Bleu Néon is playing at the Théâtre du MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) in Montreal from April 28 to 30, 2022.
It seems essential when speaking about Kim-Sanh Châu’s solo performance Bleu Néon that a first statement be made indicating that her art demands some understanding of the geopolitics in reference to her homeland, Vietnam. As Châu suggests in the program notes, Vietnam has occupied particular thresholds in the imagination of the western world. I heard someone once refer to homeland as somewhere where people accept you, where you’re respected and where you’re welcome. It could be further argued that homeland is a place that exists only in memory. So it seems fundamental to grasp, or at least try to focus on the way in which Châu, who refers to herself as a Montreal-based Vietnamese-French contemporary dance artist, interprets the hidden voices she brings to the stage. She has developed movement through the times and places she has imagined and reimagined as particular gravitational points in her personal and artistic research.
The very first visual moments of the piece speak strongly to her journey. She stands still, closes her eyes and centres herself. We hear the gentle inhalation and exhalation of her breath. Slowly, her knees bend, and over a few moments, she lowers herself into a squat position, sitting flatly on her feet, butt down to her ankles and her knees spread apart. This is the stance that she will adopt in variations for the entirety of the performance.
The stage is strewn with different coloured neon lights and a hazy smoke fills the air, creating a space that is dreamlike and otherworldly. Audience members line the space on three sides, seated in chairs or on cushions. It’s also an intercultural space, with its own complex terrain of culture and identity.
As the performance evolves, Châu’s frame seems to support an array of body stories. She conveys the impression that she’s building on the inheritance of body memories. During the show, she turns on a cassette recorder and we hear Vietnamese music dating from the 1970s. She also delivers Vietnamese rap wordplay (although she doesn’t actually speak Vietnamese), which condenses themes about language, spirituality and the violence of commodified sexual stereotypes while lamenting the realities of racial discrimination and displacement faced by the Vietnamese diaspora. She raps with purpose and occasional menace. (Chittakone Baccam created the show’s soundtrack and sound effects.) Translated lyrics are handed out to the audience.
A performance guide indicates that Châu “views Vietnam as a perverse playground for a great number of Westerners. Abuses are many and impunity reigns.” As in many countries, marketing economies have corrupted and diluted Vietnamese arts and invaluable heritage. Châu’s raison d’être seems to subvert illusions and define her artistic practice through political commitment and cultural specificity.
Ultimately, Bleu Néon feels like an offering and a source of renewal, engaging audiences with glimpses of gestures and stances – gentle fingering or threading, hands circling, intertwining, or a fist slamming into the floor, demarcating the space – of the rich and complex individuals who’ve inspired her. And yet, these fleeting movements belie the complexity of the inner lives and personal histories of these souls.
While it would be heartening to say we’re all in this together, a greater honesty is demanded. We might wish that we were more alike, but immersion comes slowly. What is particularly moving about Bleu Néon is that while Châu’s message, rooted in political and cultural history, may not be immediately grasped, and that commonality may be at arm’s length, what is so very obvious is that she clearly and powerfully expressed what she needed to share. And while it may not be possible to make sense of everything that is presented, it is important just to try to visualize, absorb and immerse ourselves in the powerful symbolic vision of the struggles and legacy she embodies.
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