Recently diaCRITIC Julie Thi Underhill met up with Natalia Duong, a performance artist, choreographer, and scholar who’s recently returned to the Bay Area after four years away. While in New York, Natalia received her MA in Performance Studies from New York University. She also founded a movement-based research collective, Project Agent Orange, which is how Julie first met Natalia. In 2013, Natalia adapted Julie’s memoir poem Banquet of Consequences to stage, for a performance at the Poetic License Festival in New York City. More recently, in May 2014, Natalia invited Julie to moderate a discussion in San Francisco, after Natalia’s appearance in Trở Về Nước, a collaborative performance with Patricia Nguyen that investigated the notion of home and the politics of memory and migration for women in the Vietnamese American diaspora.
Due to their creative and conceptual engagements, Julie’s recent in-depth conversation with Natalia continues a three-year dialogue about artistic practices, embodied memories, and the lingering proliferations of colonialism and warfare. Part One is below, while Part Two will appear a few days later.
Natalia’s upcoming solo performance REFUSE occurs on October 4, 2014, in San Francisco, at the APAture Festival. The Performing Arts Showcase features Natalia, who performs sometime between 8-11pm, at The Garage (715 Bryant, SF). Admission is $10-15 sliding scale.
Natalia’s bold and brilliant performances are highly recommended by diaCRITICS. Most strikingly, she is quite unafraid to negotiate even the most fraught of inheritances, those butchered on newspaper spread across the kitchen floor, or sapped of flavor by nostalgia.
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Natalia, could you offer some insight into your background as a performer, and how you came to performance?
So the story goes that my dad and I were shopping in a mall, when I was very young and I was on his shoulders, and we were walking through this mall and—it was around Christmas time—suddenly there was this performance of tap dancing Christmas trees and gift boxes—which I can read into the politics of consumption later [smiles]—but I was enamored by them. I was like, “Dad! Dad! I want to do that!” And my dad himself is a musician and singer as well, so I think music has always been really integral in my life. And I think he says something like when I was first born, I was crying a lot. And then he sang, and I stopped crying. So in that way, performance has always been in my genealogy, but this is one moment when I pointed it out. And then he signed me up for tap classes after that. I think I was three and a half. And then after that, every Saturday morning for the next several years I would go to tap class, and then eventually picked up other forms of dance, and was at that studio for eighteen years. And then ended up, you know, becoming a tap dancing gift box and Christmas tree [smiles]. But then later in high school I became interested in theater, and performance art, and looking more broadly at performance as a lens for understanding the world around me, and not just a hobby that I did.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up outside of San Francisco. My family’s home is in Millbrae. But we used to shuttle down to San Jose a lot, where a lot of my cousins lived, and then up to Sacramento where my grandfather lived. So all up and down the San Francisco Bay Area.
So you were interested in performance still in high school. Is that what you chose to do for college, and where did you go to school?
Not at all. Well, I think one of the large tensions in my life has always been the feeling that performance should remain a hobby, and that academics were something I needed to focus on separately. And it was something I think I also inherited from my dad in a lot of ways. Because growing up, he wanted to be this rock star musician, and he wanted to move to France and study music. And instead, in 1973, he came to SF State [University], and his father, my grandfather, was insistent that he study business. So in a lot of ways, there is this narrative of giving up your art form for something more practical, which I think was always in the background of a lot of the decisions I was making. So I looked into conservatory programs, and decided that they weren’t the type of rigor that I wanted. And so then went to undergraduate at Stanford University, where I studied psychology, and also was a dance minor. But it was actually at Stanford where I began to think about dance and performance as a way of theorizing, as well as a mode of being in the world. And it was there that I got to work with people whose primary majors or areas of study weren’t necessarily in dance or the arts, but who had a large investment in it either because they had previously been professional dancers, or because it was something that made them sane human beings. And so it was nice, even though I thought I had to give up my art by making this academic choice, ultimately I think that my experience there was much richer because I was working with performers who had these other axes upon which they were building their studies. One of my closest collaborators, Katharine Hawthorne, does just that, bringing together her interest in Physics and Dance. And my interest as an undergrad turned into looking at notions of empathy, and this term kinesthetic empathy, and looking at the potential neural basis for compassion across disparate groups of people, specifically through using movement. So how can doing movement with a group of people begin to allow you to connect with them in ways that academic discourse or colloquial speech might not be able to do.
Did your major in psychology help you to theorize dance, or were these seen as two separate things you were working on?
