I started learning the đàn tranh when I was eight. I can see how my experience of being in the world is deeply rooted in a perspective seen with and through my instrument. My body has been socialized into behaviors typical of a traditional music performer, and in many ways, into behaviors very specific to performing on the đàn tranh. Importantly, this also immediately assumes that the performer is female. That was one of my body layers which I can identify most and feel most confident with. Now, when first Marie Fahlin asked me to do something with my instrument that I had never done before, and later, when she asked me to move without the instrument, I felt so clumsy, so disabled. To me, the instrument is an extension of my body, and I do feel disabled without it. In the first workshop, I experienced how situated my skills as a performer are in particular contexts and bound to particular tools, like my đàn tranh. I do believe that the difficulty I experienced in expressing myself through movement alone also may be understood through a reflexive analysis of my gender habitus.
When Marie Fahlin and I got together to start creating this piece we had already been working together for two years on several big productions—which often involved many more performers and artists—we now were entering the first project with just the two of us. Our previous shared experience constituted a platform of knowledge which most importantly entailed extensive work in which choreography would inform the making of new music, but also a further exploration of how the movement of performers can constitute a material for new choreographies. Also in this new piece, which we thought of as a solo for one Vietnamese musician, choreographed by Fahlin, the aim was to further develop these methods, but also to explore further, a gender perspective which had been prominent in several of the earlier productions.
We met in Feb 2014 at Weld studio in Stockholm, a huge concrete space, much bigger than any other venue we would work on in this production. Prior to this initial meeting, I had sent some images of women from Vietnam, some of them actual propaganda posters, and also, I had outlined the conceptual ideas behind my Ph.D. to Marie. However, she responded by saying that she would rather start out without any references to gender issues in Vietnam, and instead connect to other aspects of the collaborative work we had already done.
The empty dance studio at Weld felt very much like a blank slate when I brought my instrument in there. Fahlin initially asked me to “do something with your instrument which you have never done before”. That was the first challenge which I faced, perhaps as an attempt at achieving something which “we have not yet seen”. But for a performer who has been trained to play this instrument since childhood, it is even hard to think of something which goes outside of your embodied knowledge.
We keep experimenting along the same lines and, in addition to developing the idea of placing the đàn tranh in a “standing” position, we also explore ways in which the body of the instrument can visually “replace” my body. At first, we try to place the đàn tranh on two chairs and that I lie on the floor underneath it, and raise my arms to play it. On the second day, we came up with the idea of placing the instrument in a standing position on a table, which would then allow the instrument to cover my body if I were standing behind it. This image, which eventually was enforced by the idea of presenting the instrument in front of a black screen became the first scene of Vodou Vibrations. The audience could only see my hands, not my face, nor my body and hear the instrument, and sometimes my voice, speaking into the sound hole on the back of the instrument. The đàn tranh and I are merged; the đàn tranh is my body and my face. Or, one can describe it differently, the đàn tranh now has human hands and a human voice. The scene disconnects from all behaviors learned in đàn tranh playing. By placing the instrument in this position, the communicative gestures1 typical of traditional đàn tranh playing are altered. In traditional music, the đàn tranh is often presented as a symbol of softness, tenderness, and peace. In this scenario, from a distance, the viewer may only see two hands moving across the instrument, playing with dangerous tools and producing strange sounds. The prepared vodou-đàn tranh was like a new instrument, and the hand gestures I used were devised to be violent and threatening. For the preparations, I used a nail, a paper-cutting knife, two bolts, a long metal knitting needle and three plastic fasteners. We found these tools to be sonically and visually effective, but perhaps their most important function was to disconnect me from my encultured behaviours as a traditional music performer. Marie fixed a sequence of hand movement, and from that starting point, I worked with the sound of the prepared instrument, using the sequence of hand movements as a score to improvise on.
While, in my solo in Inside/Outside, the hands were partly disconnected from playing the instrument, and instead performed sound-producing gestures “in the air”, here, we developed a choreography of hand- and finger movements performed on the tile wall and on the wooden floor. Hence, the choreography was created very much with the particular features of this room, including the possibility of engaging with the sonic result of performing with the plectrums on these two surfaces, which would only make sense given the diminutive size of the room. The disconnection between the action of hands and fingers from my instrument was a fundamental idea. In contrast to the choreography in Inside/Outside, what we wanted to explore was hand- and finger movements that were also not related to đàn tranh playing. The attempt captured in this performance was eventually further developed into a video of my two hands, discussed next.
