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Re:birth: Choreographer Dam Van Huynh speaks about finding hope in difficult times

Image credit: Van Huynh Company, Re:birth, photographed by Brett Lockwood


Dam Van Huynh is a choreographer who has been making political dance works for the past 15 years. He draws upon dance and his multidisciplinary practice to create a hopeful activism that intends to empower people. During his tour of his current work Re:birth, we caught up with him to find out more.


Run Riot: You’re currently touring your work Re:birth, can you tell us a bit about it?


Dam Van Huynh: Re:birth is a personal work developed through a multidisciplinary practice. It has its roots in contemporary dance whilst drawing upon texts from poets & activists, voice, sound, and lighting. I use this multidisciplinary approach in the work to help me retrace my experience of rediscovery as a child refugee from the Vietnam war, to explore universal themes of displacement. It is a heightened sensory experience that intends to invoke feelings experienced by displaced people and to give the audience space to reflect on broader societal issues.


Although the work is not overtly about immigration, as part of the making process, I was looking at ways to reframe the concept of a refugee as a brutalised victim asking us instead to acknowledge the richness of experience and find a universal humanity. Devised along with the company artists, Re:birth is a performance unravelling a recollection of visual impressions and sensations, a memory book whose pictures and stories long forgotten begin to resurface, a distortion between memories and dreams.


Because I was a young child of no more than 6 years old when I experienced being a refugee, I tried to include these early memories into the making process. As a child refugee growing in a constant state of dizzying confusion of non-belonging and shame, the everyday experience felt as if I were put through a tumble dryer and a continual blurry upside-down sensation. In an attempt at capturing this essence within the creative process, I coloured the work with a sense of disorientating brush, the collages of images, sounds and visual distortion reflecting how the world felt growing up as a displaced person. 


Run Riot: As you’ve mentioned, Re:birth is a work inspired by your personal journey but it is also about universal themes of displacement can you tell us more about that?


Dam Van Huynh: Although I utilise my own personal experiences and journey as a central subject of investigation, these challenges are not unique to me; they are shared by many who have navigated similar paths. The work is part of a larger ongoing research that exemplifies a constant theme within my current artistic practice which deals with challenging stereotypes and empowering the voices of those who are not able to speak for themselves.


I describe the work as moving from a state of disorientation into a state of consciousness. This is a descriptive painting of feelings and sensations that parallels the journey of the piece. The clarity and orientation state of the work for me comes from the understanding that fundamentally, it is an empowering piece and a call for minority groups to raise their voices as a form of unity so that we continue to address these important conversations within our society and challenge stereotypes. 


The universality lies in the fact that these struggles are not limited to any specific individual or community. They transcend borders and cultures, affecting people from different walks of life who witness displacement first hand due to political and social circumstances. Through Re:birth, I hope to inspire and support those currently facing similar challenges, reminding them of community and that they are not alone.


Run Riot: Talking about community, you have many people collaborating with you on this project, can you explain a little more about their roles and why collaboration is so important to your work?


Dam Van Huynh: The work Re:birth encompasses a group of dance artists from various backgrounds, ages, genders who embody the spectrum of personal journeys as a comment on the notion of otherness and a depiction of the universal themes of shared stories. Each artist within the performance space may reflect an audience member, taking them through the experience and engaging with a very human act of empathy and understanding. 


I invited long term collaborator British Afro-Caribbean vocalist, movement artist and composer Elaine Mitchener MBE to perform alongside the dance artists. She and I have been developing a shared practice for over 14 years, both bringing our own stories of being “other” within society and as individual artists attempting at reconciling the impact of our journey being first generation of immigrant families. I posed a series of comments and questions both physical and metaphorical pertaining to her cultural history to discover synergy between our creative practices within the context of the work. We explored how society impacts upon her as a black female British artist, her personal sense of discovery and the ideas that drive her within the performing space. Collaborating with Elaine on this project continues to exemplify our aim to bring a sense of urgency to raise our voices on important social issues. Together we are stronger. 


The dance, movement, collage of texts respond to a sound environment composition by Martyna Poznanska and a field of light by Patricia Roldán Polo to create a psychedelic and hypnotising environment. During my creative process, the performers often tend to discover the music at the very end. The music is created in parallel, responding to the movement and informed by discussions with the composer. Martyna is a specialist in found sounds and interdisciplinary art works with different media across disciplines, building connections between the intangible medium of sound and solid matter. For Re:birth, she was able to further extend the sensation of disorientation through mixing captured material she recorded during previous travels in Asia. During this research, I asked her to compose a sound environment that contains feelings of fading memories and reminiscence of possible thoughts as a way to depict how I recollect my experience as a child.


Emma Lyth’s sensitive approach to the costumes was inspired by shades of colours that washes across the body like hallucinatory patterns to enhance the visual feeling of fragmented ideas and emotions. Patricia’s lighting design also responded to this concept of clarity versus disorientation, using a wide array of colours to create an environment that is almost surreal, as in a trance like state.


