Dancers in the dark

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  A scene in "˜Story of the shoes,' a series of vignettes that told the real-life stories of the dancers involved

Linh Nga and Thuy Chi, possibly the two best Vietnamese dancers of their generation, each spent over ten years training in China before becoming the renowned artists and choreographers they are today.

Both are the daughters of famous dancer duos, but their mutual dreams have taken them on very different paths.

Though Nga is now the well-known face of Pantene and several electronics brands thanks to her television commercials, it was dancing that first brought her fame. And the art of body movement is still her one true passion.

She initially gained attention in 2009 with her first solo show Vu (Dance), in which she told the autobiographical story of her decade-long sojourn in China through dance. And earlier this month, she staged her most popular show yet, Sen (Lotus), in Hanoi and Hai Phong. The performance is a collection of revivals of traditional Vietnamese dances choreographed by Nga and danced by some of the country's leading artists. The show features 60 dancers and will hit Ho Chi Minh City on September 15.

Thuy Chi is a member and teacher of Arabesque, a dance company in HCMC that prides itself not only on its innovative choreography and cutting-edge artists, but also on bringing modern dance, including contemporary interpretative pieces, out of the art houses and to the people. The group hosts regular workshops and training sessions for amateur dancers and non-dancers alike in the hope of interesting the public more in the art form.

Chi's most famous and impressive work of choreography is her show Chuyen ke nhung chiec giay (Story of the shoes), which just had its fourth-run earlier this month at the HCMC Opera House.

The work, which debuted in 2009, is also inspired by Chi's real-life experiences abroad and featured some of the country's best up-and-coming dancers. The show's two-night engagement was completely sold out.

But the road has not been easy for either dancer and though the future of modern dance in Vietnam looks bright, its fate is still uncertain.

Dance to a different drummer

Arabesque choreographer Ngo Thanh Phuong, who studied contemporary dance in Germany, told Thanh Nien it will still take more time for local dance artists to be fully welcomed, understood and respected by society.

Phuong heads Arabesque's Open Stage project, an ongoing series of dance and movement workshops and performances open to the public.

Open Stage aims to encourage dance artists, both professional and amateur, to create and experiment with new ideas. The initiative began in January 2011, but was suspended in March due to a lack of interest. But since its revamp and reopening in April, the series is more popular than ever. Attendance is full each month.

Phuong also took part in "Story of the shoes," a series of vignettes that told the real-life stories of the dancers involved. She said the show created a "new world" on stage, one not yet seen in the world of Vietnamese dance.

Members of the audience were equally impressed, if not more so.

"The music and the story spoke to us in a language we understood without words, and with cultural references relevant to our lives," said Hong Thu, a media executive who attended a performance. "Previously, dance hasn't interested me, but now, everything has changed. I think the dancers' investment and devotion in each sophisticated movement touched the audience's heart."

Though the more flashy and glamorous aspects of show business pop music and motion pictures still make far more money than dance performances, Chi and Nga are not the only ones who have begun to make a healthy living off the profits of dance.

The Bong Sen National Dance and Music Performing Theater's acclaimed and award-winning dance shows have been a great success in Vietnam, and the company has been invited to perform abroad several times. Bong Sen no longer accepts invitations to play small shows and is only seen at major events of one form or another.

Dang Hung, Bong Sen's director, said people were often surprised to hear how well his company was doing.

"The reality is totally opposite to what people usually think," he told the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper. "Many producers and event organizers express their respect to us by investing more in sound, lighting and sets to arrange the best dance performance. This proves that dance has a place in local show business culture and in viewers' hearts. It is our responsibility and aim to make better and better shows."

But many in Vietnam still equate the term dancer with the shoddy back up acts that flail wildly behind the country's many pop stars.

Veteran artist Tran Vuong Thach, director of the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO), said that though his theater had the artistic resources to put on high-quality dance performances like "Story of the shoes," those kinds of shows could only attract enough attention a few times a year, no matter what talent is involved.

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