A self-created theatre of beauty
When choreographer Ea Sola returned to Vietnam after 15 years, a lifetime away from her homeland, she found that everyday life had changed beyond comprehension, and that, in another deeper way, it was the same.
Her theatre works - presenting traditional music and dance in a contemporary way - reflect that paradox.
Ea Sola - whose latest piece, called Voila Voila 'because it is about how things are', will be performed at the Arts Festival next week - started by trying to remember how things had once been before her return in 1989.
She met women in villages who, 30 or more years before, had learned the old folk dances. Traditionally they had been danced only by young girls, but these older women - grandmothers many of them, bereaved almost all of them - were the only ones who remembered the dances, she said.
So her first work in the early 1990s included 14 dancers aged between 50 and 75, and was dedicated to loss and memory.
The group toured the world to great acclaim. It was by all accounts an extraordinary experience for everyone - both the audiences and the performers, many of whom had never left their village before.
'The Vietnamese situation is always to adapt to new things,' Ea Sola said.
'So going around the world was fresh and exciting for them and changed their lives, but in a way they were already used to changes.' Voila Voila involves a combination of three very different centuries-old traditions involving dance, song and percussion.
Cheo is a northern peasant opera based around village life, Teong is a more formal, courtly form of Vietnamese opera, while Ca tru is traditionally a song by one woman and two musicians, about the universal interests of love, nature and philosophy.
'Combining these three traditions is very complicated - like being in Vietnam, China and Hong Kong at the same time,' she said.
Although the music and dance forms are taught in Hanoi's Conservatory of Music, Ea Sola tends to shy away from what she calls 'academic music'.
'In the best music there is a moment when the musicians find themselves free from rules and restrictions, when they fly. You can't learn that in the academies, and sometimes the academic approach spoils everything.' Ea Sola grew up in the town of Lam Dong, in central southern Vietnam: like everyone else, instead of counting sheep to go to sleep, she counted the sound of bombs dropping.
Her childhood was as traditional as any Vietnamese childhood could be during that war, but she was already different from her friends - the child of a Vietcong father and a French-Polish mother, who had fallen in love while her father was studying engineering in Paris in the 1950s.
The story of her parents was a romantic one 'but that all happened before I was born: later the romance turned into having a family, and living during the war'.
It was only when, in 1974, she left the country with her brothers and sister and her mother - who was ill and needed medical treatment in Thailand - that she began to be curious about her other, European, birthright.
Four years later, she travelled to Paris, a teenager alone, outside her country for the first time and struggling with the images of a war that had devastated everything she had grown up with.
'It was a long time ago: I can't go back to that now,' she said, when I asked her about her first months in France. Enough to say, she said, that they were traumatic: 'It was a very, very black time, but ultimately very interesting, I learned so much.' She was so shocked by the experience that she took to standing motionless in the streets for many hours at a time.
It must have been curious and moving to have seen this traumatised teenager grieving so quietly yet so publicly, and one day she was approached by a group of artists who told her she was creating performance art.
The experience led later to her interest in street theatre and the avant-garde, where she learned both from practitioners of Japanese butoh and disciples of Jerzy Grotowski.
Ask her, however, whether those elements are still present in her work, and she laughs but says that is too simple a description of the work that she half-jokingly describes as 'Asia with baguettes' or 'Vietnam as it really is, without flowers'.
It is much more complex than a simple matter of putting Vietnamese traditions into other, modern forms like butoh - the Japanese avant-garde tradition that grew out of the horror of the atomic bomb.
'Lao Tse said that everything is confusion: we don't need butoh to show us that.' Her ideas about the theatre can perhaps be explained through her ideas about beauty.
'Why do we say a woman is beautiful? People are not just one thing or two things, they are full of colours and nuances and ideas,' she said.
'Beauty in that standard way does not interest me. I look at somebody, an ordinary person in Vietnam working on his farm, and he is exhausted because he has been in the fields since the morning, and he doesn't want to prove anything, he is just absorbed in what he is doing. And I look at him, and I think: that is beautiful.' Voila Voila. Ea Sola Company. March 6 and 7, 8pm. City Hall Concert Hall. Tickets $150-$220 from Urbtix 2734 9009