interviews

A questioning intelligence - Londondance.com, January 2015
by Donald Hutera

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?”

 

Featured choreographer for December 2012 - Dance UK
by Alice Firth

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 - IdeasTap, October 2012
by Lucy Clarke

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 - Themuse.sg, February 2012
by LEE Mun Wai

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 between Dam Van Huynh and Time Out Magazine, July 2009
by Lyndsey Winship

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.