The New York Times

A Trek from War to Liberation

”I’m straddling two chairs,” says Ea Sola, just back in Paris, when asked where she considers home. The daughter of a Vietnamese father and a French-born Polish-Hungarian mother, Ms. Sola grew up in Lam Dong, in the high plateaus of south-central Vietnam. She was born near the beginning of the Vietnam war, though she refuses to reveal the year. ”When I was 12, I already found the question of age obscene,” she says in her low, deliberate voice. ”Living through all that I had by that age, I could have responded, ’40.’ ”

Her childhood was overshadowed by a war she calls ”effroyable” — appalling in French — and the word pours bitterly, painfully out of her mouth. Her father was a a member of the Vietcong. Night after night her parents told her to fall asleep not by counting sheep but bomb blasts.

In 1974, Ms. Sola and two siblings were taken from Vietnam to Thailand, where her mother sought medical treatment. Four years later Ms. Sola arrived in Paris, alone, and still declines to discuss her life during that period. The city was a shock. ”I had grown up in the forest, in a universe of beauty,” she says. ”Suddenly everything was immense: the people, the streets, the buildings, the system of life were unrecognizable.”

Destitute and homeless, she dreamed of Vietnam, tried to imagine what it was like at peace. And then, as if to say, ”I am here, I am me, and I am not like you,” she started to stand motionless in the street, day after day, for six, seven hours at a time. ”I needed to revolt, to save myself,” Ms. Sola explains. ”It was a surprising experience. I learned to control my body, and as I watched the reactions of those around me, I learned how to manage space, rhythm, tension.” One day a group of artists approached her and told her she was creating performance art.

Ms. Sola started studying a variety of dance and movement styles, from butoh (with Min Tanaka) to theater workshops with disciples of Jerzy Grotowski. In the mid-80’s she formed a butoh-inspired dance company and performed on the street throughout Europe.

It disturbed her that Vietnam was culturally absent from the international scene, that war and spring rolls were all people seemed to know about the country. She applied for a grant at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for a project to go back home and mount a production. Serge Francois, then in charge of artistic grants abroad, recalls: ”She was uprooted from her culture and a little adrift as a dancer, experimenting with this and that. Nobody was interested in her project. But she told me about it with so much emotion, I decided we had to help her.”

In 1989, Ms. Sola arrived to see Vietnam at peace for the first time in her memory. Her voice drops to a whisper as she remembers her shock. ”It was black, miserable,” she says. ”The embargo had taken everything.”

She was burning with curiosity to know more about her culture, and for the first time she visited the north, the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. ”When I was a child,” she recalled, ”some people from the region came down south and sang for us. For me, that was life.” For three years she lived among the northern people, mostly peasants, searching out those who remembered the village dances before the war, and then the Communist regime, put an end to such celebrations.

The tradition in many villages had been that only virgins danced, passing on their knowledge once they married. Now the sole women who recalled the steps were the last ones who had danced them, at least 30 years earlier. Ms. Sola asked these women, who ranged in age from 50 to nearly 80, whether they wanted to create a work that spoke of their experiences. Though none had ever performed onstage, they accepted immediately and enthusiastically.

The choreographer held auditions and made a first selection of 25. ”I had to reduce their number to 14,” she says. ”It was horrible. I took one woman aside and said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not possible, your health—-‘ Tears came to her eyes, and she replied: ‘I’m part of this group. If I’m sick, take me for tests and I’ll go home. Or give me one more chance — just two more weeks.’ In those two weeks she convinced me. Ultimately, she was magnificent.”

With this group Ms. Sola created ”Secheresse et Pluie” (”Drought and Rain”), a contemporary piece inspired by traditional music and culture. Breathtaking and simple, it was a work about memory and the war. The women swayed and shuffled across the stage, bending over in sweeping motions learned from the rice fields, leaning back like reeds in the wind. To the roar of percussion they brandished photos of the husbands, brothers and sons now gone.

”It was a remarkable work about war and loss,” says Mr. Francois. ”One without equivalent. It made Ea Sola’s name overnight.” One of her early admirers was Dominique Fretard, dance editor for the French daily Le Monde, who later followed the choreographer back to Ho Chi Minh City. She says: ”Sola was not just compensating for her own exile; she has revived the memory, the forgotten traditions, of an entire people. At the same time, her interpretation is thoroughly contemporary.”

Ms. Sola presented ”Secheresse et Pluie” in Europe in 1995 and then toured for two years. She showed the piece in Vietnam, to a mixed reaction of admiration and suspicion. The simple concept of modern artistic creation was foreign, and some critics were insulted by her portrayal of the country’s pain. But her supporters in Vietnam included the vice minister of culture, and she has since established a following there.

”Secheresse et Pluie” also made a stop at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina in 1996. ”That was very emotional for me,” Ms. Sola recalls. ”I looked into the audience and saw many white heads, and several people crying. As for the performers, they were just happy to be in America. They weren’t at all bitter; the past is the past.”

Nigel Redden, the festival’s general director, has asked the choreographer to open this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, which he also directs, with her third and most recent creation, ”Voila Voila” (”There You Have It”). He thinks her work will interest New York audiences because, he says, ”the starting point is so different from dance and theater in the West.”

Ms. Sola brought ”Voila Voila” from Vietnam to Europe this spring. The final work in her cycle on tradition and modernity, it is performed by professional musicians, 40 to 70 years old from the north, who incorporate movement in their work. The piece draws upon three different musical traditions, including two 13th-century opera forms, the rural cheo and the Chinese-inspired, royal tuong.

Against an abstract decor resembling endless rows of rice paddies, the women sing in rich, nasal twangs, their notes floating and jumping, slicing through the air. Their feet glide in tiny steps, their hands flutter, they hold their palms gingerly aloft like offerings. Their fragile movements range from spasmodic to sensuous.

There are moments when the choreographer tests her audience’s patience, as in a gathering where the performers chat together in Vietnamese, taken from an ancestral tradition where villagers exchanged ideas in the form of poetry. At other times, the work reaches out with an unexpected power, the drums onstage beating and intensifying like a pulse.

With ”Voila Voila,” Ms. Sola uses tradition to explore a nascent sense of liberty. ”It is in anonymity that one finds freedom,” she explains, ”to lock one’s door at night, to travel overseas. This is the first time in history that the Vietnamese people have been so free.”

Read on The New York Times