Van Huynh Company: Re:birth

The Place, London
November 14, 2023

Dam Van Huynh was a child refugee from Vietnam, who fled with his parents after the war. Inspired by the childhood experience, Re:birth uses movement, and text from poets and activists, as he retraces his experiences of rediscovery and explores themes of displacement and all that it involves for the individuals concerned.

The piece opens in silence with British Afro-Caribbean vocalist, movement artist and composer Elaine Mitchener standing, looking at the audience. It’s disconcerting, slightly uncomfortable. It’s not that she looks, it’s the manner of looking. Things start to move when the lights go out and her voice is heard in the space. With her figure only faintly illuminated by the light of the fire exit signs, the sound seems to echo round the void. It’s like the summoning of memories, of others who join her in the gloom.

Re:birth by Dam van Huynh
Photo Brett Lockwood

Re:birth is a collage of impressions and sensations, and to a lesser extent emotions, made visual by the seven performers. Memory fades and distorts with time, however, and it’s as if we are witnessing vague recollections rather than anything concrete. Mitchener’s voice becomes increasingly loud and discordant. It and the accompanying soundscape suggest chaos and confusion. The atmosphere is oppressive.

The same goes for the movement of the performers. They appear disoriented and weak. There’s a lot of falling, being carried and being dragged lifeless. There are suggestions of violence. Most of the time it all feels quite chaotic. Their dislocation is plain to see. But there are also moments of humanity, of support. Later, it becomes more tension filled. At times there’s a distinct wariness. Some inclusions feel odd, though, including nudity and a nude headstand, both for no apparent reason.

Much of this, and the rest of the piece, is in silence. That undoubtedly make the work a harder watch (the less than compelling largely loose movement vocabulary doesn’t hep either) but it does mean the viewer hears the breath, the sound of bodies as they thump on the floor.

A change comes as they run. You wonder from what? To where? More running comes with arms outstretched. They spin child-like. It’s as if they have found a moment of safety or release. But it doesn’t last.

Emma Lyth’s costumes, which include shiny hotpants and a slip worn by a man are as disparate as the performers that wear them. Presumably it’s meant to indicate that refugees come in all forms, although, again, it somehow doesn’t feel ‘right.’ But then, I guess, what is ‘right’?

Mitchener’s continuing text holds the piece together as best it can but is largely lost in the background every time Martyna Poznanska’s rumbling soundscape kicks in. Only at the end, when Mitchener quotes at length from Audre Lorde is she truly heard clearly.

The cast are certainly fully committed. Everything is loaded with meaning. It’s easy to see what Van Huynh is getting at as he suggests what being a refugee feels like. But for all that, and for all it is impossible not to make connections with events in the contemporary world, Re:birth left me struggling to connect. It didn’t reach out. It didn’t make me reflect afterwards on the issues raised. Perhaps it’s just all too unrelenting. Or too personal.