January 5, 2010
By Claire Sykes
Crossing borders is something Minh Tran has always done. Whether it’s barely escaping Vietnam as a boat person at age 11 or challenging aesthetic and educational boundaries, the Portland dancer, choreographer and Reed College professor has pushed the frontier, repeatedly sending himself—and his audiences and students—into entirely new terrains.
For over two decades, Minh has been merging traditional Southeast Asian and contemporary Western dance techniques and expressions. Works of his, as Minh Tran & Company (since 1996), such as The Road Home (1996) and Nocturnal Path (2003), portray the autobiographical, with their suggestive narratives about Vietnam and family. Often inviting all five senses, or even a sixth, his work evokes strong emotion. When I saw his Forgotten Memories (2007), about the Khmer Rouge genocide, I wasn’t the only one in tears.
During another interview last year with Minh for my Reed Magazine article on him, he told me that he views dance “as a piece of motion that captures the essence of whatever message I’m trying to send.” His latest work, Kiss (2009), commissioned by White Bird Dance, does just that, as it traverses the often complex subject of sexual identity, based on his own coming-out journey. Dancers Margretta Hansen, Jessie Berdine, Riho Katagiri, Suzanne Chi, Carla Mann and Angie Caceres leap the erotic in this 42-minute piece, staged in the round, that features Minh in a cameo role—his final performance.
Last month, I had the honor of sitting in on Minh’s rehearsal for Kiss, at Reed College’s dance studio (see my photos below). That day, with childlike glee he showed me his outrageous costume. But you’ll have to attend his performance to see it for yourself, along with the blatant nudity in this piece.
Kiss shares the stage with a work by Tere Mathern Dance, called Pivot (2009), as well as a duet danced by her and Minh, Twine (2009)—all world premieres. Performances run January 20-24, 2010 at the World Forestry Center’s Miller Hall, in Portland Oregon. For more information about the performance, in general, please visit www.whitebird.org.
Claire Sykes: How can watching a live, modern dance performance, like Kiss, make a difference in our lives?
Minh Tran: Live performing arts (a play, ballet, symphony, opera or dance) give different effects to audiences than say watching a movie or television. There is a synergistic exchange between the audience and performers. Particularly with most of the venues I’ve performed in, including the one for Kiss, it is quite intimate; the “fourth wall” is almost invisible between the audience and performers.
Dance, especially, is a precious medium, a “poetry in motion,” and you have to be there to witness those fleeting moments. They’re moments that you can recreate in your mind, at best; they’re not a tangible substance that you can wrap up and take home. But what you do take with you can eventually enrich your life, and even change it in some ways.
CS: Knowing what I do about your work, I’m sure people’s lives will be deepened by Kiss. But also, we’ll be entertained. What is this piece about, and why did you call it that?
MT: This piece addresses the question, What does it mean to come face to face with one’s personal reconciliation of their sexual identity? All of us are aware of how we project ourselves, sexually, to the world, whether we’re gay, straight, bisexual or transgender.
I’m looking at this dance piece from the angle of sexual orientation, in general, addressing the whole spectrum of sexuality and physical expression. I love the word, kiss, itself. A kiss can be casual, a peck on the cheek, but also passionate, very sexual. So this work isn’t about just being gay; I’m not interested in just that, at all. Haven’t we already dealt with that in the last two decades? Why say anything else? What interests me more is the experience of discovering your own sexuality, whatever your orientation.
CS: It was White Bird Dance that commissioned this piece from you. I know this is your second one for them.
MT: Yes, and I’m very grateful for that. Co-founders Walter Jaffe and Paul King had commissioned my Nocturnal Path, in 2003. Then they heard that I was thinking about doing a piece on sexual identity, and that it would be my “swan dance,” my final performance. They invited choreographers from all over—Australia, England, Holland, Israel. They could’ve asked anyone in the world. So for them to ask me, I’m very grateful for that. In such a harsh economy right now, I wouldn’t otherwise be able to have the luxury of dealing with the topic of my sexual identity and make this piece.
CS: It’s been years since you came out. Why choreograph a work about sexual orientation now?
MT: I came out 23 years ago, and I’ve been thinking about this piece for a long time. But I kept telling myself I wasn’t ready, until five years ago, when I was more comfortable with myself, with my relationship and with who I am. Then I was ready to share my own personal experience with the rest of the world. If I’d made this work ten years ago, it would’ve been much louder, angrier, much more flamboyant, because that’s what I felt coming out and sexual identity meant to me. I was waving the flag—I’m queer and I’m here. But now that I’m settled down and comfortable with myself, what’s the big deal about being gay? And yet, it is a big deal, because I look at the picture of coming out as a much bigger one than just being gay.
