reminded me of a beautiful woman who was still dancing in her 80s in long, austere, body-hugging dresses. The biography of Ms. Graham was as exicting and provocative as her dances. I remember vaguely that Ms. Graham’s life as a dancer (and as a woman) was connected to an older man (her pianist and “co-conspirator” in dance concepts) and, in addition, the lead dancer of her company, a much younger man who was her lover and dance partner. What’s more, Ms. Graham was nominated for a Nobel peace price, an honor for, and recognition of, the astoundingly thoughtful nature of her art — something not every famous and skilled dancer could have achieved or received!
But the name Martha Graham also reminded me of the startling effect I experienced during my first observation of one of her productions. By then, I had already been an admirer of classical ballet because of its aesthetic beauty and discipline. But it was my first Graham production observation that opened before my eyes a new dimension in dance — the portrayal of the anguish, as well as passion, of our lives. Seeing a Graham dancer “act out” is seeing life itself, in all kinds of emotions, events, actions, and reactions. Modern dance and the Graham signature lies in that long, dark dress, body-hugging, such that it covers all, but still reveals all, in austerity as well as in a daring challenge. Her expressions become herself — a body with all of its wonderful facilities, whether concealed or exhibited. The body becomes the texture of emotions. I did not see and could not feel these messages in the ethereal nature of classical ballet.
While abandoning ballet’s etherealness, modern dance takes the nervous energy and bubbling effect of jazz dancing and transforms them into flowing grace, the type of grace that lands somewhere, instead of disappearing because it is above the air (as is the feeling conveyed in classical ballet). By landing, the message becomes condensed and fixed in our mind, rather than scattering and being lost. By transforming common gesture into a dance language, modern dance to me becomes the most versatile dance form which lends itself so naturally to the richness of self-expression.
Modern dance, to me, is the place where the American spirit of a melting pot will continue to be captured. Tap and jazz all have their own unique point of cultural isolation. Not everybody can relate to tap and jazz. Similarly, not every culture in the world has a dance form similar to tap or jazz. But every culture potentially can relate to modern dance. Everybody from every corner of the earth has either walked on bare feet, stooped, squatted, or done a swing! I believe it is through modern dance that eventually other types of ethnic dances (from Africa to Asia to Latin America to Eastern Europe to Asia Minor) will be incorporated into an American art form. African Americans (via the work of noted dancers such as Alvin Ailey) have already taken flight with modern dance to develop their own traditions and place in the dance world.
Modern dance, thus, to me means freedom and liberty. “I, the dancer/communicator, stoop down in the lower part of a swing, or bend and hold my stomach in a gesture of pain, or otherwise seek a return to my mother’s womb. I may seem awkward at first, but in my clumsiness I have rewritten the concept of beauty so I can express myself.”
It is, as I stated, a breakthrough, where traditions surrender to innovation: “I wore my slippers and points to master the techniques of grace, only to throw them away and bare myself in my return to what started me at birth — I learned movements first, then I searched for acquired grace by elevating myself, only to return to where I started in order to rewrite my story and my concept of aesthetics.”
The sense of freedom and liberty in modern dance is something I personally experienced. And I don’t mean a lack of discipline. Art is the free spirit of humans, but the pursuit of art means pure discipline. The best modern dancer, I believe, is one that has mastered both ballet and jazz. But I also believe modern dance will give creative room to the less experienced and the imperfect, because self-expression in today’s environment can take on so many forms. In this sense, as a lover of dance, yet an amateur performer, I have found my freedom and my liberation in modern dance as an art form. I will explain this by telling my personal story.
I was a child born in Vietnam, an environment not conducive to early dance training. I was sent to a nursery school and was first taught to dance by a jovial Catholic priest in his 60s, Father Thich. (Those Vietnamese living in Hue in the 1960s would have remembered Cha Thich as a humanitarian and a scholar!).
