Questions of identity to the fore in Quang Kien Van’s Lunar Shadows

Borough Hall, Greenwich, London
November 11, 2016

David Mead

Combining or extending existing dance works is fraught with danger. A bringing together so often fails to gel, while a lengthening has a habit of stretching an idea that bit too far. So, when choreographer Quang Kien Van describes his new Lunar Shadows as a “marrying”, an “unruly union” even, of his previous, Patient 319 and Lunar Orbits, alarm bells start to ring. But good news! While Lunar Shadows may be a union, it’s far from unruly. Indeed, it’s a more than interesting and thought-provoking hour of dance.

Narratively, Lunar Shadows tells the story of Patient 319, and his escape with his mother from 1970s Vietnam in a wooden boat, his rescue by a British cargo ship, his relocation to Peckham in South-East London, and his eventual finding himself in a mental institution in Las Vegas where dance provides some much-needed therapy.

Quang Kien Van in Lunar ShadowsPhoto Suki Mok
Quang Kien Van in Lunar Shadows
Photo Suki Mok

That the work is deeply personal is very clear. Of Chinese descent, Quang Kien Van did indeed leave Vietnam as a 3-year old and finish up in Peckham. And he did work in the mad and totally unreal place that is Las Vegas for a while with Cirque du Soleil. But what Lunar Shadows is really about is identity, which is shaped by similarity and difference. “Who am I?” is the underlying question throughout the work, a question made more difficult by the fact that how we see ourselves is not always how others see us. “The themes that are present in Lunar Shadows…they’re persistent themes in my life that can’t be ignored and I have to address somehow,” he says.

The narrative and that question are illustrated by Quang Kien Van, a figure in black throughout; and Laura Lorenzi, Daniel Phung and Rachele Rapisardi. The opening section sees the latter trio in rough-cut, loose, beige tops and trousers. Their constant running to and fro suggests uncertainty and being buffeted by any manner of forces in some sort of void. Although the dashing back and forth makes the point effectively, it does go on a bit. Having said that, the use of space and moments when the dancers come together help keep the interest. Philip Feeney’s electronic soundscore supports the dance marvellously here; very atmospheric and emphasising space,

A compelling solo for Quang Kien Van, his arms especially expressive, suggests his fighting with himself, with something inside him; conflicting messages about his identity perhaps, of wanting to fit in but not quite being able to do so for whatever reasons, both very pertinent issues in these days of increased migration.

Daniel Phung, Rachele Rapisardi and Laura Lorenzi,(with Quang Kien Van behind) in Lunar ShadowsPhoto Suki Mok
Daniel Phung, Laura Lorenzi and Rachele Rapisardi (with Quang Kien Van behind) in Lunar Shadows
Photo Suki Mok

The questioning is effective and there’s plenty of food for thought although I suspect the atmosphere and intensity would be ramped up considerably in a small and more enclosed space. The Borough Hall is huge and the performance space very open.

As we shift to Vegas things become bright and glittery. Designer Ruta Irbite’s clothes and wigs are gaudy and sparkle. But the synthetic nature of things soon becomes all too apparent. Questions of identity, of being the product of two or more cultures and struggling to fit into either return in speech by the other dancers and in Feeney’s gorgeous spoken narration (a very useful explanation of thoughts and events). The point seems to be that, however hard we might try to be someone or something else, we are who we are. Feeney’s music here tends to the more everyday. Did I even hear a reference to the Girl from Ipanema in there?

As Lunar Shadows moves on, the dance tends towards a superficially more cheerful outlook that is mixed with moments of darkness when emotions are dramatically and violently, yet satisfyingly released. But sometimes that is just what is needed, and haven’t we all been there sometime? The end comes somewhat unexpectedly but with a feeling that the story is not yet over, which of course it’s not.

Lunar Shadows can next be seen at Rich Mix on December 4 at 7.30pm. Visit for details.

Running time: 58 minutes