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reed magazine logoSpring 2009

Tran and his family survived the fall of Saigon and the advent of communism. A few years later, the regime began drafting teenage boys to fight in Cambodia; Tran’s name came up, but his parents refused to let him go. One night, his mother handed him a wad of cash and sent him away with his three brothers. At first, he didn’t understand. “It would’ve been devastating for me if I’d realized then the possible consequences of that night, that that could very well have been the last time I would see my parents and other siblings,” says Tran, his easy smile replaced with a furrowed brow.

Without answers or street smarts, he sought help from strangers, and slept on beaches and in bus depots for six months, until his brothers negotiated a desperate escape from Vietnam on a flimsy, 35-foot fishing boat.

Minh Tran

Tran demonstrates a choreographic shape from Doris Humphrey’s 1929 piece, water study.

Sleep was impossible as they squatted knees to chest, vomiting alongside 65 other refugees, with no food or water. At one point, the boat was invaded by pirates, who raped a woman before Trans eyes. He would have thrown himself into the heaving waves of the South China Sea if not for the strong arms of his brothers. As he tells the story, his eyes seem to darken and pull inward at the sheer memory of his despair. “The water, so close, was so tempting. I just wanted to end the misery.”

After four harrowing days at sea, they landed at a Thai refugee camp on a beach the size of a football field, packed with 17,000 people.

Eight months later, a Vietnamese man in Portland sponsored Tran and his brothers; they arrived in September 1980 (the rest of the family joined them a few years later). Tran immediately entered Milwaukie High School—a jarring experience, since he spoke no English—and earned money by mopping bathrooms at night. He steeped himself in American culture, and sat riveted to the dancers on Solid Gold. “They were as close to dance as I could get,” says Tran.

That is, until the school’s dance-team coach invited him to watch the girls practice. After graduation, he enrolled at Portland State University and joined the university’s now-defunct professional dance company.

With a B.S. in business administration and a certificate in dance from PSU, Tran briefly considered a career in law, but his life partner, Gary Nelson, owner of a Portland residential property management company, urged him to follow his dreams. So he went to the University of Washington and earned an MFA in dance in 1999.

East and West merge in Tran’s 30-plus works, some drawing from his experience as a political refugee. “But it’s more than just visual,” says friend and colleague Tere Mathern, artistic director and choreographer of Tere Mathern Dance and co-director of Conduit Dance, both in Portland; and Tran’s dance teacher when he was at PSU. “It’s a presence in the dancing, bringing in the Eastern philosophy, with the Western contemporary side supporting that in a way that’s relevant to the world, now.” Tran’s fondness for intricate movements, such as the delicate fanning of fingers, “demands a detail and a quietness, and a softer kind of presence… [It] makes people go deeper into performance, and their own state of mind, when they’re moving.”

reed magazine logoSpring 2009