The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Dance In Conversation

ANH VO with J. Alex Mathews

“I can’t just conjure the ghosts and let them run wild. I try to stay with my emotions and memories.”

Anh Vo, <em>BABYLIFT</em>. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Anh Vo, BABYLIFT. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Anh Vo chose to make a dance for no audience. This isn’t an attempt to make performance for the performer’s sake, as some may think. Nor is it an insistence on the liveness and ephemerality of performance at the apex of online engagement. This decision actually intensifies Vo’s yearning to connect with people. It also makes room for another purpose: to offer the ghosts of the Vietnam War their own performance for three nights in a row.

Anh Vo (they/he) is a choreographer and interdisciplinary artist from Vietnam based in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. BABYLIFT, their latest piece, is a multimedia solo work that will premiere at the Target Margin Theater to no in-person or digital audience from February 19th–21st.

J. Alex Mathews (Rail): Let’s start with the title. What is BABYLIFT?

Anh Vo: It’s named after a real historical operation at the very end of the Vietnam War, in which the United States airlifted South Vietnamese orphans to the West (mainly to the US, Australia, and the UK).

In Vietnam, you generally know that the communists invaded the South in early 1975, and then overthrew the US. I think I found out about this around the same time I heard about kids in cages in the US during the Trump era. I was like, whoa, what the fuck. The US is fine bombing people all over the world but when it comes to kids, rescue them? This country is obsessed with babies and futures.

This historical orientation in the title helps me. I stay in the poetic and abstract. I don’t research who the Operation Babylift children are; that’s not my investment. It’s purely associative. It also brought up a lot with a personal myth about how I was going to be aborted. I was the third child, and Vietnam has a two-child policy. Supposedly, I was a girl before I was born, too, and it influenced my parents’ decision to keep me, because they already had my two brothers.

Rail: Oh wow.

Vo: Everything about this operation feels very symbolic for me.

Rail: How do you feel about your process so far?

Vo: It’s been weird: so much information. I do feel like I am returning to my childhood. And a word I return to is ritual. In Vietnam you don’t see “performances.” You have an opera house in Hanoi built by the French, but the average person doesn’t go to it. This process has made me revert to what performance used to be for me as a child, which was going to rituals. There’s one ritual I draw from specifically called Hau Dong that lasts all day, and the purpose of it is to conjure gods, for a person to expel their bad juju or energy… It’s hard to translate these superstitions.

Anh Vo, <em>BABYLIFT</em>. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Anh Vo, BABYLIFT. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Now, going to rehearsals is just preparing my body for the ritual. All I want to do is prepare my body for whatever is going to unfold and stay open to it. Going back to my own culture also makes me feel like I’m an anthropologist. [laughs] I try to resist that approach ’cause, ugh, that’s too fetishistic. It’s a push and pull.

Rail: But it seems like, because this is reminiscent of your childhood, that would eradicate the fetishism to an extent. No?

Vo: Of course there’s the more visceral aspect, my memories, but I’m very aware that I’m looking at my culture through the white man’s gaze. When I was in Vietnam, the traditional culture constructed [for us] post war was rejected. Whenever there’s an identity reconstruction, it’s funded on a state level … Funded by the government, funded by UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], funded for tourism! But on an everyday basis, we don’t consume that.

Rail: Since traditional Vietnamese identity has a history of catering to a global economy, that’s part of your resistance to “going back” to your culture?

Vo: Yes. And here, a white bougie audience. I don’t want to bear my culture, even though it doesn’t feel like my culture. I’m drawn to it through a certain Westernization. That desire to consume a more marginal culture, that’s anthropology. That is ingrained in my identity and I can’t reject it. And I’m trained in performance studies, which is rooted in anthropology too, you know? [laughs]

Rail: Totally.

Vo: Having no audience helps relieve some of the pressure to bear the culture for the Western gaze.

Rail: It sounds like a lot to negotiate. You described the piece as fragmented or collage-based. Will you talk about that more?

Vo: I think of it as “collage” because most of the time I don’t make sense of the work. Like Nicki Minaj comes up a lot in the work, why? I don’t know! The work doesn’t quite make sense … the words “fragmented” and “collage” feel like an easy way out of making sense of it.

