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reed magazine logoSpring 2009
Minh Tran

Tran wrote The Road Home in 1996, two years after he and his father made their first trip back to Vietnam. “Some memories were so vivid I recreated the scenes, but in a poetic sense.” Ask him about being on that boat and “in an instant I can feel it.” Dancers roll away and are pulled back, repeatedly, what became Minh Tran & Company’s first performed work.

Once White Bird, a Portland-based, national dance presenter, took Tran on, his company was flying, spurred by a National Dance Project grant and the world premiere of Nocturnal Path (2003), a tribute to his Buddhist father (who still lives in Portland with his family).

“My dad always wanted to become a monk, so this piece is about my perception of Buddhist philosophy,” says Tran, who is not a Buddhist. With microtonal and minimalist music, dancers flow in orange-burgundy robes amidst an eight-foot mirrored spiral, the scent of temple incense wafting.

“I want the audience to immerse themselves in all the senses, even the sixth sense.”

It mattered to him that the silk and rayon costumes rippled and drifted, “because the vocabulary of that piece is that nothing ever stops. It’s a spiritual journey. As soon as the dance movement arrives at a shape, it’s moving to the next one.”

Tran views dance “as a piece of motion that captures the essence of whatever message I’m trying to send,” he continues. In Forgotten Memories (2007), that message can wrench words from decades of silence.

On a visit to Cambodia in 2002, Tran visited the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, in the former Khmer Rouge secret prison where thousands of people were tortured and executed. Being there, says Tran, “was as if someone hit you in the stomach.” In this work, dread and longing cry out in the dancers’ tightly rounded and shivering shapes contrasting with the fluid and the lyrical.

Tran’s work moves audiences as much as his teaching motivates students. “Dance is a very powerful way for me to express emotion and exercise the body,” says psychology major Tian Yu Yen ’09. “Minh challenges our bodies to do things that are not necessarily comfortable. His choreography is very physical, and requires a lot of precision, balance and control. What’s really valuable in his teaching is the high expectations. When you have that, students are more likely to perform at a higher level.”

Students also take their dance experience out into the rest of their lives, while at Reed and beyond. “It’s about not letting yourself become all about your analytic capabilities or brain endurance, but trying to incorporate the whole self in the educational experience,” says Ucker.

Most of all, Tran hopes his students learn to be honest with themselves—an honesty he insists on for his own life and work.

His latest piece (to premiere January 2010), about his sexual identity, is perhaps his most intimate. He came out to his family in the late 1980s. As a Vietnamese man from a conservative and traditional culture, “it was hard to deliver such news to them,” he says. “First of all, I tell them I’m gay, second, I’ve fallen in love with a man, a white man yet, and third, I’m moving out,” he chuckles. “I did not just drop a bomb; I dropped a nuclear bomb.”

The scene of steeling himself to break the news and then dodging the fallout will show up in this piece, in which he makes a cameo appearance.

Clearly, Tran is someone who lives his own advice: “If it’s with dance, truly speak from your heart, from your blood, from every single cell in your body,” he urges. “But with whatever you do, just be true to yourself.”

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer living in Portland. You can read more of her work at

reed magazine logoSpring 2009