Friday, June 8, 2012

An Open Letter to USAID

Recommendations to USAID on their Comprehensive Multi-year Plan for
Agent Orange-related Activities in Vietnam
Project Agent Orange

June 8, 2012

Thank you for this welcome chance to offer input to USAID as it moves ahead with developing a comprehensive, multi-year plan for Agent Orange-related activities in Vietnam. Addressing the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam presents the opportunity for us to resolve old tensions within our society and between the governments of the U.S. and Vietnam. This “Comprehensive Plan” is an important step forward in realizing our responsibility to the people and places in Vietnam affected by Agent Orange.

My name is Natalia Duong, and I am an artist, scholar, and choreographer, based in New York City. In 2007, while I was in Vietnam teaching English in Saigon and Hanoi with the ACCESS Program, I had the opportunity to visit a Peace Village outside of Hanoi. For the first time, I came face to face with individuals directly affected by Agent Orange/dioxin, and though the dominant forms of media representing the issue at the time would have shown otherwise, this was a community of vibrant individuals each with vitality unmatched by many others I have met in my lifetime. I had the great opportunity to sing songs and share dances with this community, and learned, at that moment, of the profound ability for shared art practices to transcend cultural differences and language barriers. It was lovely to share laughter, hold hands, create, and heal together.

This experience motivated me to continue to explore the ability of art to bring advocacy and awareness to the legacy of Agent Orange. In 2011, I founded a movement collective, interested in investigating the legacy of war in the body, titled Project Agent Orange. The group is interested in the ways in which individuals inherit the remnants of war physically (as exemplified by Agent Orange), but also psychologically, culturally, and socially. For the past 16 months, a group of 9 dancers and I have worked to create an evening length performance representing some of the challenges currently facing people who have been affected by Agent Orange.

On May 31, June 1, and June 2, 2012, we presented this evening-length work at Dixon Place, a theater in downtown Manhattan to over 300 people over the course of three performances. Each night, art enthusiasts and social activists alike came together to watch the performance, ask questions, and brainstorm potential solutions for the future. The post-show discussions were moderated by Charles Bailey of the Aspen Institute, Dick Hughes of Loose Cannons Inc., Susan Hammond of the War Legacies Project, and Merle Ratner and Ngo Thanh Nhàn of the Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.

As is evidenced by the large turnout of audience members at our shows, and the pervasive requests for more information about the current effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the United States, there is a critical need for more advocacy and awareness for the issue, as well as financial support for programs that are working towards alleviating the effects of the herbicide both here in the U.S. and in Vietnam.

Project Agent Orange supports the recommendations presented by Former Members of Congress Pat Schroeder, Connie Morella, and Bob Edgar, and by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/dioxin. We believe USAID’s “Comprehensive Plan” should include the following:

  1. Clean up dioxin at all the remaining hot spots.  We are pleased that the Vietnamese government is already working with USAID and other agencies to develop plans for cleaning up the two remaining major hot spots at Bien Hoa and Phu Cat.  We understand that the remaining 25 identified hot spots may be cleaned up or isolated with less elaborate means.
2.     Upgrade integrated social services for people with disabilities.  We visited impressive programs, including those that are now part of the Public-Private Partnership in Da Nang now underway with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and Hyatt Hotels, among others.  There are enormous opportunities for US corporations and the US government to earn good will from the Vietnamese people and government by expanding well-designed programs like these.
3.     Advance disability rights.   We were impressed by the commitment and spirit shown by members of Vietnam's nascent disability rights movement.  These fine people are carving out some space in a relatively restricted civil society.  Providing opportunities for them to participate in program design would affirm their dignity and enlarge the space for democratic action in Vietnam.   There could be no more appropriate legacy to our response to the tragic legacy of war-time herbicide use.  
4.     Increase the professional and managerial skills of local civil society groups. We join the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin in recommending that USAID focus its support on developing the capacity of local Vietnamese NGOs, including those representing people with disabilities.  
5.     Encourage new funding mechanisms, including additional public-private partnerships   The needs of people with disabilities are a humanitarian challenge of significant scale.  New and creative funding sources may well be needed to fully address the demand.  The U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin estimates an annual funding target of $82 million, of which $65million would be expected to come from the U.S. government with the balance of $ 17 million/ year coming from other bilateral and private for-profit and not-for-profit sources.  We encourage USAID to include a request for significantly increased funding part of its budget request next year and for years to come.  

The “Comprehensive Plan” that you are developing is a welcome sign of progress. I applaud USAID’s technical assistance in the difficult task of cleaning up dioxin at the Da Nang “hot spot”. From visiting rehabilitation centers in Vietnam, I have also witnessed the difficulties faced by children with disabilities and their families, and commend the efforts made by USAID to support programs that address their needs.

Moreover, I will be traveling to Vietnam in August 2012 to produce a Devised Theater performance with college students from the U.S. and Vietnam, and with individuals with disabilities in communities affected by Agent Orange in order to advance disability rights in local villages. My hope is that the artistic form of the piece will catalyze and facilitate critical dialogue surrounding the need for increased humanitarian support for individuals with disabilities in a manner that would not otherwise be encouraged by direct dialogue. As dance and song are integral to Vietnamese culture, I believe that this will be a successful way to address a sensitive topic.

I believe that the above recommendations are important steps in the right direction. But I also know that more remains to be done.  In support of USAID’s efforts, I will continue to encourage even greater public visibility of the problems associated with Agent Orange and greater engagement by U.S. businesses and sources of funding and engagement. This is a humanitarian concern, as the Dialogue Group notes, that we can do something about.  

Thank you for your consideration.  

Natalia Duong

Choreographer, Dancer, Artist Scholar
Project Agent Orange
B.A. Psychology and Dance, Stanford University
M.A. Candidate in Performance Studies
New York University, Tisch School of the Arts

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.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

what you see:

One word responses from our audience at Movement Research.
These were given before we revealed the name of our company or our intentions (ie. direct responses to the movement portrayed)!

black (x2)
limiting areas
structure vs. individual