The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Going places
Matthew Jones and Paul Zetter describe the work undertaken by the David Glass Ensemble over the past seven years to support a community dance initiative in Vietnam
It was in 1997 that the David Glass Ensemble first worked in Vietnam. While there have been many other countries between then and now that we have worked in - eighteen, many of them several times - it is to Vietnam and also to Cambodia that we constantly return. In both these countries we have found a combination of welcome, understanding of why we are there and a particular relevance of our work.

It has taken this time - seven years in the case of Vietnam - for us to come to a point where we can genuinely say we have a long-term relationship with a place, a community of people and organisations. Where we feel we can answer the justifiable questions: why would a London-based physical theatre company want to work in Vietnam? What exactly are the benefits David Glass Ensemble can bring? Do you really have anything new to say about culture or development? Aren't you just a bunch of orientalist opportunists?

The only credible answer to these questions is in the work - it doesn't carry a lot of weight in developing countries to answer by asserting, Blair-like: 'we're nice people, honestly, trust us...' So we have kept going back, kept working, kept investing the necessary resources from the company into the work, and, we hope, kept doing work of value.

The manifestation of this has been a blossoming of relationships and projects, a network of friends and partners, a sense of having another home, a feeling of shared warmth in each other's presence. For the company it has meant we now describe ourselves as an arts organisation rather than a theatre company, it means we have a Project Director, Paul Zetter (who writes below), based permanently in Vietnam and have a second organisation and office, the Centre for Creative Development, in Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Like many organisations we share a common belief in the transformative power of creativity, this underpins all the work we try to do. We have tried hard and we hope succeeded in attempting to define the processes that underlie creative practice and articulate a methodology. With our Cambodian partners, VBNK, we published a workbook, 'Creativity in Development' written by David based on his training experiences with VBNK over the last four years. Simply, we see creative processes as falling into five distinct phases - ones that most practitioners would recognise but often the qualities of each phase become blurred one into another. As we articulate them, the phases of the Ensemble's methodology are:

  • Preparation
  • Origination
  • Organisation
  • Manifestation
  • Reflection and renewal.

We have used this methodology now for the last four years and have found that it has become key to all of our work which has now encompassed working with more than 7,000 artists, young people and development practitioners in over 70 different projects in four continents. More than we had anticipated, however, we have been transformed as an organisation as each encounter has thrown up more possibilities for exploring more diverse relationships through creative interactions. It probably is not surprising but nevertheless, for a performing arts company working in the highly structured, competitive and sometimes parochial arts in the UK we are finding that in supporting and facilitating others' work this only strengthens our own creativity.

One of the eight projects that we are currently working on in Vietnam is called Going Places with the Togtherhigher dance troupe. Paul Zetter's case study below shows we feel we have become partners in a project where the direction and decision-making are entirely in the hands of our Vietnamese colleagues but we can share in supporting and creatively collaborating.

Matthew Jones
Producer, David Glass Ensemble

A new contemporary dance company of hearing and hearing impaired dancers in Vietnam are turning more than just heads. A group of young dancers, the majority with severe hearing impairments, are making news in Vietnam. Not only is contemporary dance a relatively new phenomenon there but integrated dance companies are unheard of, until now.

The Togetherhigher dance troupe was formed by dancer/choreographer Le Vu Long (Long means 'dragon') and his wife Luu Thu Lan (Lan means 'orchid') after Long was inspired by seeing Candoco perform at a British dance showcase in Zagreb in 2001. With start up funds from the British Council in Vietnam of just $500 and a lot of determination and energy, Long and Lan then sought out volunteers from the local deaf schools and clubs in Hanoi. Soon they had found around 12 volunteers between 18 and 30 and set to work in teaching the basics of contemporary dance and expression using a technique that Long adapted especially for use with hearing impaired people. In fact Long and Lan had to learn sign language (they use an adaptation of ASL in Vietnam) in record time! Before long they began working on their first piece, Noi Den - (Going places) choreographed by Long.

Many of the dancers work in menial daytime employment making handicrafts or sewing in tailors' shops in badly lit and poorly ventilated conditions. The opportunity to work in dance is not something they take lightly or for granted - they are reminded of their roots everyday there is no rehearsal or performance. Their aptitude for dance is breath taking and they integrate stylized sign language frequently into their movements. Long, who studied dance at Vietnam's National Dance School and then in France with the Coline Dance Company, is one of a handful of Vietnamese contemporary dance choreographers and works closely with Lan, who studied at the Kiev National Ballet from 1985-1993. This dedicated husband and wife team have managed to forge an integrated contemporary dance troupe which is turning heads in Vietnam and beyond. Interestingly, Ea Sola, the Vietnamese choreographer based in France and friend of Long, has also done pieces integrating non-professional dancers and she is now making her reputation in Europe.

