Feature: A questioning intelligence: Dam Van Huynh

Thursday 22 January 2015 by Donald Hutera

Dam Van Huynh Photo: Thuan Lam Hieu

There’s a school of thought that says choreographers aren’t born but (self-) made. That may well be true of Dam Van Huynh. Originally from Southern Vietnam, but raised and educated in the United States, this British-based dance-maker claims to have had no particular urge to pursue such a career in this branch of the arts. “I thought my calling was to be a doctor,” he says, “or so my mum had hoped. But one chance encounter with a dance class when I was 14 threw that notion right out of the window.”

Getting hooked on dance in one’s youth is hardly uncommon (as, I suspect, is the links between medicine/healing and the arts.) Even so, Van Huynh didn’t have his sights set on choreography. As he once remarked, “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.” You could say that he’s been asking himself questions – and refining the nature of the questions themselves – ever since.

His latest work Gesundheit! (at Rich Mix, 30 January, with single April dates in Liverpool and Aberystwyth) is an intimate gathering of three individuals – Van Huynh, a finely fluid mover; strapping fellow dancer Dom Czapski; and the equally striking writer/vocalist Elaine Mitchener. Stepping into a bare yet charged space, stripping off conventions and the veneer of social reserve, the performers invite the audience to join them for a 360 degree experience of raw yet elegant motion, subtly sizzling sound (from composer Jamie Hamilton, who’s very much a part of the creative ‘conversation’) and pulse-quickening spoken word. Having seen the piece in a studio run-through, I can vouch for both its collaborative integrity and the high level of engagement it engenders in viewers – this viewer, anyway. Marked by a kind of jazzy honesty via which the performers seem to sniff out each other’s internal rhythms, Gesundheit! occurs in a place of potentially intense sensations where cultural and artistic identities intertwine and human relationships are revealed, unravelled and re-imagined. Again, based on that unadorned studio viewing, I like Gesundheit! a lot and can only wager that anyone in tune with its own sense of discovery will emerge from it in a similar state.

According to Van Huynh this new piece marks an organic shift in his artistic methods. “Its development has very much been centered round true collaboration. In the past I’ve combined many elements to form new ideas, but as much as I’d like to call them collaborations there always lingered an I-centric mantra in which my needs and desires dictated the majority of a given piece’s direction.” The challenge of Gesundheit! appears to have been how to negotiate creatively with such a small but eclectic, even unlikely group of people whose work practices were extremely varied. ‘It forced us to really listen to one another to find creative solutions,’ says Van Huynh, ‘giving weight and value to all the elements involved in the piece.”

Both innately modest and yet endowed with an underlying confidence, whether he’s in the studio or onstage Van Huynh exudes the same focused, enquiring intelligence that imbues his work. “I wouldn’t dare to assume that making dance is my true calling,” he says, continuing an earlier theme. “I do know that making dance gives me the same sense of curiosity and challenge that my dance development has given me in the past. I find this thrilling and refreshing.”

Some facts: Van Huynh attended and graduated from Boston Conservatory of Music and Dance with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and in his later professional dance career worked with such companies and choreographers as Nevada Ballet, Merce Cunningham (as a member of the master’s apprentice-like strand RUG), Portugal’s Companhia de Dança Contemporânea – CeDeCe, Richard Alston and Phoenix Dance Theatre. He founded his eponymous company in 2008, the same year his entry for the Bloomberg-sponsored Place Prize received the audience choice for ten consecutive nights. Setting a record, Collision was the first work to have achieved such a result in the Prize’s history.

There has, of course, been more work since including commissions from INTOTO Dance, LC3 – The Place, Dance United (where Van Huynh was an associate artist 2012-14), the British/Asian dance exchange ArtsCross, HKAPA (Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, where he enjoyed a two-year residency) and Unlock Dancing Plaza (also Hong Kong), Adugna Dance Company/Gemini Foundation (Ethiopia) and CEPRODAC – National Dance Company of Mexico and Fóramen M. Ballet (also Mexico). Currently supported by Step Out Arts, an entity that promotes the visibility and sustainability of British East Asian dance artists, more recently he created choreography for Nuno Silva’s touring production A Darker Shade of Fado.

