Đẹp – DanceLive Festival
by Talia Regan
Choreographer Dam Van Huynh professes to explore the ephemerality of the human condition, bound between the two certainties of birth and death, in his piece Đẹp. Named for the Vietnamese word for ‘beautiful’, the title seems a curious choice, as the choreographic vocabulary tends less towards the aesthetic and more towards the visceral. Visceral too is the experience as a spectator; this is a piece with magnetic draw, best appreciated with uncritical engagement that its flaws might not diminish the entrancement.
I was apprehensive of the dancers’ nudity, not for prudishness but for weariness of gimmick; in the opening moments of the work, my fears were not assuaged. The audience sat bathed in harsh light as one by one the dancers made their way to the front of the stage. Several minutes of protracted silence ensued as the dancers, at varying levels of ease with themselves, stared out into the audience. Though the choreographer had sought to strip his dancers bare, this moment instead seemed entirely affected. It struck me that stillness and silence do not occur in living nature and I wished for respite in the form of a breath or the gurgle of a stomach – anything which might be deemed ‘bodily’.
Relief came when the silence was broken by the slapping of feet on the floor as the dancers moved about the space, and again when the house lights were dimmed, at which point the dancers began an exchange of weight that produced arrestingly emotive shapes. One dancer, borne into the air, drooped from his perch like Christ at the Deposition. The nudity had little bearing on the overall effect but still felt perfectly natural to it. What did, on occasion, feel like a gimmick was the concerted aversion to line in favour of the artificially pedestrian; a dancer’s execution of what looked to be a forcibly sickled arabesque grated on the senses. The truly pedestrian moments – dancers sprinting about the stage, the effortful heaving of exhausted bodies – were hypnotic and visually stunning, as was much of the unison work. The exaggerated breaths which served as cues in the absence of countable music punctuated the piece beautifully and provided some cohesion to an occasionally circuitous work. The dancers convincingly captured the freneticism of a body in the throes of both agony and bliss, though the sound effects accompanying the latter felt superfluous. This was especially so during a bewildering display of floor-humping during which the dancers seemed to sneeze in feigned pleasure.
The moments in which they explored their bodies, sometimes with satisfaction and sometimes agitation, felt earnest, but my experience was soured by an over-zealous display of self-abuse from one of the female dancers. As I watched her beating her breast, I considered the implications of a male choreographer demanding this of a woman in his employ. I also wondered why, in a piece which clearly sought to present the nude form in all its animal contortions, beautiful by the very nature of its ugliness, the women alone were completely shaven.
The score, composed around field recordings from Van Huynh’s native Vietnam by Martyna Poznańska, was unobtrusive; the inclusion of industrial sounds towards the end contributed to a sense of the perfect futility of a being persistently chugging along, caught between the incentive to live and the foreknowledge of its own death. The lighting was generally good though sometimes disjointed – a strobe effect at the work’s climax veered dizzyingly close to total sensory overload. Overall, Đẹp is an extremely effective piece of art, only sometimes undercut by a gratuitous predilection for the odd and the off-kilter, but nonetheless riveting from start to end.