I think throughout my four years they became more and more interwoven, and by the time I finished my big research paper in psych, it was looking specifically at a neurological study of dancers in fMRI machines, and trying to find the basis of, at least, movement recognition, and whether or not that later translated to an empathetic response to a particular emotion that was delivered in the dance. By the end it became more interwoven, but yeah for a long time they remained pretty separate. And I am still trying to reconcile the ways that neuroscience tries to claim certain answers for these connections or feelings that are better understood through the body.
Interesting. How did that project come to inform your later work as a performer?
In looking at how movement helps to bridge communities, I started working with communities that I felt less connected to. It was mainly this one trip that I did to Việt Nam. And I was teaching at the time and so it wasn’t connected necessarily my intention of going to Việt Nam. But I ended up being in a room at a Peace Village, as they’re called, in Hà Nội. We were singing and dancing with people with various physical and cognitive disabilities, and there was something that was happening there, and I didn’t understand what it was yet, but there was a real type of connection that I felt. Beyond that, I started looking more broadly at the topic of Agent Orange. At the time when I started researching it, back in 2008 or so, more seriously in 2010, there wasn’t information on the Internet. There wasn’t publicly available information about Agent Orange yet. It wasn’t talked about in any way. So I think in that sense I started to become interested in what it was just to be in the room dancing with someone, in a very kind of pragmatic sense. And then I also became interested in the ways in which movement helps inform narratives that might not otherwise be talked about for political reasons, or personal reasons, or maybe because we don’t even know what those narratives are, but they inform the way that we inhabit the world.
After that, did you take that experience and apply it toward some graduate studies, or for performances?
Yeah. After graduation I moved to New York, primarily to dance and to perform, to do that full time, because I felt that I’d never really done that before. Partially I found it really dissatisfying because I didn’t feel intellectually or personally engaged in the projects, or I didn’t always feel intellectually or personally engaged in the projects that I was working on, and so then started a dance collective with nine other dancers called Project Agent Orange. And we began to look at just the notion of Agent Orange. But instead of sitting in the room doing a lot of research on policies, we just began to theorize using movement. So oftentimes I would lead movement explorations, and ask dancers to inhabit their bodies in different ways. To consider contagion, for example, but not in a theoretical sense, but more how do we look at contagion in our bodies, how does contagion show up, how do we interact with each other if the prompt is contagion. Also we looked at helicopters because those had been such an iconic image during the American war in Việt Nam. So looking at the physicality of helicopters and what that type of energy produced in our bodies. So it ended up being this really frenetic energy. So looking at these larger concepts but instead of approaching them as a concept, approaching them as a prompt for movement.
As for Agent Orange, from the time I spent in Việt Nam doing work on Agent Orange awareness there in 2009 and 2010, there seems to be, for some people, the association of birth defects with intergenerational hauntings, rather than connecting them to dioxin poisoning. What do you perceive the awareness is, in the U.S., among Vietnamese Americans, about how Agent Orange could potentially be impacting their bodies?
That’s a great question. I think that in the communities in the U.S. of Vietnamese that I’ve talked to, Agent Orange is a topic that everyone is pretty much aware of, in some sense, but they’re not necessarily invested in uncovering. So a lot of the discussions I’ve had are like, “Oh yeah, that thing existed at this time, and it was a really bad thing,” but I honestly haven’t had many conversations about causality with Vietnamese Americans, in the US. That shifts slightly when you look towards Việt Nam, as you were saying, and definitely within the American veteran population, and their descendants, who have been affected also by the herbicide. But I don’t find that it’s a topic that Vietnamese Americans are openly talking about or investigating in this way.
Does that concern you, and if so, why?
I don’t know if concern is my response to it. But I think the reason why I continue to be invested in this project is because I personally am interested in the ways in which I feel like I have inherited the residue of the war. And for me Agent Orange continues to be this really fertile site of inquiry because it gets negotiated politically, but also very interpersonally. There are actual people who are living with the effects, still, today. For me, I think that it’s just a way of understanding the intergenerational transfer of trauma. And of warfare. I don’t approach it as a topic I feel like everyone necessarily needs to know about. But I think it could be an interesting lens through which we understand some of the other ways that we are affected, if that makes sense. For me it becomes a way of looking at a very specific instance, and locating a place that I can begin to concretely research something that has always been intangible. Or that has been unspoken, and yet still very pervasive.
Do you perceive that some Vietnamese Americans might be afraid to look too closely at it, because they’re invested in the idea that the US has saved them rather than hurt them?