Van Huynh, age 35, is smart enough to build upon any and every artistic opportunity that arises, particularly as a means of developing a methodology based on the division of the torso that’s become the core of his choreographic research. (For the record, he refers to this division as ‘chambers’ that have the potential to shift space both inside and outside the body.) His extended Hong Kong visit was especially mind-expanding. “It was eye-opening on a personal and professional level,” he confirms, adding that the ways in which Asian dancers use energy flow definitely impacted upon his own process. The relationship with Dance United was likewise fruitful. Although the central organisation is now closed, for Van Huynh its legacy remains intact. “DU means a lot to me as it’s the same type of organisation that got me dancing when I was growing up in Los Angeles, so it was a natural progression for me to give back to the community. Through Dance United I collaborated with Destino Dance in Ethiopia, worked in the area of dance and mental health and also choreographed on non-traditionally trained artists who influenced me through their unexpectedly raw, edgy and uninhibited approach to movement.”

It was because of Dance United that Van Huynh was able to present an eight-minute precursor to Gesundheit! to Kate Middleton (not to mention her accompanying spouse), an experience said to be the Duchess of Cambridge’s first taste of contemporary dance. “It must tickle anyone that their work will be presented in front of a member of the Royal family,” Van Huynh says in diplomatically amused retrospect. “Of course it was all done in total confidentiality so I wasn’t even able to relish the experience openly until after the fact. If dance is a language, then I’m delighted to know I may’ve been the first person to make contact with the Duchess through contemporary movement. Perhaps I’ve been a tiny contributor towards a greater curiosity for her to seek out more.”

As for his association with Step Out Arts, as an international and multi-cultural artist Van Huynh recognises that ‘there’s something very enriching about having role models which a young person of similar cultural heritage can look up to and aspire towards.’

Arts Council England has supported the development of Gesundheit! It’s not the first time that Van Huynh’s benefited from public subsidy. An Artists International Development Fund grant provided him with the chance for a period of movement/sound research with Arabesque Dance Company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “Growing up within what has mostly been for me culturally a Western-centric society, my Vietnamese origin has always been sleeping gently in the background. Spending time there, whilst using the tool of creativity as a means to explore, gave me a sense of wholeness. I hope this awakening will ultimately help keep my future work honest and true to my entire being.”

That ‘truth’ seems to be paying off. In late 2014 Van Huynh was ‘pleasantly surprised’ to win first prize at the WarsawZAWIROWANIAdance International Choreography Competition for his work Dep ( Vietnamese for ‘beautiful’) – plus special distinction from the Association of Polish Artists. As a result he was invited to perform the solo at the next festival in June 2015 and at MASDANZA, the International Contemporary Dance Festival of the Canary Islands in October 2015. Infused with Vietnamese funeral chants, and exploring traditional, Buddhist ideas of ancestor worship, the piece ‘questions cultures and their relation with birth, death and rebirth. I was humbled by the whole experience in Poland, and grateful for the appreciation of a work that is so personal to me.’

Asked to cite what he perceives as some of the biggest stumbling blocks to the artistic development of those starting out in dance in the UK, Van Huynh’s replies are succinctly pointed. “The lack of time to truly develop a strong-rooted sense of creativity is a great hurdle. The current, production-oriented system doesn’t leave enough space for experimentation and failure. It’s also become increasingly hard to connect with partners swamped with requests. Many venues around the UK have had drastic funding cuts, meaning artists – emerging or not – have less opportunities to show their work.”

As to whether or not he himself is in dance for ‘the long haul,’ Van Huynh waxes philosophical. “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. But making dance gives me a sense of clarity which I enjoy. That’s not to say I’m all the time clear about what it is that I’m making. It’s more to do with my ability to hack away slowly at certain thoughts, ideas and my sense of self and surroundings. For every work I am, if I’m lucky, able to answer a tiny question either for or about myself and my environment. And this feels good, so why stop now?”

Catch Dam Van Huynh Company in Gesundheit! at Rich Mix on 30 January

Main photo: Thuan Lam Hieu

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites. Find him on Twitter @DonaldHutera

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