I started conjuring the ghosts because of this operation. The first plane that took off literally crashed and killed many. So I conjure them and cry over the violence … The most stereotypical things when you think of memorializing. And then it went somewhere else. The performance weirdly gets stuck in the ’60s.

Rail: That period has a way of …

Vo: Yeah, it’s warped.

Rail: Completely.

Vo: The piece had its own force. I had no intention of being in the ’60s—Vietnam War, US civil rights movement, Yvonne Rainer, Happenings, Postmodern dance, it all came up very associatively, and I never say no to associations. [laughs]

Rail: I love that. How are these associations translating to your body?

Vo: There’s no method. In the beginning the collaging was more conscious, aiming for juxtapositions that don't make sense but feel sensible. Usually in the studio I stretch, get distracted, let memes emerge, and listen to music. In the performance I stutter and I subvert myself. There’s not really a script. I modify words so they reflect my feelings. It’s descriptive of trauma. There’s ambivalence and ambiguity. The third part is a lullaby to put the ghosts to sleep. And then the closing song is called Hometown and there’s a disco ball. Very cheesy. It’s sporadic, things just kind of happen. I think solo work allows for that.

Rail: For more spontaneity?

Vo: I don’t think it’s spontaneity. It’s more room to not know the materials. When working with others, especially in experimental work, you have to be sure of yourself so people can trust you. I now get to let the materials flow. I try things and then I just scrap them. There’s a lot more room for uncertainty.

Rail: Can you talk about the decision to perform for no audience, live or digitally? Obviously circumstances played a part in this.

Vo: The pandemic. [laughs]

Rail: Right. [laughs] There’s so much pressure to perform virtually though, and you decided not to take part in that for now. So a combination of circumstance and choice.

Vo: Yes. I was considering many possibilities: to perform virtually, share an excerpt, or film it. But the idea of having no audience immediately struck when it came up in a conversation with my roommate. And the ghosts are so important, so I don’t feel like I am performing for myself. I would not be able to do this with other works in a way that feels honest. This is an offering to the ghosts. I still feel like I have a purpose. I’m not sure if it’s artificial, but it’s very present.

I was also conscious that I was doing this conservative thing of insisting on the liveness of performance. You know, the cliché of the ephemerality of performance. So, to avoid that, I initially showed parts of BABYLIFT through an event with the University Settlement on Instagram Live. But when I did, it was shut down and censored.

Rail: It came to a complete halt?

Vo: “Your stream has violated community guidelines.” Zoom feels too corporate, so I was like, okay, I can’t perform BABYLIFT online. I knew it was going to fail too. [laughs]

Rail: You anticipated failure.

Vo: I was willing it to fail. For a 30-minute excerpt I made for Bridge Street Theater, where I was in residence, I took the least theatrical sections and put them online for the audience. That didn’t feel right either. So, here we are. The decision feels right every day.

Rail: Does performing for no audience allow for more uncertainty too?

Anh Vo, <em>BABYLIFT</em>. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Anh Vo, BABYLIFT. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Vo: When there’s an audience, I embrace uncertainty. Without an audience, the uncertainty manifests differently. I don’t think I am more willing to go to uncertain places without an audience per se.

Rail: It does feel like a very different attention to detail though.

Vo: Yes. Dwelling in duration, the air, the space. And, no shade, but I’m not a somatic practitioner. Usually I don’t believe in its self-indulgence, or what feels self-indulgent to me.

Rail: To be in your body?

Vo: To be so attentive to it.

Rail: How do you negotiate the self in your performance? You, your identity, your body “versus” whom you’re conjuring. It seems like the piece spills out of personal boundaries and yet you’re spending so much time alone, performing for no in-person audience.

Vo: Yes. There’s an extreme exclusion of the outside world in that somatic dance training that I hate. Practically, I’m trying to engage an audience. Objectively some might say this work is theater or performance art, which is something Miguel Gutierrez has talked about… When people watch something they don’t understand, they just call it performance art. This is dance! I’m trained in the history of dance; I’m invested in the body. It comes back to embodiment for me.

