by Thu Anh
Cemetery ultimate tribute to patriotic artists
The garden full of trees and flowers exudes serenity, fitting for a place where many souls rest in peace.
However, this cemetery, situated in the Artists' Pagoda or Nhat Quang Tu (Sunlight Pagoda) is unique, because it is the only one in the city that is dedicated exclusively to cai luong (reformed theatre) and tuong (classical drama) performers.
The cemetery owes its existence to the efforts of a veteran cai luong artist and her younger colleagues.
For several decades, they worked to transform what was a barren 6,000sq.m of land into a verdant garden that is the final resting place for nearly 1,000 performers and artists now.
People's Artist Phung Ha bought the land in 1958, responding to the fact that many cai luong and tuong performers, even those who were stars during their heydays, were often lonely and poor in their old age.
Ha knew that the characters she played would stay for long in people's hearts and minds, but her own stardom – and that of others like her – would not last forever.
The pagoda and cemetery are her tribute to those who kept the art of cai luong and tuong alive and kicking with their dedication and passion.
Ha's students, Nam Cong and Diep Nam Thang, have since taken over management and maintenance of the pagoda, collecting donations from individuals and organisations, including visitors, artists and their families.
Ha was 99 when she died in 2009, having devoted her entire life to the stage, forgoing marriage and a family life.
"The pagoda was built and has grown on the endless love of Ha and her peers for cai luong," said Sau Dung, a member of the pagoda's managing board.
Dung said that though cai luong fans still enjoy plays written and performed by the late scriptwriters and actors like Tran Huu Trang and Ha, few of them are aware that these artists were members of the resistance during the freedom struggles against France and the United States.
"In their plays, they depicted their love for their country and encouraged people to join the national liberation movement," he said.
Making a song and dance of it – a growing trend
Music and dance go hand in hand, but they have to be a naturally compatible couple. If they are not, discordance ensues.
This simple fact seems to be lost on several artists and organisers of concerts these days.
"The dancers wore the traditional costumes of a Tay Nguyen ethnic minority community while the singers performed a farmers' folk song from the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta at a major concert I attended recently in HCM City," said Nguyen Cam Van, a veteran performer of the HCM City Circus Troupe.
It was not just the less-than-aesthetic costumes, including deliberately and needlessly see-through dresses that Van was complaining about, but the fact that "dances not suited to songs are becoming a popular phenomenon."
Whether on TV, on DVDs or live concerts, young singers are turning increasingly to groups of dancers to liven up their shows. And a lot of the time, each draws away from the other instead of complementing each other, leaving the audience underwhelmed.
Often the quality of choreography leaves a lot to be desired.
Concert goer Nguyen Binh Minh said: "I was shocked to see young singers perform romantic songs in bolero, a genre of slow-tempo Latin music, accompanying break and hip hop dance groups."
The city now has very few professional dance troupes like Hoang Thong and Kim Quy, and they cannot meet the rising demand.
Hence concert organisers turn to amateurs – usually young performers between 16 and 23 years of age – from dance clubs or aerobics classes, who often lack style and synchronisation, which takes a lot of practice.
The problem might rest with the choreographers themselves.
Most of the city's choreographers are former dancers not fully equipped for the task. They have turned to choreography because the demand for dances during concerts has increased. The lack of experience and expertise becomes evident, then, and hurts the overall performance, according to People's Artist Viet Cuong, a reputed choreographer.
He noted that the HCM City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera consists of young and skilled choreographers like Phuc Hung and To Nhu who have studied the art in Russia and France.
But ballet dancers may not be the right accompaniment for young singers influenced by Korean pop music, he said.
In the final analysis, both singers and organisers should carefully consider whether the nature of the song and the concert really demands a lot of dancers on stage. The audience can do well without being distracted from good music by bad dancing, for a change. — VNS