Artistic Approach

Technically there isn’t a Vo-Dinh “system” per se; but she does have a clear method, channeling a composite and well-defined choregraphic universe. It would not be helpful to try to pin this stubbornly independent choreographer to a mere trend.

The choreographer focuses on — in no particular order — an idea, a principle, a situation, a phenomenon, each of which she explores in depth. Her entire creative process is based on structural principles she has established as a prerequisite (even though her movement vocabulary does include certain improvisational techniques). From this she creates the forms developed onstage, involving unique, innovatively derived ideas and movements. These forms do not come from a pre-set set of movements, rather it is the movement which creates the possible development of formal options.

Instead of choosing immediately recognizable forms, reused repeatedly, Vo-Dinh is constantly questioning the starting point for each work. This may account for the apparent disparity in the polymorphous roster of her repertory. We can of course extrapolate strong similarities of lines underlying her work which color certain periods of her artistic journey.

Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh trained in classical ballet and contemporary dance in the context of what is called “New French dance” from the 80s, first at the Conservatory in Tours, then in the «franco-cunninghamian» line including Micheline Lelièvre and Robert Kovich. She studied at the Merce Cunningham school in New York in 1987, with its strong commitment to movement and structure. She also performed with the baroque/ contemporary choreographer François Raffinot, inspiring her formalist rigor, which in her choreographic vocabulary became a trademark, and then facilitated the creation of her own works.

So in 1997, Vo-Dinh founded her own company, Sui Generis (a term with its own multiple references and meanings), performing somewhat less frequently onstage herself. Vo-Dinh creates pieces which are often collective, developing her own movement vocabulary, quickly set, then refined, retouched, researched. She forms loyal relationships with her dancers, all familiar with her range, her rigor, prepared to work with infinite variation, revealing their extreme control in the real time of performance onstage. Notable among them: Alexia Bigot, Maeva Cunci, Cyril Geeroms or David Monceau (who is also a musician).

She immediately focused her interest on research conducted by the neurologist Antonio Damasio, whose patients she interviewed extensively, and who posited that in spite of the dominant Cartesian dualism theory of the time, there is no function in the mind which is not also affected by emotional activation. From these observations she created Texture/solo as well as the quartet Texture/Composite (a 2000 prize winner at the Bagnolet competition).

The exploration of emotion continued to influence her work, in each successive piece. Then, in Sagen, she began exploring schizophrenia, based on the work of Jean Oury, a pioneer of anti-psychiatry criticism. Later the anthropological approach of Françoise Héritier, on masculine/ feminine “otherness” inspired her works -transire- and -insight- (2010, 2013).

These pieces are not documentary in nature. The savvy human questions to which they may refer are not mere illustrative themes requiring research. They are triggers which set off a series of choreographic components (axes, principles, certain qualities), through the use of formalistic stage options. This creative process may also include a certain amount of improv, in order to produce quantities of physical material. It is not about using psychological exploration to define characters or dramatisation. It is the dancers’ bodies and the definition of their trajectories onstage which reveal the depth of their analysis and exploration.

We follow Vo-Dinh in her quest for aesthetic adventure (the so-called Great Modernity) in contemporary dance. It is characterised by its predilection for form (its complexity, its execution, its development), as well as her active interest in current arts trends and contemporary thinking. The issue would be to not systematically seek the deconstruction of the cliches of choreographic performance, as others did on French stages since the mid-90s, with its focus on performance art and what they call “indisciplinarity.” Vo-Dinh remains, radically, a true dance creator.

In addition to her intellectual research, Vo-Dinh’s work is formalist, involving structures of vocabulary in minimalist and often repetitive framing. Works reflecting this perspective include CROISéES (2004), White light (2005), Ici/Per.For (2006). A playful approach is nonetheless not surprising or contradictory, in Aboli Bibelot… Rebondi (2008), or the race to physical exhaustion in Sprint (2013).

Another important element in her works is temporality, where we see the detailed manipulation of time under tension, its vibrant suspension, the time it takes to listen, while a theme is being developed and subjected to all possible combinations. These rhythmic explorations have also been driven by the music of Zeena Parkins, Gérard Grisey and Pascal Dusapin.

For example, using Beethoven’s Grosse fugue, we may see her piece CROISéES as a wide redeployment of three fugues re-created and interwoven: a choreographic fugue, a new musical fugue (by Zeena Parkins), and a literary fugue (written by Frédéric-Yves Jeannet). This also represents the choreographer’s interest in long‑term artistic collaborations, notably with Laurent Pariente (set design) and Françoise Michel (lighting design).

Her disciplinary transversality often also includes the visual arts, a personal predilection of the choreographer. Her understanding of the complex functions of image, as well as issues of abstraction and figuration, feeds into the many questions of stage interpretation (such as audience perception).

The movement Vo-Dinh creates is transparent, clean — but its intent is hardly figurative. Figuration is used as a link to broad swathes of abstraction, not as a way to superimpose on dance something to show, something to see. This extends to the dancers’ interpretation, when the abstract form cannot circumvent the power of their presence onstage. It is also inextricably linked to the production of image, as well as to finally address the perception of the spectator. We may refer to the work of Georges Didi-Huberman, or the thoughts of Michel Foucault writing about Velasquez’ Las Meninas (The ladies-in-waiting). Who is looking at whom? What actually reaches us?

Dancing: the drawing of lines (going as far as the deep striations of engravings) — the parts that are not seen, hidden: a diaphanous texture, striped, streaked, revealing the patterns of their drawing, their brand, their vanishing lines, timed to perfection, unhurried. These bodies channel the creative wealth of multiple directions, diverse levels and angles, autonomous, pulled-up, touching each other minimally, in rich, chiseled compositions, eschewing overuse of unison, alignment, positionality, frontality; this work is free of over-dramatisation as expressed through entrances and exits from the stage. Active structures are developed and laid out, sometimes allowing for narrative elements as well.

To that end, there has been a change in Vo-Dinh’s more recent work. In 2012, she was appointed Director of the Centre chorégraphique national in Le Havre Normandie, which she called Le Phare. She has focused on multiplying her connections to the area, especially to its larger venues. The next year she was appointed President of the association of all the French CCNs. These institutional affiliations have apparently not affected her creation of pieces which are secretly poetic, surprising, liberated.

Then there is the “piecemeal narration» which characterises the shared dramatic situations, which appear in her large-scale works, Tombouctou ‘déjà-vu’ (Avignon Festival 2015) and Cocagne (2018). They show a continuing exploration of emotion, voice work (used sporadically in other pieces as well), and the contribution of actors/ actresses added to the roster of her long-time, loyal dancers. This theatricality includes a sort of fragmented narrativity, based on a dramaturgy of pure situation, cultivating the deliberate awkwardness of open‑ended, non-linear meaning.

For Vo-Dinh, her movement vocabulary, evolved, detailed and clear, contains many hidden depths and layers which can obfuscate obvious meanings and preconceptions.

— Gérard MAYEN
Dance critic
March 2020