I talked about scale, how we experience different parts of our body as having different scales. So, for example, the video of the enormous hands could actually be seen as a parallel to, at least that is how I imagine it, how you relate to your own hands, being a musician where so much of what you produce is “in” your hands. I imagine that you must have a very different knowledge and attachment to your hands than to some other parts of yourself? And that these hands also are a symbolic threat, both to you in the sense that they contain your own history as a musician, everything you have ever done is within these two parts of the body, and also as the part of the body that is now experiencing other ways of being in the world. (Fahlin, personal communication, 2014)
The second choreography, which was presented in the Annex at the Inter Arts Center, was performed with me placed tight along the tile wall, with a projection of a bundle on the wall next to me, and the same physical object on the other side. This choreography was built on a play with balance and sought out awkward positions that would force me to struggle with my body. It may be worth noting that the upright version was followed by a performance of similar movements performed on the floor, face down. This part led to the faster crawling choreography mentioned above. The second choreography can also be understood as developed for the specific conditions in this space, with the slightly claustrophobic nature of the movements performed along the wall.
I believe that all musicians have a special relation to their hands. When you learn to master an instrument, your hands must be schooled into many particular movement patterns and behaviors and eventually, your hands constitute the central point of connection between the body and the instrument. In my conversations with Marie Fahlin, she reflected on the role of my hands, and related to a video that we created which focussed only on the movement of my two hands:
As a direct response to Marie’s questions, I spent a lot of time working differently with my hands, observing my own hands, my fingers and their movements, often performing without an instrument. In Vodou Vibrations, the inspiration for choreographic materials came less from my own understanding of my hands than from her impressions of my hands and of the finger plectrums, which she found transformed my hands to something reminiscent of animal claws. Hence it was the outsider’s gaze that defined their meaning. While it is essential to a musician learning to play the đàn tranh, that each component of the sound production is practiced in a manner which results in a gracious and beautiful performer. However, in Vodou Vibrations, we were looking for movement that was conceived outside of that cultural framework.
As part of the process, I imagined my hands as being a giant insect, aiming at a disconnection, not only from the traditional ways of performing, but also a disconnection which would allow me to see these hands as external objects, and not as the core representation of my identity as a đàn tranh player. In this process, we also aimed to find hand movements that were more violent and threatening, rather than graceful and light. We created a video by filming close-ups of finger movement and also recorded the sound of the finger plectrums scratching different surfaces, which became the material for the electronic music in this scene. The video was created to be two walls in a corner of the room, making specific use of the possibility of the hands entering on either side. These giant hands were then contrasted with the live performance of ritual everyday movements of a woman, serving the sole purpose of “beauty.”
During the course of the piece, I appeared in six different costumes, all in western style, except for one black traditional áo dài which I wore at the end of the piece. The costume had a function of disconnecting me from traditional Vietnamese culture. Since I shifted costume between most scenes, these moments were also choreographed and had an important function as transitions. Perhaps the costume was at most in focus in the transition between the scene where I try to draw an image of myself on the floor with a chalk and the scene with the raft discussed below. Here, I slowly pull off a pull-over in front of the projection of the video with the large bundle, creating a shadow play with deformed figurations of my body. A major part of the music was developed from a recording of an earlier composition of mine for six đàn tranh players. I recomposed this material in a tape part, that carries through much of the second half of the piece. It is introduced at the end of an improvised dan tranh solo, picking up from the sonorities of a high pitched arpeggio. When I leave my instrument, the tape part takes over as I perform a choreography in which I attempt to draw my silhouette with a chalk, while in movement.
Over almost a year, working at many different places to create Vodou Vibrations, there was only one single item that we always would bring to the space (apart from my instrument). Even if it often demanded to make them from new materials each time, we always made sure to have large bundles in the workshop. The image of women carrying heavy loads on their shoulders or on their backs is characteristic of everyday life in Vietnam, and are often depicted in films, in literature, in paintings, and on postcards. Marie Fahlin has been in Vietnam several times and she herself took a lot of photos of people carrying heavy loads in the streets: It could be a woman carrying her child; a huge bag of vegetables or goods; a huge bundle of dry branches or leaves (to make fire). The bundle could contain anything, it may represent a burden a Vietnamese woman might have to carry in her life. I was born after the war and into a theatre family, where I was brought up with traditional music and theatre. For me, to be a Vietnamese woman was less associated with the life of a peasant woman carrying goods, or selling vegetables in the street, than with the images of professional actors and musicians, and how they would be presented on stage and in the emerging TV shows on national programs. I did not myself experience the hard labour that characterizes the life of most Vietnamese women, still today. However, when we created Vodou Vibrations, we wished to create an embodied experience of this reality through each performance. I labored with carrying these heavy bundles for many months. I would carry the bundles in different positions, touching them, sensing the roughness of the ropes rubbing my shoulders, the raw fabric touching my back, and feeling the weight as I would move the bundles around the space. Effort and empathy are immediately connected in the theories of Rudolf von Laban who finds an effort to be a fundamental component in our perception of movement, and he claims that “every human movement is indissolubly linked with an effort, which is, indeed, its origin and inner aspect. Effort and its resulting action may be both unconscious and involuntary, but they are always present in any bodily movement; otherwise, they could not be perceived by others, or become effectual in the external surroundings of the moving person” (Laban 1971, p 21). This suggests that empathy does emerge from the perception of effort, which immediately suggests that not only could my performance of carrying these bundles constitute an expression of empathy with the Vietnamese women who struggle for their daily living by carrying such burdens, but also, the audience may also experience these instances similarly.