Of course, I could not have received much training from Cha Thich. Those days in Hue, Father Thich ran a nursery, and I was one of the children entrusted to him. I remember vividly the feeling of exhilaration as I danced around Father Thich, who was the “lead dancer” and the tallest of the class. After my “initiation” into dance at Father Thich’s nursery, I basically danced by myself, mostly Asiatic dances, which focused solely on group formations and the intricate movements of hands and feet.
One day, my father gave me a small painting of a ballerina he had purchased in London. I stared at it day in and day out and was mesmerized. In retrospect, I think the painting must have been based on a real-life production of Swan Lake. The dancer was tall, skinny, and ethereal. She became a dream.
Yet life rolled on and I did not take my first ballet lesson until I became a young adult in America, my body having already acquired all kinds of bad habits. Naturally I was despaired. (Not to mention the fact that during this period of my life — concurrently with my initiation to the world of ballet, I also met the man with whom I ultimately teamed up, 10 years later, to choreograph my first modern dance production, whereupon I brought into the performance certain aspects of the Vietnamese dance traditions as I viewed them to be). In a fleeting moment, I met this dancer on the artistic strip of shops and apartments where my ballet class met, as I was crowding into a narrow stairway coated with matted black paint, so typical of the artistic environments of urban America! Ten years later, we recognized each other in a different setting, after we had already conducted our lives in separate directions. It was only then that I remembered that fated meeting 10 years ago, when we were still much younger, how we had passed each other like strangers acknowledging our presence with nods and niceties, in a ballet class.
As my dance partner 10 years after our initial meeting, he became the extension of my efforts to “marry” modern dance with the Vietnamese culture of my roots. On stage, he enabled me to view him as the bridge to my home culture. His professional training and background in ballet allowed him to be so versatile he could do just about any dance movement, anywhere in the world. In dancing with him, I formed my illusion: I was dancing with my own culture, seeing myself in him, amidst the struggle between law and art, East and West.
Yet, in real life, he was a fellow artist who impressed me, not only with the blue of his eyes, but also the truth of his lies! As artists forced to live a non-artistic existence, we both somehow acquired the craft of masterminding detachment and manipulation. To shelter our creativity from the meat-market of life, we became detached, and we also learned to hide and maneuver our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so adroitly. Only on stage did we have that fleeting moment of being true to ourselves. In life, the man does not care anything about my culture, let alone becoming the bridge for me to touch that culture with all my heart. Yet, he was willing to misrepresent and pretend just to get me to believe in him for other earthly reasons. I love the artist on stage, but the artist is not the man in life, so when the stage light is out, I have to reject my love from the start! To view him as the manifestation of my culture on stage, I am indeed loving an illusion of life.
Because of this coincidence concerning the paradox between stage and life as demonstrated in my relationship with my codancer, my despair and love for ballet as an art form, therefore, has been associated with the depression caused by the paradoxical nature of my love for the stage, contrasted against the cynicism that life has caused me. After all, stage is simply an illusion of a fleeting truth. Despite the notion of despair, nonetheless, somehow in my heart I have kept loving the stage with every fiber of my body and soul, knowing poignantly that perhaps all tragedies in life begin with the blessings (and the curse) of the in-born sensitivity that transforms the artist into a communicator.
With such sensitivity, I knew I had to somehow use the stage to express myself, whether or not my stage work ultimately led to a career. In the process, I was frustrated as to how I could put my sensitivity into into dance. Ballet with all of the strenuous applications of which I was incapable became a restriction rather than liberation. (Ballet captures the type of human experience that results from the aesthetic yearning of a golden age that characterizes the ancient imperial court — the art form of the elites and the royals. We carry that glorious past onto the future, so the art of ballet remains to this day timeless, having evolved into the foundation of dance movements and grace for the Western hemisphere. Ballet thus has become ageless. But ballet choreography must also be updated or transformed, because the golden era of the royal court is over. It is modern dance that makes the leap from ballet and gives the final contemporary touch to dance as an art form.
After my exposure to Martha Graham (as a spectator), a professional modern dancer (a beautiful Asian woman trained in New York City) gave me a crash class in modern dance. I was still frustrated, but was beginning to see a light in my dark tunnel. I sensed that my freedom and my liberation could be found in this art form, so far as dance was concerned.
