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Marisa Hayes
Arts and Education
Special Focus
Le Breuil, OT (France)

Dance Training in Vietnam – an interview with Cao Chi Thanh, Pham Ngoc Thanh and Gerald Herman

by Marisa Hayes
June 12, 2010
Le Breuil, OT (France)
During the second International Video Dance Festival of Burgundy, Gerald Herman (dance filmmaker, director of the Hanoi Cinematheque), Cao Chi Thanh (principal dancer with the Vietnam National Opera Ballet) and Pham Ngoc Thanh (student, Vietnam National Opera Ballet School) came to France to present their film "Dream in Hanoi". This 20 minute non-verbal film uses dance to illustrate the true story of how Cao Chi Thanh discovered ballet as a child and used it to overcome the obstacles of daily life in Hanoi, a city where he would rise to the status of principal dancer with the national ballet company. I took advantage of these three internationally recognized artists' visit to sit down and chat awhile about ballet training in Hanoi, as well as the state of Vietnamese dance in general.

Marisa C. Hayes: How old were you when you started studying ballet? Can you describe the audition process at the national ballet school?

Cao Chi Thanh: I was eleven years old. There are about 100 applicants each year. Boys and girls combined, they accept a total of 30 students through auditions. During the audition they ask children to do physical exercises like jumping or other sports-related movements to study their strength and anatomy. During the second round they look more for musicality and other dance skills. Once a child is admitted to the school there is a three month observation period. After that, every semester, all students in the school receive evaluations.

MCH: How do students finance their studies? Is the school a government-run program?

CCT: In the past, students admitted to the school received free tuition sponsored by the government. Now students must finance a small percentage of their studies, but the government support still covers most of the fees.

MCH: How long did you study at the school? Can you tell us about what you studied? What other styles of dance did you learn besides ballet?

CCT: I studied at the school seven years. Besides classical ballet, we have Vietnamese folk dance training, character dance training and pas de deux (partnering), of course.

MCH: Can you tell us a little about your experience at the school and your teachers there?

CCT: My main teacher from the school was Vietnamese, but he had studied in Russia and came back to Vietnam to teach. The teachers at the school primarily use the Russian method, Vaganova style, and I think this is a good, solid style. What's interesting in Vietnam is that we have a good relationship with Russia, but we also have teachers from France, Denmark and Sweden, so we know these styles and it's very international. I think maybe Vietnam's national ballet school is unique in South-East Asia for these opportunities.

MCH: Tell us about the other places you've studied…

CCT: I studied for two years at the Academy for Performing Arts in Hong Kong from 2003-2005.

MCH: How was it different from the training you received in Vietnam?

CCT: For me, the technical aspects were the same, the same exercises, but a slightly different style. At the Hong Kong Academy they have a really great way of helping each and every student.

MCH: Can you describe what was different stylistically in Hong Kong?

CCT: Well, I had a teacher from Australia there, so the steps were the same, but the feeling was a little different. For example, in Vaganova training we keep the upper body very square and in Australia too, but my Australian teacher asked me to keep the back very strong, but to use it in a slightly different way that affects the placement of the upper body: head, back, upper arms, etc. Thanh demonstrates with posture of back and mobility of the head. I think when you study, you need to learn different ways and take what is good for you, good for your body and you can integrate it. It's good to have different experiences and be diverse.

MCH: What are your favorite ballets to dance?

CCT: I have a lot of ballet repertoire like the classics, "Giselle", "Don Quixote", "Carmen", "La Sylphide", "Les Sylphides"… I love "Don Quixote".

Note: Cao Chi Thanh received a special prize for his interpretation of "Don Quixote" at the International Ballet Competition in Finland several years ago.

MCH: I heard that you're teaching now…

CCT: I love being a teacher! I love to be on stage, but I also love being a teacher. I want to pass on my experience and all the ballets I've already danced to the next generation.

MCH: Do you think that teaching has affected or made you feel different about your own dancing?

CCT: When I teach the students I also remind myself of important things, so teaching is also learning.

A few questions for Pham Ngoc Thanh, 15 year old student at the Vietnam National Opera Ballet Student (Pham Ngoc Thanh's responses were translated by Cao Chi Thanh).

MCH: What do you remember about your audition for the school? Was studying ballet something you were really set on and inspired to do?

Pham Ngoc Thanh: Yes, I come from another region in Vietnam and I really wanted to study in Hanoi because they have the best dance company in Vietnam. I was very afraid during the audition.

