Quang Kien Van’s Lunar Shadows premieres at Greenwich Dance on November 11th. Here, he talks to SeeingDance’s David Mead about the work, his training system and notions of identity.
It’s quite a leap from the outer reaches of the ancient universe to a psychiatric hospital in modern-day Las Vegas, but that’s the epic journey choreographer Quang Kien Van takes us on in Lunar Shadows as he explores the all too pertinent themes of migration and displacement, identity and belonging.
The seeds for Lunar Shadows were sowed way back in 2009 when Step Out Arts, an organisation that seeks to address the under-representation of British East Asian artists within the UK’s dance industry alongside promoting East Asian culture more generally, ran a development scheme to nurture emerging British East Asian choreographers. Vietnam-born, ethnically Chinese, London-raised Quang was given a slot and created Patient 319, a semi-autobiographical piece set in a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas. “Of course, I’ve never been in a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas but I lived there for a year when I was performing with Cirque du Soleil,” he says. “Vegas was a bit of mad house. Patient 319 was built on biographical elements augmented with a whole load of fictional stuff. I’m interested in narrative and what narrative does.”
Quang explains, “Lunar Shadows is a marrying of Patient 319 with a Chinese Arts Space commission I did last year called Lunar Orbits, an 18-minute piece set out in space, about humanity among the stars, about our fleeting existence on the edge of the abyss. I’ve put them together to create a single narrative arc.”
As Quang observes, there are different ways of doing narrative, though, and warns those going to see Lunar Shadows not to expect a straightforward end-to-end story. “I like to say that it’s more in the style of poetry rather than prose. It’s built on metaphors and imagery. There is a plot, but it’s skew-whiff, it’s slightly perverted, different.” We are promised a “turbulent clash of fiction and autobiography, immersing the audience in a dark psychological thriller.”
Quang Kien Van is running a full day workshop at Greenwich Dance on Saturday October 22, 2016 from 10:30am to 5:00pm. It costs £25 and it can be booked online at www.greenwichdance.org.uk.
Without giving too much away, Quang says it’s “a bit like a flip of how a traditional ballet functions. Giselle, for example, goes from a narrative into a final act that’s almost pure dance. This is kind of flipped the other way around, starting in outer space in a sort of abstracted world before crashing down into Las Vegas and becoming much more episodic.”
For his music, Quang has turned to old friend Philip Feeney, composer of many ballets and contemporary works for Central School of Ballet (where he is music director) and Northern Ballet. Quang recalls how, when he was a little kid in junior school walking down the corridors, he would hear Feeney playing wonderful music for the seniors. The pair later became good friends. “We played a lot of chess matches, which I won,” he laughs. Feeney also lends his voice in Lunar Shadows, acting as what Quang calls the ‘unreliable narrator’, heard but not seen.
Quang is appearing in the work himself. “I’m making a sort of glorified cameo, but the piece is unashamedly about identity and origin, so in a way it makes sense that I’m in it. It would be kind of weird, a bit like chickening-out, if I wasn’t. The work confronts that aspect full on.”
Lunar Shadows is the latest step on what is already an impressive dance career. Having trained at the Central School, Quang went on to dance professionally for a wide variety of companies including Adventures in Motion Pictures, Cirque du Soleil, Michael Clark Company, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Scottish Dance Theatre and Skånes Dansteater. It’s an impressive and varied list, but he says, “That was then but things come around. At some point I realised that I wanted to choreograph. I deliberately searched for stuff that would challenge me, not just as a dancer but also intellectually as a potential choreographer. I’ve done quite a few short pieces of choreography but I’m really focused on developing that aspect of my career right now.”
Quang’s work has also extended to film in a series of what he rather self-deprecatingly calls ‘miniature videos’ of dancers called Portraits of Dancers, made “when I was sort of fiddling around as a choreographer,” and Lunar Corps, a dance-music film commissioned by Chinese Arts Space and made with composer/sound designer Ruth Chan and filmmaker Suki Mok, inspired by the largely forgotten Chinese Labour Corps who fought for the allies in World War One.