Yeah, it’s possible. This is an area of potential further research, but I don’t know a lot of Vietnamese Americans who identify as being affected by Agent Orange, on a very pragmatic level. The communities I have heard from are mostly American veterans and their descendants, as well as centers for people who have been affected in Việt Nam. But that I definitely think that could be a possibility. That there is a larger geopolitical relationship with America that gets potentially jeopardized in the face of looking at Agent Orange.
I think one of my concerns is that there’s this list of fifteen or so diseases that they’ve attributed to Agent Orange, and that a lot of people have some of those diseases, but they don’t know that the cause could be Agent Orange. One is diabetes.
Right? A common disease. But without making that connection, they can’t necessarily tell their doctors, “You know, I have this strange case of diabetes that I don’t have any family history of, but it’s potentially connected to dioxin.” Without that link they don’t have that ability to figure out why they might be possibly getting one of these diseases. Another thing that concerns me is that it also stays in people’s bloodlines. So your children or grandchildren could be born with something that you’re carrying because of your genetic make-up being affected by dioxin. And without having that awareness of what those diseases are, you might not make the connection when your child is born with heart problems. And so, for me, that has been one of my concerns in wishing that the Vietnamese American community is more aware of what those diseases are, because this is potentially impacting them and their families, without their being conscious of it. And the health community, the medical industry, doesn’t necessarily connect the dots for them, right?
Yeah. I think in general there hasn’t been enough research, strictly from a funding standpoint, into drawing the connections and making it clear that these are some of the effects that dioxin exposure could potentially cause. And there are reasons why that’s the case. There are lots of companies invested in these distinct causes remaining opaque. And so for that reason there’s a lot of missing information that I think in the last couple of years has started to surface, as water and land treatment plants are being built in Việt Nam and as the chemical structure is being better understood. Yeah, there is a lot of missing information, I think, still.
I’ve found that in Việt Nam, when I was there, and I’ve found that among people that I’ve talked to here of Vietnamese descent. It’s like this absence of dialogue, or understanding of the causality, right. Because there are these “hot spots” and all these people around them have diseases, but some people still think it’s because one of their ancestors pissed off somebody.
Rather than, “Dioxin affects your body this way, your children can be born with these birth defects.” And I see almost a non-conversation in the US about it. Which is why when I saw that you were doing Project Agent Orange, and that you were interested in exploring Agent Orange, I really saw you as creating an opening for dialogue that I don’t see in existence yet, at all, in the Vietnamese American community—which troubles me greatly, because any of us and any of our descendants could be carrying stuff from exposure to this poison that was sprayed at 500 times the recommended dosage. To that extreme. Anyone living in either north or south Việt Nam. Anywhere the US was trying to defoliate to keep the enemy from hiding, is possibly carrying something that could affect them or their families. And I just wish there was more of a dialogue about it. So I am really glad that you, through performance, and your research, and your work in Việt Nam, you are finding ways to open up that conversation. Because I think it’s really overdue. And I think sometimes the next generation—the 1.5 and the 2nd generation—can go, “That’s all in the past, I don’t have any residues.”
Whether they’re psychological, or physical, or historical. They’ve imagined that the war ended in 1975—or in 1973 the US withdrew, and in 1975 it officially ended but that, you know, it was a clean slate when we left Việt Nam and came to the US. But I know for sure that’s not the case. And I saw when my mom got diabetes, I was like, Hmph. You know, when I saw the list, I thought, “Okay, that wouldn’t surprise me, given where she’s lived, and what was going on in her life.” Which means the pre-cancer I’ve experienced in my body, since I was a teenager, could possibly be caused by Agent Orange. I can’t rule that out. So I think these questions are very important for our generations to not let go, because we’ve imagined that the war is in the past and that we’re not affected by it, as I said, either psychologically, physically, or historically. So I am really grateful for the work you’ve done, because of that.
Thank you. I think alongside the work I am trying to do in performance, there is some work being done on the legislative end, both through the research at the Aspen Institute, in the past several years, and the action plan that they’ve put in place, as well as organizations like the Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. And a couple of years ago, here at UC Berkeley, there was a conference specifically on Agent Orange, which was really exciting, because like I said, as recently as a few years ago, there was very little public information. And now there’s a website, Making Agent Orange History, that is accumulating various resources to educate ourselves a little bit more. But all that said. I think that work is so important, and I am grateful to the people doing it, but at the same time, as you mentioned, these are very personal topics to a lot of people who are close to me. And I know that in my family, talking about the Việt Nam war is on the one hand very quotidian—it happens quite often, around the dinner table—and on the other hand it’s something that some of my family members don’t want to talk about, at all, because it was too emotional of an experience and because the memories are so viscerally embedded. For that reason, I think that’s where performance allows a certain opening, right, where we can begin to investigate some of these stories and some of these histories that are not so distant, but that feel very present, in a way that doesn’t feel intimidating or overwhelming, but in a way that kind of opens up some of the things that we’ve been trying to put away. And I think that opening up process is something I think that performance, and particularly embodied performance, allows for, that listening to a lecture might not. So that to me is, I think, is what’s exciting about some of the work I am interested in pursuing. Because it engages different communities in a conversation that might not be happening otherwise.
