Choreographer and dancer imbued with Vietnamese soul

August 07, 2016 - 09:00

Choreographer-dancer Vũ Ngọc Khải recently stared in the dance Nón (Conical Hat), a performance combining contemporary dance with traditional Vietnamese and ethnic music, along with musician Ngô Hồng Quang. Having worked and performed in different European countries over the last 10 years, Khải often returns to Việt Nam and loves creating dances imbued with Vietnamese identity to show the Vietnamese soul. He shares with Vương Bạch Liên his passion for dance and life.

Viet Nam News

Inner Sanctum: Where did the idea of creating the dance Nón come from? I know that Nón’s concept was built based upon the idea and meaning of “round sky, square earth”, which is also the icon of the “square green rice cake” (bánh chưng) and “round white rice cake” (bánh dầy) that expresses the perfect connection of yin and yang – Việt Nam’s spiritual belief.

The idea came to me in October 2014 when I came back to Việt Nam after some years living abroad and was preparing for my trip to Germany to work.

At that time, when I knew that I would be on the road again, I missed Việt Nam already, and thought of creating a dance that would be very Vietnamese. At that time, when I knew that I would not be able to celebrate Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) in Germany, I was very sad. I love this festival a lot, and I thought of the bánh chưng that I love eating, the traditional cake of this festival. I also thought of the legend about bánh chưng and bánh dầy from the time of the Hùng kings. From those images, I then thought of the script for the dance.

I also wanted to bring to the dance the image of Nón (Conical Hat). Previously, I visited some Asian countries whose economies are based on agriculture and discovered their conical hats, but the conical hat in Việt Nam has a different shape.

The musician Ngô Hồng Quang and I together wrote the script of the dance.

I am lucky to have Quang who plays music in the dance. He is very good at playing traditional instruments.

It took us one year from writing the script to train for this dance. It was first performed in HCM in July last year.

Inner Sanctum: I saw in this dance one romantic scene featuring a young scholar learning to write under the moonlight to the magical sound of the đàn tính (a three-stringed instrument from the Tày ethnic minority). But after this, with very strong gestures, this character – the scholar – seemed to struggle with himself, to fight against the influence of the world outside. Are those images taken from your own experience or were they just your imagination adding more colour to your work?

They are from my own life experience.

When I was writing the script for this dance, I returned to my origins. I asked myself who I was, and where I came from? A lot of childhood memories came back.

I still remember very clearly when I was seven years old. I had a summer vacation and I visited the house of my grandparents. My grandfather asked me to learn how to write chữ nho (Chinese letters). He then spent time teaching me during my vacation. Many generations of my family know the chữ nho very well and wanted me to know it. But I didn’t want to. I was very young and wanted to play outside like other children.

Many times, I find it difficult to balance what I want to do and what other people want me to do.

I do not want to deceive other people who have hopes for my future.


Inner Sanctum: But do those images also represent the struggles you experienced to succeed in your life during several years living and working abroad?

Yes. They do. I met lot of difficulties abroad. I had to learn to be familiar with the fact of living alone. When I first lived abroad, many times I felt very lonely. As a dancer, I have to travel very often for my performances and training. I have also worked in different dance companies in different countries. I often meet new people in new places. People from Holland, Germany and Switzerland whom I have worked with all have different cultures and different working habits.

It takes me a lot of time to know their cultures, to know them to be able to work together.


Inner Sanctum: Do you sometimes feel bored of living in strange lands and want to come back to work in Việt Nam for a long time?

Yes, sometimes I think of coming back to Việt Nam to work, but now is not a good moment. Though I may want to come back, it is not easy.

It’s like when you prepare a good bowl of phở (rice noodles), we need a lot of ingredients: beef, rice noodles, spices… Art is like this. To make it good, it requires good conditions. In Việt Nam, I may not have the conditions I need to live and work to the fullest of my passion, relating to the audience, financial conditions, production, the environment… To come back or not? It is an open question to me. I do not have the answer yet.

This time when I performed in Hà Nội, I was nicely surprised to see that the audience here loves contemporary dance. There were not enough tickets for everyone who wanted to see our performance.

An increasing number of people in the city go to the theatre to watch contemporary dance.


Inner Sanctum: What do you think should be done to encourage more audiences to see contemporary dance?

I hope that more contemporary dances will be performed in Việt Nam. I also hope that the public will understand how contemporary dance can be very helpful to their life.

For me, dance has brought everything: on the stage, dance has brought me lots of imagination, good spirits and plentiful energy.

When I organise workshops and teach young people the art, dance has helped me share my passion and stories with other people. In daily life dance has brought me good health.


Inner Sanctum: I know that your parents rarely go to your performances. Do they support your choice?

During my 20-year career devoted to dance, my mother has only come twice to my performances. But it doesn’t upset me. My mother likes contemporary dance but she doesn’t like going to the theatre. She doesn’t like the ambience of the theatre. My father also loves dance but he cannot always find time to attend my performances.

We are two different generations. They love me in their own way with a lot of care at home. I do not need to have them come watch my performances to show me their love.

Actually my family supports my career, but at the beginning they didn’t. They were worried to see that I travelled a lot and often moved from one place to another. They often wondered where I was, what I was doing, if I was thinking of my future. They wanted me to know the good moment when I should stop. We are a traditional family and my parents want me to live with them in Hà Nội where I was born and grew up. But I love art. I believe that I should travel to learn because the world of contemporary dance is immense and abstract. I need experience to do my job well.