Quang insists that while there is no single main influence on his work, those choreographers he admires always inform it. “When I was a kid it was people like Mats Ek and Ohad Naharin. Nowadays its people like Crytsal Pite and Sharon Eyal. If you watch these choreographers’ work, you can’t help but be affected by what they are doing. Their enquiries feed through into my thoughts. They show me the possibilities. I’ve also danced for a fair few of wildly creative artists, who have definitely left their mark!”
Given that, it’s no surprise that Quang’s dance doesn’t conform to any particular stylistic vocabulary. “There are influences from all over the shop, from ballet, martial arts, hip hop, whatever is available to me,” he says. “I guess my stuff is really about pursuing my preoccupations, which change year in year out.”
Despite all that, Quang’s practice is very firmly rooted in a training system called Functional Bio-Dynamics, itself based on functional bio-mechanics, an approach to health and fitness introduced to him by David Warren, an osteopath he met while at the Central School of Ballet. “Initially he was just treating my minor injuries, but I became very interested in his method.”
As Quang observes, most dance techniques are driven by the need to conform to a particular style. “Artistically it’s very interesting but it’s not necessarily good training to produce the fittest or healthiest body,” he says. Functional Bio-Dynamics is not actually a dance practice but more a way of getting the body fit enough, he says, going on to explain that “ it’s a very structured set of exercises designed to develop a dancer’s strength, range of motion and co-ordination without causing the body damage. It helps dancers cope with the various demands that modern and contemporary dance today expects, and as a choreographer, it gives me a base where I can train dancers and keep them mobile and dynamic. I can then play creatively with what I want them to do in terms of movement.”
Identity is an important aspect of Lunar Shadows. With Step Out Arts again promoting Quang, does he see a danger of being pigeon-holed as a ‘British-East Asian’ choreographer. “This whole ‘British East Asian’ thing, it is a label, but I no-longer see it as a hindrance. There was a time when I was afraid of that being the forefront of my identity, but I am a Londoner, I’ve lived here since the age of 3. I’ve had an international career, but over and over again I find that my Asian-ness, my Chinese-ness is at the forefront of my identity whether I like it or not. As a child growing up you try and figure out where you are in society and who you are. It’s a bit messy, it’s very messy in fact for everyone! Identity is complex and fluid, and quite honestly I’ll be spending the rest of my life redefining it. Actually, ‘British East Asian’ is an excellent term for me because I am ethnically Chinese, although born in Vietnam and brought up in Peckham, now one of the most multi-cultural places on Earth,” he says.
“So, I would say I’ve leant to embrace the term ‘British East Asian’ and I’m now actively involved with organisations that promote ‘British East Asian’ artists. The way I now see it, it doesn’t limit me. If you look at it, Hofesh Shechter is considered an Israeli choreographer, Akram Khan is considered a Bengali choreographer, British but Bengali nonetheless. There’s a whole host of choreographers that are, in a way, labelled in one way or another, but they are at the same time redefining those labels. Changing the terms of those labels in their own way.”
So far, no British East Asian choreographer has broken through in the way Khan in particular has. “I can’t speak for the entire region of East Asia, but the British Chinese in particular haven’t been good at being visible,” feels Quang. “Historically, we haven’t been good at, or particularly interested in being visible or vocal. But things are changing rapidly. I and quite a few of my contemporaries, especially the younger generation, are in fact very interested in being visible and vocal. And of course there are more South East Asian folk in this country than East Asian folk. There is huge talent there, though.”
Very much part of that talent pool, Quang says that being in a creative environment is very important to him, He cannot stress how much he enjoys choreographing and leading projects, although, as he adds, getting work on stage and making it viable is not easy. “I’m working on that! I’ve enjoyed being able to lead creative projects as a choreographer. I wish to continue to do so. The key is to spend more time making work and performing it rather than fund-raising … but I’m working on that!”
Lunar Shadows by Quang Kien Van premieres at The Borough Hall, Greenwich on Friday November 11 at 7.45. For details and tickets, visit www.greenwichdance.org.uk
It can also be seen at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green on Sunday December 4 at 7.30 (www.richmix.org.uk)
Lunar Corps, part of Project New Earth can be seen at the Southbank Centre on December 16 as part of the China Changing festival (www.southbankcentre.co.uk)