Gerald Herman (director of "Dream in Hanoi") adds:
There are two main ballet companies in Vietnam, the national opera ballet in Hanoi and another in Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is regarded as the superior, national company.

MCH: Do you have a favorite ballet company besides the Vietnam National Opera Ballet of Hanoi? Or other dancers you admire?

PNT: We don't really have the opportunity to travel to see other companies, so I don't know.

GH: Their curriculum, unfortunately, is pure dance. There's no history taught and they don't watch videos of great dancers. It's quite limited in that respect. In Vietnam dancers are civil servants and they do their job, they're not expected to have great ambition.

MCH (to Gerald Herman): Can you tell us about the state of ballet or dance in general in Vietnam today? I hear there's not a lot of folk dance or traditional dance…

GH: No, they modified some of the ethnic minority dances to a semi-ballet form and incorporated them into their repertoire.

MCH: Is that for the folk dance company? (upon graduation, national ballet school students may be chosen for the ballet company or an affiliated folk dance company).

GH: Yes.
There's folk dance in Vietnam, but they're not as popular as they would be in other countries, not recognized. They're done by ethnic minorities.

MCH: As opposed to neighboring Cambodia, which has a very strong traditional dance culture?

GH: Right, nothing like that and nothing like, even European folk dances, passed on from generation to generation.

MCH: Why do you think that is? Because I know that Vietnamese traditional music is very strong, right?

GH: Yes. That's a good question. I'm not sure why Vietnam doesn't have a lot of traditional dance like in Cambodia, Thailand or Indonesia….

CCT: Yes, we do have traditional dance, but there are many ethnic minorities, each with their own language, culture and dances…so they're all different.

MCH: Is it easy to see ethnic minority dances performed in Vietnam?

CCT: Well, you can see the folk dance company perform, but not all the minority dances are represented.

MCH: What about people using dance in everyday life as ritual or during celebrations? Is it possible to see dance in this context?

CCT: I think so because the folk dance teachers at the national school travel to the mountains in Vietnam to observe their dances. Then they use these dances to stage them in performance.

GH: I moved to Vietnam 17 years ago and one of the things that surprised me the most in Vietnam was how much respect there is for Western art forms and how active they are in these classic, Western art traditions… Classical music, ballet, fine arts…all thanks largely to the French influence. The French did a lot of ugly things in Vietnam, but they also brought a lot of beauty. They built a beautiful opera house, founded the Beaux Arts school. So, there's a tradition that's very much alive today of Western culture. There are three symphony orchestras in Hanoi that are full time symphony orchestras. There's the ballet. There are museums and art galleries galore. Unfortunately, these days, there is less and less government support for these arts and it's a struggle for young musicians and dancers to stick to it because of other career options and distractions. Thanks to a lot of embassy support and foreign support, many foreign teachers, choreographers and artists keep things alive and stimulate these art forms. The French, Danes, Swedes and Italians have all been very active in this, sending teachers, choreographers and dance companies.

MCH: Do you think this has had a negative impact on Vietnamese traditional culture? Or do you think that the two can co-exist and that one doesn't really affect the other?

GH: Well, oddly enough, the Western art forms have become tradition in Vietnam. The French were in Vietnam 100 years, that's three or four generations, so people accept Mozart and Beethoven as part of Vietnam's cultural heritage. At that same time, they have a lot of their own music and art forms which are very much alive.

Marisa C. Hayes would like to extend her thanks to Cao Chi Thanh, Gerlad Herman & Pham Ngoc Thanh for their generous spirit of exchange. Cao Chi Thanh is currently appearing as a guest dancer in Sweden, Pham Ngoc Thanh continues his studies at the national ballet school in Vietnam and Gerald Herman is busy planning the forthcoming season at the Hanoi Cinematheque, which he founded and directs. Herman's film "Dream in Hanoi" will be screened at the Centre Pompidou's (Paris' national museum for contemporary art) forthcoming video dance festival and has previously been shown at the Sacremento International Film Festival, Los Angeles Family Film Festival (where it was nominated for "best foreign short"), Miami Short Film Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival, among others.

Marisa C. Hayes (France/USA) creates choreography for stage, screen and new media. She recently created video dance commissions for the National Theater in Burgundy and the City of Nancy (France). In 2009 she received awards from the New York Dance Films Association, Move the Frame (New York), and was nominated to the US State Department's cultural envoy program. In 2010 her explorations of screen dance were detailed in the research journal of the French National Dance Biennale. For more information, please see: http://www.marisahayes.com
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