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Vietnamese ballet dancers raising the barre

Update: September, 14/2014 - 17:23

Famed Norwegian choreographer Johanne Jakhelln Constant, who has staged a number of ballet performances in HCM City, has high regard for the talent of Vietnamese ballet dancers. After watching dancers deliver splendid performances in Coppelia, The Nutcracker and Cinderella, she talked with Thu Trang about the future of ballet in Viet Nam and expressed hopes that it would continue to thrive.

Inner Sanctum: What are your thoughts regarding the capability of Vietnamese ballet dancers? Some people say ballet is not suitable for the bodies of the Vietnamese. Is this right?

I have found most Vietnamese dancers to be quite flexible and strong. They have a good base technique, and most are focused and hard working in rehearsals. The first time I organised a ballet performance for the company, The Nutcracker in 2011, I felt that the dancers found it challenging to act, tell a story and express emotions through ballet, but I think this has changed over the years.

I know it has been said by some that Vietnamese bodies are not suited for ballet. I do not agree with this at all! First of all, ballet is not natural for anyone, no matter what nationality. Some bodies are more suited than others because of proportions, natural flexibility and the lines, shape and look of the limbs and feet. I have worked in the US, Australia, Europe and Asia, and have found that the ideal ballet body is no more easily found among Caucasian than among Asian bodies. As a matter of fact, there are several European companies whose lead ballerinas are from Asia, including the Norwegian National Ballet.

Over the past few decades, there has been a trend among ballet companies to seek out taller dancers. But, though a tall dancer may look beautiful, the long limbs may not necessarily represent the ideal ballet body. A long body that is also flexible will often have muscles with long fibres, and long fibres take longer to contract, hence often making the dancers' movements less explosive. Therefore, I find that a well-proportioned shorter dancer is often more interesting to work with. This dancer will still appear long-limbed on stage because the legs in proportion to the torso look long. As such, he or she will look graceful while performing adagio steps, or slow movements, where the lines created through the body are essential, and at the same time have the necessary fire and power to succeed when doing allegro work, or quick steps like jumps and pirouettes or turns. Many of the Vietnamese dancers I have worked with have been blessed with well-proportioned bodies.

Inner Sanctum: Is ballet in Viet Nam different from that of other countries that you have worked in? How are they different?

When it comes to schooling and technique, ballet in Viet Nam is the same as ballet anywhere in the world. There may be slight differences in style, the way the arms are carried, or the way the hands are held, or the general tempi of the choreographies due to the preferences of the local choreographers, teachers, artistic director or audience. But, in general, ballet is ballet no matter where you go.

Ballet is still quite young in Viet Nam, so you have not yet developed a local style. If I have to point out a difference from other countries, I would have to say that the greatest difference lies in the administrative side and the organisation of things. But, again, ballet here is young, and everything has to start somewhere. I think it is exciting and wonderful that there is this initiative to further this art form here.

Inner Sanctum: What are the difficulties of Vietnamese dancers in the practice and performance of ballet? What should they do to improve?

I find the greatest challenge for Vietnamese ballet dancers to be the lack of consistent training en pointe, or wearing pointe shoes, for the women, as well as the possibility of regular rehearsals with everyone present over a long-enough time period. Though there are things the dancers can do themselves in this regard, most of the responsibility here lies elsewhere.

When it comes to dancing enough en pointe, this is a question of money, as the climate here wears the shoes out quickly and the dancers lack enough shoes. It is also a question of self-discipline, to make oneself wear the shoes during ballet technique class, and of organisation, or requiring dancers' daily attendance at daily technique classes.

With regards to having enough rehearsals, this is a question of understanding the nature of the art form, of administration and, when it all comes down to it, of money.

Ballet demands that you always strive for perfection, and attention to detail is essential. Though perfection is almost impossible to achieve, to come as close as possible to this requires lots of repetition and much work on correcting and improving technique and performance to build and develop muscle memory. A long performance or even just a solo is also demanding when it comes to stamina, and to build stamina, you have to push yourself over time. To be able to do this, you need to be able to spend several hours rehearsing five to six days a week, and this is where money comes into the picture. To really be able to do this, with soloists and corps de ballet dancers alike, you have to be able to support, that is, pay the dancers enough so that they can be focused on the task at hand and not have to run off to do other jobs or have their thoughts distracted by other tasks.

Inner Sanctum: What should the State and the cultural sector do to help ballet artists in their career and their lives?

I would hope that the State appreciates the dedication of the dancers to their art form, and that they value the ballet company and what they have achieved so far. If it is a goal to continue this positive development, it is important that the State support the company with adequate funding and through recognition and promotion.

Ballet can be quite expensive, and it will be beneficial for both the State and the company if funding is also found elsewhere. This is an area where one could learn from companies in other countries with longer experience in fund-raising. The State, or members of the arts community, might be able to help make contact with possible sponsors or with companies in other countries. Help to continue the company's development within the area of arts administration will also be of great value.

Regarding long-term development, working to create a daytime school with direct ties to the company, where general and ballet studies are combined, will help and even raise the level of the dancers in the company.

Inner Sanctum: Not so many operas have been arranged and performed in Viet Nam. Most of the programmes were arranged with the help of a foreign choreographer. What are your thoughts regarding the future of Vietnamese ballet?

As ballet continues to develop in Viet Nam, I am certain that local choreographers within the field will emerge. It is important to remember that ballet in Russia reached its glory at the hands of Marius Petipa, a Frenchman, and that the great creator of American ballet was George Balanchine, a Russian. Everything has to start somewhere, and one just has to be a bit patient. — VNS

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