The discussions I had with Fahlin about Vodou Vibrations often addressed memories that were connected to my identity as a Vietnamese woman. One personal memory, which became the source for one of the scenes, was immediately related to my professional identity as a performer. In 1998 I received the first prize in the national đàn tranh competition in Hồ Chí Minh City. Winning the competition brought me into TV shows and I recorded my first solo CD. In these TV shows, my performance was always recorded in scenic outdoor settings with waterfalls, romantic parks and so on, never on a concert stage. Even in the department for traditional music, this tendency towards objectification of women can be observed: In 2001 the head of department decided to make a promotional DVD with traditional music, in it, they made me pose for a performance of a three minute piece, and the recording of it brought me to two different provinces with scenic landscapes and put me into a lot of suffering, for instance when performing in a stream balancing dangerously on a float.
I told this story to Fahlin already early on in our collaboration, and it was a reference to my history as a Vietnamese musician. It was not surprising that we decided to refer to it in Vodou Vibrations. In the scene that we created, I was sitting on a raft playing my instrument in front of a video projection depicting a woman carrying a big bundle in slow motion. We projected the video so that a shadow of me would be displayed on the screen, a visual layer to connect the choreography with the projection. In this scene, I attempted to expand the potential for my body movement and I used hand movements specific to Tuồng, called loan in order to obtain movement qualities that were not restricted by the “feminine existence” in Vietnamese traditional music. Loan is often used to manage two swords and I adapted these movement sets to performance with two bows. (In the video below I rehearsed this loan movement with Marie Fahlin, in an earlier production called Seven Stories.1 Here, I was in the role of princess Kim Loan, who used her long hair as a weapon, together with two strings in her hands, fighting her enemies.) In this scene in Vodou Vibrations, I also created a musical development by using the bows for more percussive playing. Towards the end, this music was transformed into long sustained sound. We imagined this final part as played while “floating under the water”, with the đàn tranh lifted by my hands and my feet while I was still bowing it. When reflecting on this scene, Fahlin made the following comment:
When we talked about the experience of sitting on the raft playing your instrument, you said it was a very scary situation, you had to be completely still in order not to tip the raft and fall into the water, knowing that you couldn’t swim at that time it must have been a horrible situation. In a way it seems to me that we’ve been creating this memory of a thing that never happened, you didn’t fall off, you didn’t drown, a memory of your thoughts embodied in the way your moving/playing, or being moved by the idea of the water that you never drowned in. (Fahlin, personal communication, 2014)
It is indeed true that I did not drown on that day. I was, however, badly bitten by leeches. Most of all, the symbolic violence directed toward me, as a female musician, was embedded in the social and institutional structure that underlies the production of that particular DVD as well as the concert and TV culture within which Vietnamese traditional music is presented today. If the final part of this scene can be seen as a representation of my fear of falling in the water, and how my fears have now turned to actually trying to stay afloat and still holding the instrument in the stream, then what is the role of my body in this choreography? Through this active resistance of my habitus, and the attempt to engage my body in a choreography which deforms the “feminine existence”, Vodou Vibrations becomes a critique of the traditional musical culture in my home country. The process of making Vodou Vibrations could perhaps constitute an example of how conceptually driven performance art and choreography, “can consciously engage in a physical training that seeks to resist oppressive ideologies concerning women and their body in performance, effectively challenging the terms of their own representation” (Albright, 1997, p. 94). If carried out with repeated and relentless energy, such actions might eventually “deform the archive” and result in new hybrid identities.
Laban, R. (1971). The mastery of movement. London: MacDonald & Evans.
Albright, A. C. (1997). Choreographing difference: The body and identity in
contemporary dance. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.