Guest blogger and dance critic Laura Bleiberg provides the following, Classical Life’s first dance review:

A concert isn’t always just a concert. Sometimes an ulterior motive, below the surface and not publicly discussed, is what drives a performance.

On Sunday (Oct. 9), New York City-based choreographer Thang Dao rented the Rose Center Theater in Westminster – in Little Saigon – to self-present a commissioned piece he made for Ballet Austin II, “Quiet Imprint.” Dao’s motivation was simple. Rather than wait around for the ballet to maybe make it out to Southern California, he decided to bring it here himself. He wanted the large, local Vietnamese community to see “Quiet Imprint,” and to have more experience with contemporary concert dance.

Dao was born in Danang, Vietnam, and raised in Los Angeles. He has had success as a dancer (a former member of the cutting-edge Stephen Petronio Company) and has won awards for his choreography. He directs his own dance company now. In a program note, Dao wrote that “Quiet Imprint” was the result of a personal “journey” to reflect on his culture and heritage, and to reveal the “imprint” that war and dislocation have had on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

The score has particular significance:  10 popular Vietnamese songs written by the late pacifist Trinh Cong Son, the “Vietnamese Bob Dylan” (so-named by Joan Baez).  The soloist was Khanh Ly, an equally illustrious musician who achieved fame as an interpreter of Son’s deeply poignant music.  A four piece band (piano, guitar, bass and drums) joined her in an upstage corner of the stage.

The audience cheered loudly and eagerly when Ly came onstage, and for certain songs, as well. Without English translations of the lyrics, I and the few other non-Asian viewers in the crowd, had to rely on Dao’s choreography and body language for narrative meaning. I fear I missed details, but the overall emotive power was easy to interpret.

An introductory slide show depicted the unrelenting ruin of war. Civilians cowering and crying; fields and buildings destroyed; Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s celebrated 1972 picture of naked 9-year-old Kim Phuc and other villagers running away from a napalm attack, a notorious “friendly fire” incident.

Dao’s movement suggested longing, love, fear, agitation, and lamentation. In one section, men and women appeared to be rowing a boat. In another, a man was lifted overhead, his arms stretched sideways so his body formed a cross. Another dancer was cuddled in a Pietà-like pose. In a rare upbeat section, the women held conical straw hats, flirting gently, feet stamping the ground as in folk dance. Dao favored flowing, balletic moves, and there was an insightful rhythmic intensity, too. A viewer felt the pulse and flavor of the songs. The dancers dug into the ground with their legs, while simultaneously pulling upward, out of their torsos. Their palms were often lifted skyward, suggesting supplication and innocence.

The formal structure within each section tended to be repetitive, and I had the sense that the stage was too small for even 12 dancers. The wonderfully earnest Kody Jauron brought the high intensity that this earnest work needed to be transcendent.

It was a great treat to hear Khanh Ly, about whom I knew nothing before being invited to this concert. Her voice was deep and clear, and her intonation movingly soulful.

The show was over in about 45 minutes, “Quiet Imprint” being the program’s only piece. About a third of the audience stood at the end. Perhaps understandingly, the ovation was loudest for Ly.

I didn’t fit the ethnic demographic of the intended audience. Still, I was glad for this brief introduction to Dao’s work and to Ballet Austin II. But I was especially happy to hear singer Khanh Ly and the songs of Trinh Cong Son, which, through the bittersweet beauty and unfamiliarity of the music, made a particular imprint on me.

photo: Courtesy of Thang Dao Dance Company