As an artist, I describe my work as an ongoing attempt to synthesise the most dynamic and revolutionary facets of the dual aspects of my Vietnamese heritage and Western influences harmoniously informing a personal and creative expression. The eclectic heritage and creative backgrounds of these collaborators allow a collective approach towards an artistic vision, ensuring relevance of the piece and allowing me to ask pertinent questions about who I am as a dance maker and how I wish to engage with audiences encountering my work. 


Run Riot: It is interesting that you speak about drawing people together to challenge you as a maker and ensure the relevance of the work, why was it important for you to continue with this project in the current context?


Dam Van Huynh: I sat at dinner with my mum, and she began talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and she asked me, “Have you seen the bombings and the people fleeing in Ukraine?”, she paused and began speaking about the time before I was born when she spent weeks living in a burrow in the ground, hiding with my young siblings as a result of the war. She is 80 years old now and it has been fifty years since these events known as some of the most brutal acts of warfare and it feels as if on loop our global society has learnt very little from previous acts.


Through the years growing up, my mum seldomly spoke about her experiences, as if she was numb and had no words left, no path to formulate her voice. The work embraces these inspiring words by Audre Lorde - American poet and civil rights activist - in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. Through my work and particularly from this project, I hope to create an act of healing by putting in context the urgency to formulate collective voices so that other members from minority groups like my mum, myself and others who have gone through similar journeys can feel a sense of unity, be able to speak about their experiences and face them to become visible within society. Given the politically charged theme of the piece, my focus is to conjure a form of social consciousness, an urgency of dialogue, a space for continual reflection and care for each other. Although I am realistic that political global conflicts press on, as an artist, the need for this project to continue is my attempt at presenting a hopeful transformation for displaced people to find community and be reborn. 


Run Riot: You spoke earlier about questioning who you are as a dance maker and the role of artists in political action. The landscape of the dance industry has changed a lot in the past few years, how do you see this shift and what advice would you give dance artists for creating sustainable careers?


Dam Van Huynh: As a dance maker, I have been fortunate to be supported by Arts Council England funding for the past 11 years, which has tremendously given me the opportunity to further explore and develop my work. However, as the industry continues to shift with less funding and a post covid landscape, where venues and programmers are more risk-adverse towards contemporary/experimental works, I am from the position that artists are more needed now than at any other point in our times. Artists are builders, makers, and creative problem solvers by nature.


Taking an optimistic viewpoint, I look back at my 25 plus years within the creative industry as dancer, maker, teacher, and former head of a contemporary dance department at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, I can see that each generation will have their challenges, their collective mountains that need to be overcome. For me, the arts can never be supressed. Close the space in one area and it will find another path to rear its presence. Perhaps that’s what I love the most about the artform of dance and the arts as a whole.


For example, in the early years of my company, I struggled like many makers to find a creative base from which I can develop my skills and make my work. With this challenge I approached a community space in Hackney. I worked with the community to find a unique model whereby the organisation can support my company and myself through their space and, in return, the company and I can deliver infrastructural support, facilitate bringing the arts to the community as a symbiotic relationship, allowing both entities to sustain. As a result, my company - Van Huynh Company - and I have a continuing partnership with Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (VLC) – known as VLC Centre (since its inception in 1985, a vital meeting point for refugees from Southeast Asia). This partnership led to the relaunch in 2016 of the community centre under the name of Centre 151, an independent charity based in the heart of Hackney, promoting culture, arts and community inclusion. 


I believe resilience and grit are the key to sustainability. I have seen enough through my career to know that we are in uncharted territories as a creative industry, nationally and globally. My best advice to young artists (including advice for myself, who too also feel the large impact of the lack of funding and a post covid world) is to be flexible and shift with the changing times. I think it isn’t an option anymore to do things as they have been done in the past. Previous practices may have worked and were reflective of their times but going forward we must find other avenues. I think the most important lesson I have learnt through the years is the notion of narrative and re-narrative. To be able to find and narrate my own path and story rather than let others define me, has helped me to liberate my creative thinking, giving me a wider scope of approaches towards making work that interests me, therefore, enabling me to diversify my creative practice across media and genres. This mind set has allowed me to shift in multiple directions. By this narrative I am able to dream, inspire and bend various genres of expression towards one another in order to inch ever closer to a deeply personal language. 


Run Riot: And just to finish, is there anything else you want us to know?


Dam Van Huynh: The creative process of Re:birth started in 2018 and the piece was originally meant to premiere in 2020. However, the pandemic interrupted this flow. The premiere was then rescheduled for Spring 2021 but had to be cancelled once again with many venues not yet ready to welcome back audiences. The piece eventually premiered in 2022 at The House – University of Plymouth. Luckily, many of the original cast members are still with the company today and 5 years after starting this process, having overcome together those very tough years of the pandemic and finally being able to present the work in London, this in itself, feels like a form of rebirth!


Van Huynh Company presents


The Place

17 Dukes Road, Euston, London WC1H 9PY

Info and tickets:

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