Monday, April 30, 2012

Black April: 37 years and counting

to remember is to miss

mat nuoc:
to lose water is to lose a country
to lose water is to lose a war
to lose water is to lose a future, a family, a memory, an exhale.

Today marks the 37th anniversary since the declared end of the Vietnam War.
Please take a second today to reflect on something for which you are grateful, something for which you are grieving, something for which you have hope, and something you wish to change.

Thanks for being a part of Project Agent Orange with me. It is comforting for me to remember that despite the difficulty that arises throughout the process, we are undergoing an act of creation when so much of the rest of society chooses to destruct. The journey is long, and often filled with trials, but maybe someday our actions will speak louder.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reflection on PAO and Home

[Editors note: The following was contributed by a PAO dancer who chose to remain anonymous due to the personal nature of the writing. The was written in response to a prompt asking dancers to reflect on their personal journeys from home and in search of home.]

what i feel when i think of the words journey, displacement, cleansing, and hope
a story, a life, a path.
frustration, aggravation, trapped, helpless.
clearing, washing, freeing, renewing.
faith, courage, relief.

what i feel in the PAO performance movement
moments of despair
overwhelming sense of constriction
drama. why so dramatic?

moments of faith

what war am i fighting in this piece?
sometimes with each other.
always with ourselves. our bodies, our minds.
sometimes with the earth.
sometimes with disease, a country, a storm.

what are we fighting for?

what am i embodying?
the fighter.
the victim.
the "winner" 
the "loser"

what is my light at the end of the tunnel?

what i feel like when i see, discuss, hear about victims of war & agent orange
indescribable feelings
desire to help
desire to fight for them
desire to bring peace to them and peace to those who brought this disoriented life upon them
unable to relate
unable to fight this battle for them
unable to bring peace to either parties
loving vibrations

personal story
I am about as unconfrontational as they come.
So what does it mean for me to embody war, to embrace the journey of war and destruction and displacement in my body?
A spirit guide recently told me that, in my past lives, I fought many wars. The final battle was possibly the battle of Antietam, if not something equally as gruesome, and I was a rebel from the south fighting for the north. Although we were victorious, at that time I declared that there would be no more fighting.
Yet in this life, said this spirit guide, I am incessantly searching for a cause. I am passionate about the cause. I am still searching for a battle.
So here I am, advocate of peace, scared of war and fighting on all levels; here I am representing how war is carried through the body in this PAO movement.
Funny how the world works.
How do I cope with this? Maybe I find myself in denial, unable and too frightened to relate at times. Maybe I tune outward and channel the energy of the victims in my body without having to physically feel their pain myself.
Or maybe it’s my time to confront war, to be horrified and disgusted and hopeful on a level I could never understand and to let it emanate through my body.
It’s ironic because I avoid the battles, but I still fight them. I am fighting in the performance itself, I am fighting for the cause, I am fighting for what I want for my future.
I am on a journey, sometimes I feel displaced, sometimes I am fighting and then cleansing; I am always hopeful. I suppose everyone embodies these qualities, and now it is my time to confront it for PAO.

PAO in the World Journal

PAO was recently featured in the World Journal for our performance at newsteps' Choreographers Series at Chen Dance Center! Check out the article below!

Original article can be read here:陳學同「新舞步」-新生代創意-觀眾激賞?instance=nyevents

English translation by Chenxing Han

H.T. Chen “Newsteps” Exhibits a New Generation of Creativity to an Admiring Audience

Reporter Wang Aixiang, New York report
April 12, 2012 7:36pm

Dancers from “Project Agent Orange” narrating the influence of Agent Orange on Vietnam (Reporter Wang Aixiang/photography)

On the night of [April] 12th, the H.T. Chen Dance Center’s “Newsteps” premiered in Manhattan’s Chinatown with inaugural performance and a wine reception. The evening performance of six original dance pieces lasted nearly an hour, and was met by waves of applause from a full house audience. Each daringly innovative dance piece showcased young choreographers as they burst forth with bold originality, using honest body language to reflect a sense of society’s changes.

Dance troupe Project Agent Orange’s choreographer Natalia Duong is a Stanford University graduate and young female choreographer of Vietnamese descent. To demonstrate the influence of the Vietnam War on Vietnam, she focused on the U.S troops’ use of the highly toxic compound Agent Orange during the war, using common speech and sounds to generate a sense of intimacy and an ease of understanding for the audience. Sonorous, slow-moving electronic music accompanied the dance piece, and the overall effect was of a story being narrated to the audience. Duong stated that her dancers prepared for one-and-a-half months for this performance, and that the dance piece is a story of finding home.