CS: How would you describe your aesthetic in Kiss?
MT: It’s one that’s begging for an emotional response from the audience. It’s not just about the architecture of the movement of the form or the dance vocabulary. Within those, I’m trying to embed an emotional content, one that’s narrative, but not miming it; it’s not literal.
CS: What are some of the major themes in this work?
MT: There are three main parts to Kiss. Vulnerability is a major theme in the first of a series of duets in the section called, “Sibling Duets & Blindfold.” When you’re ready to come out and share your sexual identity, the feelings of vulnerability are huge. What words will you say? Who are you going to say them to first? Your closest sister? Your oldest sister or brother? And then your mom first and dad later?
In the first section, I’m dealing with all this in the form of duets. The first duet is between siblings, as a sibling relationship, like one sister advising another. Another duet is more sexual, between a couple. Then the third, between two women, is even more sexual. In this one, they keep coming close to a kiss, but never make that physical contact.
After the duets, the second section, “Coming Out” is rebellious, and bitchy. It’s like, I’m not looking for approval. After that, in the third section, called “Vanity,” I’m dealing with when you’re more comfortable with yourself and your sexual orientation. At the same time, we’re slaves to it, by way of the billion-dollar make-up and apparel industries. We slave for those. One side of ourselves wants to look the way society expects us to look. The other wants to tell society what we feel like looking like. There’s that dichotomy, that constant battle between the two. But the truth is, in the end, we have to accept and be proud of who we are, independent of whatever it is we may be a slave to or rebel against. So this piece says, Celebrate who you know you are, not who someone says you should be.
There’s something endearing about discovering your sexuality. And I can only address it in terms of how I experienced it, myself. I yearned for that moment of discovery. The yearning, more than the actual discovery, beckons more of a response from the person experiencing it. Sexual discovery is much more interesting to me as a journey.
But there is no such thing as a manual for one to come out. There is no model (successful or not), no pioneer who has paved the way for a person to come out. So this “journey” is an experience that I went through. In a way, it’s very personal. But at the same time, I want to share with the audience that when I came out, I may as well have been a blind person. My “path” was relying on my survival instinct and the love and support from friends and family members.
CS: How do this work’s visual elements convey what you’re saying in Kiss?
MT: We’re using strong colors that provoke an emotional response—black, white and red. These are colors most people already put emotional attachments to. Also, the work carries a fashion-statement flavor to it, through the make-up, hair and costumes. Paloma Soledad is the costume designer, who I’ve never worked with before. She was the emerging designer for Portland Fashion Week last spring. The feel is sort of punkish. It’s sexy. There’s a lot of skin. Definitely a lot of skin. And the lighting is moody. I always wanted to work with Michael Mazzola, lighting director for Oregon Ballet Theater, but couldn’t afford him. His lighting only adds to the choreography. In the third section, there’s a four-minute film by David Bryant, my first time working with him, also. The film is very risqué. It’s all about human sexuality.
CS: One thing that struck me when I was watching you all rehearse that day was the music—everything from classical choral and punk rock to overtone singing and sitar.
MT: Yes, there are all kinds in this piece. The music was composed by Heather Perkins, another first for me. It’s all electronic. She’s using Asian elements in her work, but also bringing in those you mentioned, plus techno for the “Vanity” section. And then sometimes it’s just a heartbeat, like when you’re discovering your attraction for somebody or see your lover or hear their voice and your heart skips a beat.
CS: This is your last performance ever. Why? And is it sad for you in a way?
MT: It’s more bittersweet, because it is my final bow as a performer, but it’s not necessary to be sad. Years ago I had told myself that when I reach 40, I shouldn’t wear a dance belt and perform in public. That wouldn’t be an attractive thought. Well, I’m way past that mark, so it’s time to hang up my thong!
But also, it’s a natural step to take. You start out as a performer, then make your own work for yourself, then create a signature work for an ensemble, then operate as a company, and then finally “graduate” from that to take on full stewardship as a director/choreographer. At this point in my “maturity” phase, I am much more interested in the work itself than in developing myself as a performer.
CS: How do you think Kiss will lead to the next piece you do?
MT: I don’t know. But it’s appropriate for me to be dancing in it for the last time. It feels like the closing chapter of my work during the past decade, which has been mostly autobiographical. My next work may be about the life of farmers in Indonesia, though not literally. But it’ll be something that touches me so deeply with an emotional response that I’ll need to make some artistic response to it. And only dance will be able to do that.
For more information about Kiss, see www.whitebird.org.
© Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.