Contemporary dancer Do Hai Anh takes ballet from the stage to the people. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Ky Anh Tran.
We meet in a bar, either the best or the worst place for conducting an interview. On the one hand, people are more relaxed, more comfortable and so more open to discussing their personal lives. Drinks flow. Everyone’s happy. On the other hand, it’s too loud and some are, perhaps, too happy.
But amid the frenzy of a weekday happy hour, Do Hai Anh stands out from the crowd. Instead of nursing a cocktail or lounging on the plush velvet sofa behind her, she sits upright, spine straight as an arrow. She’s not especially tall but her tell-tale dancer’s posture makes the petite ballerina easy to spot; no one else in the place looks quite so weightless.
The Saigon resident has plenty of reasons to stand tall. At 24, she has accomplished more than most, transitioning from child performer to seasoned ballerina over the course of an already storied career, touring in South Korea and the United States and collaborating with both well-known Vietnamese and international artists.
Hai Anh’s dance career first began at age three, when her mother discovered Baby Mickey, a children’s performance group founded by Vietnamese singer Thuy Uyen. Throughout her childhood, Hai Anh and her Baby Mickey costars graced the stage at local events, singing, dancing and generally entertaining the crowd.
“Being in the group was a good experience,” she recalls. “I got a lot of access to the stage and it was a good way to help me gradually overcome my shyness.”
But as she grew older, dance became more than just an extracurricular activity. At age 12, Hai Anh began studying at the HCMC Dance School, where she would spend seven years honing her skills at the ballet barre. After another few years of professional work – first with the HCMC Symphony Orchestra & Opera, then with Arabesque, a Saigon-based contemporary dance company – Hai Anh has arrived as a solo artist, seeking out collaborative projects and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a professional dancer in the southern hub.
Last month, Hai Anh became the first dancer to grace the pages of Saigon Artbook, an ever-growing book project which aims to engage the city’s artistic community by featuring three local artists in each of its regular installments.
“To be a part of Saigon Artbook is a great honour for me,” says Hai Anh. “It’s a challenge that’s helped me to introduce and bring dancing closer to young people.”
According to Hai Anh, there is a disconnect between forms of dance like ballet and the general population.
“People still say that ballet is an art form only for rich, educated people,” she explains. “Honestly, I think that ballet is for everyone who loves it. Ballet is a very good platform for young people who want to become professional dancers.”
This is a mission close to her heart and a large part of the reason Hai Anh took a break from Arabesque last year to begin Unicorn Studio, a collaborative business which offers event planning and photography services as well as carrying out its own dance- and arts-related projects. Though the company is very much still in its infancy, for Hai Anh it has brought some balance to her work life, matching the demands of a professional career with her passion as a dancer.
“Through professional photography, projects for clients, renting out space to teach dance or for creative performances and events, I can earn money for the studio,” she explains. “The other part is to balance my work life; I still always wish and look for ways to do my own artistic projects.”
“Now Unicorn Studio is an indispensable part of me,” Hai Anh continues. “It’s the place where my artistic ideas can become a reality.”
If dance is all about movement, however, capturing such a fluid medium in static form can be a challenge. For Hai Anh, the four-month lead-up to Saigon Artbook’s fifth installment involved crafting 12 individual concepts for the 12 works of art mandated by the organisers. Each dance, she says, was inspired by a single line in a poem, which the young choreographer then used to create a movement. Along with styling, costumes and unique locations, Hai Anh then performed each dance with a photographer in tow. The resulting images capture the core message of each dance, bringing to life her movements on the page.
In one series, for instance, Hai Anh performs in a shadowy room, lit only from above, her movements reflected in a broken mirror. This, she says, was inspired by a poem which reads: “The world breaks everyone, but in the end, some are strong again and rise up from the rubble.” While a book of images may not be the first medium that comes to mind when expressing movement, this work alone has grown into a larger multimedia dance project, on which Hai Anh is collaborating with fellow artist Ky Anh.
It’s projects like these that set Hai Anh apart from some of her peers: while making a career out of dance is still not easy in Vietnam, she concedes, those who do often follow a more traditional path, securing steady employment with a dance company. Of course, such opportunities afford dancers a chance to work and grow – through Arabesque, she was able to perform abroad and make connections not only in Vietnam but with dancers and choreographers around the world – however collaborative projects, while perhaps not as steady as company work, allow her the platform to bring dance to a larger audience.
“I am inspired by the simple things in my life: kids dancing with their shadows in the alley, the housewives who dance in the park, the circus boys who perform on Bui Vien and by my mother, a woman who never became a dancer herself but loves the art of dance,” says Hai Anh. “From all these things, I wish to create opportunities for those who live passionately with their dancing.”
This is the mission statement behind Art for Everyone, Unicorn Studio’s latest project. Though still in development, the initiative would aim to do precisely what its title states: allow everyone, young and old, to participate in and learn about the world of dance. For its dedicated founder, this is a step toward bringing her passion into the world.
“Dancing helps give balance to my life,” she says. “You could say dance chose me; it wasn’t I who chose to dance. Now I couldn’t live without it.”