Remembering through performance


I find myself wondering what iconoclastic choreographer Marten Spangberg would make of Drought and Rain, Ea Sola’s exploration of the memory of the America-Vietnam war.

This is her third incarnation of the work in 16 years, a constancy that Spangberg suggests, in his book Spangbergianism, is rarely seen in contemporary dance:

Do you really think that Alain Platel has something to do with transvestites… and do you think William Forsythe is in depth concerned about human rights. No… if they were really convinced, how come that they only make one show or project concerned with this or that…

Particular – abstract

Drought and Rain begins with the particular: full length screens depicting east Asian mountains and life size cut outs of Vietnam’s founders, which quickly give way to the abstract; a starkly lit square of 36 tatami mats on which the subsequent action takes place.

The square seems to float on the darkness, like some giant game board representing all places and none. Two narrator-singers – the sun and the rain – frame the performance like gods with timeless songs of the elements and hardship and memory. The majority of the performance comes from 11 older females who shuffle and pace straight pathways across the square, dressed in their black and white traditional clothing. I cannot help but think of chess pieces, symbols of all wars, of all people in all times.

In one sequence, the performers’ heads are hidden by conical leaf hats and their bodies covered in what look appear to be rain capes. They look like ghosts as they skirt up and down and across the stage with the air whispering past their shrouds. The scene reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s Quad in which four cloaked figures cut geometric pathways across a starkly lit square. But unlike Quad, this is more than a metaphor for something universal because I know (from the press and programme) these women actually fought in the war and sang to comfort the soldiers.

So when they later cut the air and tremble in defiant poses, I assume the photographs they pull out of their pockets to confront the audience, are of deceased family. And when the women shake lose their hair and keep shaking it, the abstract chess pieces transform into particular wild humans, descending into a melee as if fighting for scraps of food, letting out cries that take the place of the songs.

Missing voices

These authentic performer/veterans who are central to the piece remind me of Spangberg again, who mocks political choreographers with this caricature:

In the after-talk, you talk about your Turkish performers as them or they. They are so this and that, and instead of having anything to say about the ideological and political subtext to your work you – with a self-acknowledging laughter – tell anecdotes that underneath the polished surface come out as patronizing exotication.

Sola certainly writes and talks about her performers a lot. She has said: “My dancers come to their individual memories through common memories. They express themselves as Vietnamese, not western people.” We’re also told (again, by Sola) that the original cast braved their first ever flight because “they were determined to take part”.

So I can’t help but feel that it’s more important that the performers tell their story – and keep the myth, keep the truth, alive – than that we hear it.

But I’m struck that I’ve not read anything more than that from any of her performers. When artist Jeremy Deller recreated The Battle of Orgreave with police and miners who were in the original conflict, the accompanying film included testimony of those involved. And similarly I want to hear directly from Luong Thi Loan and Doan Thi Ket and the other performers. Otherwise there is a danger that we, the dance-lovers of London, are left congratulating ourselves for being moved by the spectacle of noble peasants tearing up their hearts, but we remember nothing.

Illustrations by Hamish MacPherson. This article originally appeared in Bellyflop magazine.