My dance instructor in Houston, Debra Quainam, an older woman in her 50s with a Master in Fine Arts, was the first modern dancer who patiently broke down the techniques, piece by piece, to help me intellectually understand modern dance movements and how to achieve them. Nobody else in a commercial class has done this for me, although they are often kind enough to “do it with me.” My dance instructor worked with us, the imperfect as well as the naturally gifted, within the constraint of the diversity of our body types, dexterity levels, intellectual absorption abilities, and attention spans. I learned this breakdown of techniques, not in LA, not in NYC, certainly not in my original exotic Asia of childhood, but right in the diverse urban environment of the Oil Capital Houston, where I learned and relearned the elementary techniques of dance with young blacks and Hispanics. Ms. Quainam drilled into us the sense of urgency and the professionalism in taking care of our bodies and in striving a little harder each day — the high sense of discipline that could only be found in the highly competitive real world of highly devoted dancers. She did this without making us conscious of our imperfection.
So in silently absorbing and behaving, each time the class met, I learned and relearned the unlimited nature of my passion, vis a vis the limit of my body — perhaps there is only so much I can achieve as a dancer. Perhaps I will never have the luxury of constant practice to get better. Perhaps I can never work against the natural process of adulthood, and what aging can do to my body no matter how hard I try to prevent it. So, to substitute, I turn to the magic of ideas and words — the natural progression of my intellect, the ultimate absorption of what I see and feel, one facility that will not be taken away from me in the process of growing up or getting old. But the understanding that this is simply a substitute can make me shed a tear.
In the course of life, finally, when my body failed me, I opted to become a writer instead, a dancer with words
In the final cognitive step of my intellectual journey, I know I can dance, perhaps not through my body, but with words. But even so, what can I do with this sensitivity and the ability to communicate, even with words as substitute? In the end, I sadly realize perhaps there is no real freedom or liberation. Passion imprisoned by the necessities of life is a slow form of death.
This thought stayed with me one Saturday morning, as I exited the Heinen Theater downtown after our inexperienced, novice bodies had been through shivering, having “conquered” the cold temperature of the theater to finish the piece Ms. Quainam had created for us (one in which she daringly “married” our earthy “swings” with the ethereal melody of Pachebel Canon in D — a traditional piece typically used for classical ballet. This “marriage” between baroque-styled classical music and modern dance was highly sophisticated, and perhaps the novice dancers of Houston that day were not experienced enough to make the concept sparkle, as it should and could!).
Looking back at the Heine theater, I breathed a breath of relief — thank God I had not fallen for loss of balance, blanked out, or disgraced my teacher some other way, including not only Ms. Quainaim but also Cha Thich, the old priest who taught me to dance in Vietnam, and all of those unnamed Vietnamese women, especially my two childhood friends from the Trung Vuong secondary school in Vietnam — two striking and highly exceptional women: Hoang Luong Ngoc and Do Nhu Hien — who, together with me, learned to move our hands and feet the Asian way many, many years ago, in the courtyards of our Vietnamese school.
I decided then I would write this essay, without an ounce of research, as a personal tribute to my past, my love, to the diverse environment of Houston and America, to Father Thich and all of my dance partners and instructors who have “done it with me,” and who have broken down the techniques, always with the sense of discipline and patience that their dance pupils don’t appreciate enough. In modern dance as an art form, we have found our solace – from the naturally gifted to those of us who are not lucky enough to start early and fully develop ourselves physically in order to continue on with the pursuit of dreams. And for those of us who are late-comers to dance, we learn to recognize the intimate and inseparable connection between our body and our intellect.
That connection, the heart plus the mind in one unit, the power of thoughts wrapped with the power of expression in one body, in my opinion, is the essence of Art. Of Creativity. And of Modern Dance.
Last, but never least, it was only very recently that I discovered the following: the icon American dancer Martha Graham, in her middle-age, looked remarkably like my maternal grandmother, whom I lost with the fall of Saigon.
Uyen Nicole Duong