Rail: I appreciate your insistence on this being dance. How do you embody pleasure in BABYLIFT?

Vo: It’s not like I set out to combine ghosts and sex, terror, and pleasure … Most of the time, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. I think the erotic came after the hauntings. The pleasure came as I had a more conscious relationship to an audience. I just started wiggling my butt. It offers comedic relief. It’s not so much that I think the hauntings are pleasurable. Bitch, I’m scared of ghosts! [laughs]

If this piece reaches its economic end, like its touring end, do I just leave the ghosts? That’s fucked me up a little bit.

Rail: Like you’d be abandoning them?

Vo: It feels very scary, because in the experimental field, you’re under pressure to keep having new ideas. With this it feels like, oh my god, I have to commit to these ghosts otherwise it is disrespectful and blasphemous. They will hate me; they will not bless me. It sounds stupid saying it out loud, but I’m scared of them.

Rail: And you don’t necessarily want to give them the impression that they were used for the sake of a production, or for sake of self-benefit right?

Vo: Right. But here’s the thing, I think ghosts love production.

Rail: Yeah, why wouldn’t they? [laughs]

Vo: Even in Hau Dong, it’s hyper-elaborate and there’s a lot of money involved. This spectacular thing gets built into ritual. It doesn’t feel exploitative to bring the ghosts to the public in this way. The spectacle of conjuring is very visible in Vietnamese culture.

Rail: You mentioned that you perform a lullaby to put the ghosts to sleep?

Vo: The third part is a lullaby. I’m not authorized or trained to perform these rituals. It feels culturally appropriative even though it doesn’t look that way. It’s uncomfortable. But I can’t just conjure the ghosts and let them run wild. I try to stay with my emotions and memories.

Rail: You’re not physically alone in the theater, you also have collaborators. Do you want to talk more about your collaborations for BABYLIFT?

Vo: Yes. I still think of it as solo performance because of how it’s been rehearsed, 80 to 90 percent of the time I am alone. Collaboration is an interesting thing. I collaborate with my partner, and I only collaborate with friends. I guess there’s that queer impulse to go into a room and make something together.

Rail: There’s plenty of pressure to be self-sufficient, self-reliable, and all-knowing.

Vo: Especially in the midst of the pandemic. I turn to experts. In this very Vietnamese way, I trust that people know things better than I do. I feel like that’s scandalous in the West. I tell my collaborators to do what needs to be done and I’ll work with it. Sometimes that feels like putting too much pressure on them. It can be easier to execute someone else’s vision, but I don’t work like that. I don’t have a strong vision for you to support. [laughs] The work is at their mercy.

Rail: Relationships are messy.

Vo: Very messy. Only in this fantasy of capitalism do you have clean job descriptions.

Rail: This false delineation of here’s where I end, and you begin. Obviously it’s challenging but also admirable to work collaboratively. And you still have a desire to share the work. No audience isn’t a way to not share. You seem to be wrestling with that tension.

Vo: Yes. I want new relationships! Surprises.

Rail: Totally! Fleeting connections. I miss them so much.

Vo: I want people to be able consume the work in a way that the work deserves. I think this work deserves everyone being in a room together, and that’s not possible. There’s a true desire to have people in the theater. They give me some sort of orientation that the studio doesn’t. I really yearn for it.

Rail: Having no audience is deepening your desire to connect with others.

Vo: I’ve been doing a lot of these one-on-one conversations. It’s felt like the closest thing to performance throughout the pandemic. With experimental dance, especially dance, it’s so hard to watch, so hard to understand.

My work depends on people being trapped in a space, really having to sit with what’s in front of them. These individual one-on-one conversations, even virtually, keeps that sense of “being trapped” or being tethered to an interpersonal connection. But it feels less impactful.

Rail: Feeling enclosed with the work can be so important in dance.

Vo: Trapped in the best way.

Rail: Is the work still getting some of what it deserves?

Vo: I think so, yes.


J. Alex Mathews

J. Alex Mathews (she/her) is an artist, writer, curator, and producer with a background in dance and performance based in Brooklyn, NY.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues