In Bleu Néon, Kim-Sanh Châu, 35, uses dance and song to navigate the fantasy of nostalgia, loss of language and sexual objectification – three themes that are widely experienced by Asian diasporic populations.
The lights dim as Châu enters the theatre. She stands in the center of a circle made of neon lights, an image typical of south-east Asian countries and the inspiration for the name of the show.
Châu dances low to the ground.
Her solo dance is performed entirely in a squat position, in what she calls “a typically Asian posture”.
Vietnamese 70’s pop music plays on cassette tapes reverberate, interspersed with moments where Châu sings Vietnamese rap.
Châu is a Vietnamese-French contemporary dancer, choreographer and cultural worker based inTio’tia:ke Montreal. She graduated from UQAM with a masters in dance and attended the Aarhus School of Business in Denmark, Harvard’s business school and the Australian Catholic University in Australia. Her art and performances have been presented at l’Arsenal, Tangente, MAI, Accès Asie; as well as internationally at SIDance in Korea and Krossing-Over in Vietnam, among others.
Châu spends most of her time in Montréal and, before the pandemic, she would visit Vietnam a few times a year. It was in Vietnam that she began working on the choreography for Bleu Néon.
“I’m interested in nostalgia that’s broken,” she began. “I’m a second generation so I’m addressing my work to disparate kids – diasporic people. And I’m interested in how we try to stay connected with the homeland but it’s imaginary. It is a part that has been transmitted to us through parents or family and community.”
Singing in a language you don’t speak
Châu doesn’t speak Vietnamese. She spent a year memorizing the lyrics and working with teachers and other industry professionals before performing the piece. Sound artist Chittakone Baccam created the music and Toronto-based rapper JONAIR wrote the lyrics.
Learning the lyrics became a way for her to connect to her family.
While Montreal is her primary residence, Châu visits Vietnam a few times a year. Unable to travel due to the pandemic’s restrictions, she turned to Vietnamese television and rap music to practise the language.
She said, “My language was not taught or transmitted to me. I would try to hide any mark that I was Asian, even though it’s very obvious on my face.”
She said that she’s enthusiastic about the fact that today’s younger generation of Asian people have rappers as inspirations. As a teenager, Châu had no icon to look up to and there was a lot of shame around being Asian.
“And I’m also very touched by how we can have solidarity among different communities. Vietnamese rap is, of course, very inspired by the Black American culture.”
The rap is broken into six parts. Lyrics discuss everything from nostalgia, stereotypes against the Asian community and violence against women.
“I think that every ethnic community carries this burden of having to live with a certain stereotype and I think the one for Asians is silence,” she said.
She explained that she sang in Vietnamese for two main reasons. It would have been harder to express such topics in English or French. Secondly, she comes from a lineage of women who have experienced abuse which she says is deeply anchored to the fact that she, and her family, are Asian.
“When I rap in Vietnamese I feel like I do it for the woman of my family who didn’t talk, and who, if they would have talked, they would probably have talked in Vietnamese,” she said. “So I am honouring them through the language. And also, I think it’s only through rap music that I could say what I wanted to say. I don’t think I would have done it through another type of music.”
Choreographing Bleu Néon
The most notable part of Châu’s performance is her position – squatting.
Working with Louise Michele Jackson and Be Heintzman Hope, Châu used images that made her connect with Vietnam to choreograph her performance. At the beginning of her performance, she’s low to the ground. She waves her arms in a fluid motion that mimics working followed by gestures that represent strength and fighting.
“The squat position is so unusual,” she said. “It’s very different to dance in a squat versus standing up because there’s a lot of movement you can’t do. It’s about how you find the strength in your lower belly and you rise from that spot.”
She explained that she also chose to dance in this position to represent objectification.
“I think in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia there is always this idea that women are very docile and very delicate and soft,” she said. “It’s through many different ways. I’m thinking about the image of a geisha, the image of prostitution during the Vietnamese war.”
She explained that, while not all Vietnamese women may feel this way, she feels a sense of disappointment from people when she doesn’t serve them.
“I chose this position because it’s very deeply Asian…,” Châu said. “I wanted to honour this position and I think it’s also very symbolic of domination and the low profile that Asian people carry.”
Olivia is a Montreal-based journalist who loves writing about arts, culture and identity. Fueled by espresso, you’ll most likely find her scribbling a story idea in her notebook or detangling her hair.