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The Dance of Death

Prof. Minh Tran stages his first major performance in eight years.

Randall S. Barton | February 14, 2019

As his mother lay dying, Prof. Minh Tran [dance 2008–] searched for a way to move through his grief. As an artist whose medium is movement, it was natural that the avenue he would travel was dance.

“Everybody has the experience of having to say ‘goodbye’ to someone they love so much,” he says. “The process of getting to where you can say, ‘I can finally let it go,’ is a huge journey.” When his mother passed away in November 2017, he decided to create a tribute work. He won a grant to produce the work, but discovered the death was too recent for him to process. Then in July of last year, his father, a devout Buddhist, died unexpectedly. Again subsumed by grief, Prof. Tran felt like he was receiving a message from his father: “What you’re going through—you need to get it out of your system.”

That’s when he began creating “Annica: Impermanence,” which explores the farewell ritual and premieres February 21–24 in Reed’s performing arts building. In Pali—the language of the Theravada Buddhism—“annica” is the word for impermanence. The 49-minute work is broken into seven sections, danced by seven dancers. In the Buddhist tradition, the 49th day after death is of tremendous importance to the soul who has been wandering since death in a transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth.

“These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran explains. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a neither land that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers that they will be shepherded by a bodhisattva or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate—whatever ‘the gate’ means. It is important that the soul finds its way back to the gate, so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”

“Annica: Impermanence” is his first major work for his dance company since “Kisses,” a work about sexual identity that his company performed eight years ago. The program will be danced by his seven-member, Portland-based company: Suzanne Chi, Margretta Hansen, Shaun Keylock, Prof. Carla Mann ’81, Andrés Peraza-Aguillón, Rachel Slater and himself. The original score was written by Heather Perkins, who frequently collaborates with Tran. Set and lighting design is provided by Prof. Peter Ksander [theatre 2011–], stage projection design by Marilys Ernst, and costume design by Sandy Hedgepeth.

When he begins choreographing a new piece, Tran often he uses diary entries to inform his process.

“I write things down and then use keywords as the impetus for the moves,” he explains. “What keyword actually moves your gut?”

For example, in the sentence, “I miss my mother terribly,” he might pull out the words “miss,” “mother,” and “terribly” and dig into them in the studio until something jelled. In dance, that digging is done with movement.

Using an iPad to record improvisational moves in the studio, he asks a dancer to interpret a word with movement. He might stop the dancer mid-move and say, “Wait! That fifth of a second when you lifted your elbow and looked away—that’s what I’m looking for. Can you repeat that?” In this way, a dance vocabulary is built.

“When we create the the raw part of a movement, we don’t look at the mirror,” he explains. “The mirror is really just for teaching in dance class. We pull the curtain over the mirror to take judgement out of the equation and just keep moving until we feel it. When you are convinced you can deliver the message without speaking, we have arrived at the junction where we can actually being to work.”

Each of the seven, seven-minute sections deals with an aspect of the grieving process, from anger, denial, and wishing you could go back, to acceptance, letting go, and sending the dead off on their journey. The viewpoint shifts back and forth from that of the living and to that of the dead.

“For the lost souls, this is a scary journey; they don’t have anywhere to belong to,” Tran says. “I use that as the impetus for my choreography. I asked Prof. Carla Mann [dance 1995–] to be my death soul because I wanted a seasoned performer to do it. In the Final Crossing, we’re letting the departed go and they’re not coming back; it’s a one-way journey. Carla never had a moment of looking back.”

“Annica: Impermanence” will be performed in the round against an all-white set (white is the traditional color for funeral rites in Asia). A room was constructed within the performance lab to replicate the experience of outsiders taking in funeral rites.

“The audience is in the lab,” Tran explains, “but they’re in it from another room—they’re not inside the journey with us. Just as when you go to a funeral, there are two sides, the family who is suffering inside and those who watch.”

Founded in 1997, his project-oriented dance company performs an idiosyncratic fusion of contemporary Western dance and traditional Southeast Asian dance techniques. Critics and peers hail him as one of the most impressive modern dancers on the contemporary scene, but his dance career was something of a fluke.

Born in 1966, Tran was the youngest of eight children in a family who eventually settled in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  At the age of seven, he began training in Chinese opera at the National School of Fine and Performing Arts. Chinese opera is a tradition that combines singing, dancing, and acrobatics. The family survived the end of the Vietnam War, the fall of Saigon, and the communist takeover. When he was 10, his training in Chinese opera ceased because the new regime banned works based on the teachings of Confucius. Three years later, the government began drafting teenage boys to fight in Cambodia; Tran and his three brothers escaped the country on a fishing boat. After four grueling days at sea, they reached a Thai refugee camp, packed with 17,000 people. The brothers arrived in the United States in 1980, sponsored by a Vietnamese man in Portland. The rest of the family joined them a few years later. While attending Milwaukie High School, Tran earned money by mopping bathrooms at night. He majored in business administration at Portland State University and began dancing with the university’s now-defunct repertory company where he got his first training in Western dance. He was considering a career in law when his life partner, Gary Nelson, urged him to follow his dreams. Tran earned an MFA in dance from the University of Washington in 1999.

A continuing visiting associate professor at Reed, Tran teaches choreography, technique, and non-Western culture classes like Balinese dance and dance tradition of Southeast Asia. He has taught at Reed since 2008, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and nearly $4.5 million in gifts from alumni and friends to expand and support faculty in theatre, music and dance departments.

“Anicca / Impermanence,” which will be performed six times, is presented by the Reed College Dance Department, sponsored by Ronni Lacroute, Darci and Charlie Swindells, and supported in part by Regional Arts & Culture Council. Get your tickets here.

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