After the runaway success and high press coverage of Noi Den, which explored deafness in a hearing world with sequences that showed stigma, silence and alienation, at the Hanoi Opera House, the David Glass Ensemble commissioned a new piece. Mat Bao (Eye of the Storm) was then conceived with Long moving away from disability integration themes and instead choosing man's relationship with the elements with the eye of the storm as a metaphor for the search for beauty and peace in a chaotic world. With a romping latin music soundtrack, and tranquil set pieces to Satie-esque piano compositions written by myself in the middle movement, Eye of the storm impressed audiences with its complex and multi layered choreography and haunting staging - the backdrop of homemade Vietnamese Do (pronounced 'Zor') paper was splashed with buckets of coloured dye in real time giving the heart rending impression of a haemorrhaging, decaying sky.

But beyond music and innovative staging, the spirit of Togetherhigher lies in the hearts of the dancers who have taken to contemporary dance as if born to it. Their dedication and willingness to work hard and take risks sets an example for any dancer and soon some of the professional dancers attached to the government funded Vietnamese National Opera and Ballet started poking their heads around the door at Togetherhigher rehearsals to see just what was so special about them. Long, forever juggling choreography with the politics of dance has a wise head and invitations to the professional dancers to join the troupe in Mat Bao set the way for the future and smoothed any rippling waters there might have been between professionals and amateurs non-professionals.

Their next project took them out into the community running participative dance workshops in schools and colleges in and around Hanoi, including the Xa Dan deaf school, the Nguyen Dinh Chieu blind school, the Army Performing Arts College and the Foreign Trade University. Students were invited onto the stage to do dance exercises such as chorusing and mirroring and were completed transported by the sensuality of dancing with the 'professionals' on stage. The dancers then spelt their names in movement and followed this with sign language spelling quizzes where the audience had to guess their names and ages. But the climax came at the blind school when sight visually impaired participants became transported by the physically of the dance and contact and started to creatively explore the 360 degrees of space around them, freed by movement and with the trust of touch. It was a truly moving occasion and part of the journey Togetherhigher are making as beacons of and innovators in community dance in Vietnam where such a phrase until relatively recently simply did not exist.

With no formal training and now augmented by 5 professional dancers from the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet, Togetherhigher are a hybrid of extraordinary verve and quality given the circumstances in which they were conceived and now operate. Without any studio of their own, Long and Lan are in constant negotiation for rehearsal time and space and I am in constant fund raising mode to breathe financial support into the company and give the dancers some kind of salary when they are working. And efforts seem to be paying off - recently a batch of interesting proposals have won funding. The World Bank will fund a devised piece on the fight against HIV/AIDs as part of their Innovations Fund and the British Embassy in Hanoi is funding a five city national tour of community dance workshops and commissioning the Ensemble to make a documentary film of the process. The Ford Foundation recently funded Togetherhigher to perform at the 5th Bangkok Fringe Festival and in June they are performing their two pieces and running a dance workshop both funded by the British Council at the newly emerging International Arts festival in Hue in central Vietnam. Paul feels strongly that the key to sponsorship at the moment is in the arts in development sector hence the recent success with World Bank and British Embassy. The British Council are also strong supporters and have a new contemporary dance project with the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet and Fin Walker which started this year.

Long and Lan have dreams for Togetherhigher. One day they want it to be established as a formal entity so it will become easier to secure funding and sponsorship. They also want to perform abroad in France and the UK after been bitten by the overseas performance bug in Thailand last year. At its heart though they simply want it to be a company for young dancers who want to do different things with dance. But as with contemporary dance elsewhere in the world they face similar problems of lack of audience awareness, inconsistent sponsorship, and coping with the pressure to do commercially appealing productions. But given their progress so far something makes you feel that they will make it one day - you can see it in the way they move. They know that in the end living up to their name is how they will succeed.

Paul Zetter
Project Director, David Glass Ensemble

For more information about David Glass Ensemble see www.davidglassensemble.com

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Animated: Summer 2004