H. T. Chen said that choreographers of “Newsteps” original pieces included Natalia Duong, Jonathan Campbell & Austin Diaz, Ella Rosewood, Timothy Edwards, Toni Renee Johnson. Leigh Atwell & Maya Krishnasastry, and other up-and-coming professional choreographers, all of whom are outstanding artists. This performance provided these young artists an opportunity to practice and perform, and offered them a performance space along with artistic guidance.

“Newsteps” will be performed nightly until the 14th from 7:30pm After the performance on the 13th, the young artists will hold a roundtable discussion with audience members at 70 Mulberry Street, 2nd Floor, Manhattan. Ticket are $12, $10 for seniors and students. To order tickets please call (212) 349-0438.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


A close friend and colleague, Trent Walker, recently sent me the following excerpt about a Cambodian artist, Amy Lee Sanford, and her performance titled "Full Circle." In reading and reflecting upon the description of the event (and being made painfully aware of my inability to witness the piece in person; to be present at the performance), I found that many of the images and themes in Sanford's piece resonated with the work of PAO.

The public is invited to observe a durational performance by artist Amy Lee Sanford at Meta House.  Amy, who first returned to Cambodia in 2005 in search of her family and heritage, investigates this process through her artwork.  Initially working with sculptural works that were created by breaking and reassembling panes of glass, her current work focuses on the act itself. 
Full Circle is a piece that is forged over time.  Sitting amid a circle of 40 Kompong Chhnang clay pots, Amy will break and meticulously glue each pot back together, over the course of six days.  After each pot is glued, she will use string to hold the pieces together, before returning the pot to the circle.  This repetition of breaking and remaking brings attention to cycles of trauma, both personal and historical.  Full Circle is a meditative and introspective performance, one that reflects the slow, complex process of mending and transforming.   
For the artist, the physical and mental challenge of maintaining the concentration and patience to carry out the task is an integral part of the piece.The artist states: “Aiding the evolution of emotional stagnation and unburdening oneself from the past is the focus of my artwork.  I create art in order to observe, examine and transform the lasting effects of war, including trauma, loss, displacement and guilt.  Throughout this process, I have discovered movement masked by rigidity, simplicity within complexity and turbulence overlapping harmony.  The process of making art helps me transform these universal aspects of life into a new vitality.”Unlike most exhibitions where the reception marks the beginning, the public is invited to join the closing event, marking the end of this particular cycle of the circle—only to start again at another place and time, perpetuating Full Circle in its infinite course.

Sanford's work asks, literally and metaphorically, how we remember the past in the present.

---how we re-member--(read: re-construct; re-configure; re-mind)

How we re-member actions that are considered complete but continue to reverberate into the present. A rigorous shaking of the fabric making up our space-time continuum. A continual process of making and making up.

Sanford suggests the irreparable damage of trauma as the object she shatters will never completely resemble its previous form. In putting back together all of the pieces, there are inherently pieces of the pot that simply no longer fit into this newly reconstructed version. There are pieces that will be lost. There are lines of glue holding space and holding together two borders that used to touch. There are people and cultures that have been "humpty-dumptied" too many times; and all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put them back together again.

How then, does temporal duration heal?
How do we make do, tie up loose ends, until infrastructure can again stand alone?
In the infinite scope of the "making and unmaking of the world" [Elaine Scarry], what would happen were we to continue shattering and re-shattering our reconstructed selves? Would we not then all end up knees deep in sand?

Our hands dirtied with the dust of ashes and adhesive.

How we re-member the bodies of the deceased in the bodies of their descendants?
How we re-member the dismemberment of a family, a community, a culture, a past?
How we re-member the masses that have been massacred?

How do we re-member a name and reclaim our power in the silent shattering of a Pot. How we hold in our hands the aftermath and the control to remake it. How the beginning is really just the end.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Voices of the Diaspora

Responses from the Asian Arts Initiative and BPSOS Performance in Philadelphia

Much gratitude to our hosts Nancy Nguyen and the youth volunteers of AAI and BPSOS.

Sharing our work with Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American audience members, from 3 year olds to 80 year olds, helped contextualize and ground our work within the community from which these stories originated. In sharing family narratives, tears, laughter, and movement, Project Agent Orange found a new way of understanding journey, displacement, cleansing, and hope. And so we begin our path towards locating home.