Emily Navarra arrived in Vietnam unexpectedly and with no real plan to stay. A stop over point, to gather herself and reassess after escaping turmoil and conflict. 6 years later, she’s still here. Originally from America, her father’s family had roots in Tunisia and before coming to HCMC Emily based herself there, using it as a bounce point for trips in to Europe. She spent a couple of years in and out of the north African country, working on short-term dance projects around Europe, finding creative inspiration in the community around her, and learning how to make an espresso last for hours. Her relaxed life in Tunisia wasn’t to last as growing political tensions started to take a change for the worse. The country witnessed the birth of the Arab Spring, unrest started spreading throughout the region, and after one too many ‘wrong place wrong time’ moments she made the decision to leave. Within a week, Emily was on a plane bound for Vietnam.

Emily arrived in HCMC in 2011 with no plans to stay. “I thought I’d stick around for a month or so and figure out my next move, but the city was interesting so I decided to give it a year and see where things progressed,” Navarra explained.

She spent the next 18 months in and out of the Vietnam, taking her dance routines from Tunisia around the region, performing shows in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. She started to settle and saw no immediate reason to leave, so decided to give it till the end of 2012 before reaching decisions about the future and making her next move. Around this time, Saigon Outcast opened and Emily found a welcome focal point for her creativity, and a reason to stay longer in Saigon. “I was 100% supportive of the idea and what they were trying to achieve. I met people with similar ambitions and finally found a place I could perform without making it about the self,” Navarra told me.

This was the start of Melting Pot, an Art and Music Festival founded by Emily and a group of likeminded artists, musicians and performers, and became a focal point in the city for the alternative arts scene that was starting to gain momentum. Together,  they used its performances to raise money for art supplies and instruments that went to 6 local orphanages.

After 3 or 4 successful shows, Melting Pot started to attract unwanted attention, so Emily handed over the reins to DJ Mara Phoria and looked for other creative outlets. Around the same time, she met the guys behind Space//Panther and together with Crazy Monkey and Daniel Day Long, teamed up to launch Stand Point Theories.

“The inspiration for this name came from how individuals view their surroundings, and everyone perceives their world a little differently.” Navarra explained. In part a reaction to the unwanted attention received by Melting Pot, and in part a reaction to what was still going on in Tunisia and the Middle East, Stand Point Theories was to be “political but with no mention of politics.”

The first Stand Point Theories show was held at Cargo in 2013. It told stories through a blend of music, movement and visual effects, and was well received by an enthusiastic audience. The experience again prompted Emily to reflect on the changing cityscape of her new home, and how this was impacting on the lives of those who live here.

“I wondered if the young generation of Vietnamese would continue to embrace their local customs as their parents do, as so many of the historical aspects of their city were being torn down in the name of development,” Navarra said. One day, a discussion about the planned removal of Tran Nguyen Han’s statue in the centre of Ben Thanh roundabout got her thinking more about the changes that were happening around her.

“I wanted to find out who the man was, and why there was a statue to him in the centre of the city. I learned he was a general who defended Vietnam from Chinese invasion in the 15th century and that the roads leading into his roundabout are also named after generals who fought with him, such as Nguyen Trai and Le Loi,” Navarra explained.

As she dug deeper into the history of the city, and the people commemorated through statues and road names, she started to explore the legends of Vietnam and the characters related to them.

These stories inspired her next project: Legends. Teaming up again with the Stand Point Theories team and Vietnamese singer, Cat Trong Ly, the show told the story of these Vietnamese cultural figures through dance and music.

Emily now runs the Movement Kitchen, a bi-monthly music and dance workshop that offers an ego free environment for her students to learn and experiment. Without focusing on specific techniques, she encourages self-confidence and expression through movement and music.

Emily starts her day with coffee and silence. “Twice a week I get up early for classes I teach at ACET. I need quiet in the morning, it helps me collect my thoughts for the day. Sometimes my partner, Eric, plays the guitar in the house and it welcomes the day for me”. On days without class she eases into the day slowly, before eventually getting online and checking registrations for her workshops.

“I’m always hungry for knowledge. I listen to podcasts from other choreographers to help me keep up with what’s going on in other parts of the world. They’re informative and inspirational. I have a book called A Life in the Arts which examines various stages of an artist’s personal development. The book contains writing exercises and I spend a while most mornings getting my creative juices flowing.” Emily explained.

Towards the end of last year Emily broadened her creative horizons and invested in DJ controller. Having been inspired by friends, and with music playing an integral part of her life, she now spends a couple of hours each day practicing her new skills.

“I spend hours listening to music as I choreograph my shows, so it seemed like a natural progression. I don’t train in dancing as much as I used to, mainly because I got bored of what I was doing, so felt motivated to find a new creative outlet.”

Her social life is not as active as it used to be and it now takes a lot to drag her out the house. although she is particularly fond of beers from the growing craft brew scene.

By Peter Cornish.
Photo by Vinh Dao.