Along those lines, could you tell me about the series of performances you recently did, with Patricia?
Yeah. So Patricia Nguyen, who is at Northwestern University, also in Performance Studies, and I collaborated on a piece called Trở Về Nước, and it was a way for us to bring our interest in embodied history, embodied memory, embodied traumas, together, and to really work some of these ideas out, in a performance space. And then on top of that, it was a real great excuse, for both of us, I think, to investigate our personal oral histories, and the oral histories of our families, and to ask questions that we might not otherwise have an excuse to ask, of the people who are close to us, in a very directed and specific way. We performed it originally in October 2013, and then most recently in May, as part of Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center’s festival. The piece was looking at the notion of home, and what it meant to travel home, which is a very fraught question for a lot of Vietnamese Americans who have left Việt Nam. And also a personal question for the both of us who had lived for several years outside of our geographical homes in the US, and were contemplating what it meant to return home both to our families but also to our communities that knew us well. And I think just in the name, we were interested—so Trở Về can mean to come home, and Nước is a word referencing water, but it also means country in Vietnamese, right. So what does it mean, then, to think about the country not as a solid stable mass the way that American rhetoric talks about it, and instead as something that is much more malleable, that can move, that is in the in-between spaces, that ebbs and flows, that comes and goes, right, what does it mean to think about home in that way. That was a really great way for us to ask some of those questions. And to bring some of our families’ histories that we have heard, around the dinner table, to a larger audience, which I think were able to identify with a lot of the stories that they were hearing.
Mm-hmm. I noticed when I moderated the discussion after your performance in May, I asked some hard questions from the audience about what does it mean to remember, that sort of thing. And the memory I carry the strongest is your grandfather stepping up and basically praising you for being the one in the family that investigates this history, that’s willing to go back to Việt Nam, that’s willing to look at Agent Orange. And I was so moved in that moment. I was so touched by the intergenerational exchange. Because I was also aware that your mom and your dad were in the room, as well as your grandfather. I’m wondering if the early discouragement you got in pursuing performance has shifted, in that your family has started to really see, rather than pushing you towards a pragmatic line of work, like studying something more academic, if your family has changed their viewpoint on the value of your work and how they see it continuing the intergenerational connection they have, to home.
A couple of things to clarify. My mother and father have never discouraged me from performance, which is something I feel really grateful for. I think it was a narrative that I created for myself, about what it meant to succeed, and oftentimes for myself, drew the parallel between my father and I, but it was never something that my parents explicitly discouraged. And in a lot of ways, they have always and continue to say, which I am very grateful for, “we want you to do what makes you happy.” And so, that way, I think that they’ve always been very supportive. But that said, they are seeing the ways that performance has shifted for me from being something that I myself saw as something segregated from the rest of my interests, to something that is integral to the way that I think about the world—and now, increasingly as a way of understanding my own personal history and the history of my family. And then the other thing is that, you know, in the midst of—so my grandfather had a stroke, two years ago. It was a very jarring experience for everyone in my family. It brought us together in a lot of ways. And in a lot of ways it also left many of us with many questions. The way that came about is that he pretty quickly became immobile, and very frustrated, I think, with his own immobility. At the time I was theoretically addressing ideas of disability, and injury, and these kinds of bodily traumas. But here it was right in front of me, not prompted. For a long time, I just sat with him. And he was quiet, for a long time, and bedridden. And it was then that he would, randomly before bed, usually late at night, recounting these detailed stories of his childhood that were completely amazing. Totally unexpected. And a lot of stories that none of us had ever heard before. He had been working on a memoir—he had been writing his own memoir before his stroke, but then quite physically, literally, could no longer continue that project. And so in a lot of ways, that experience made its way into this past performance because those stories were just so present for me. I had no idea that he was coming to the performance, and immediately burst into tears the second he was rolled through the doors [in his wheelchair], ‘cause it was the first time that he had left the Sacramento area and traveled two hours, which is a lot to ask of his body at this point. So it was really important for me that he was able to see the work that he had created, in many ways, as a tribute to him, his life, the awe inspiring things that he has done. I think in a lot of ways for me, performance is a way of trying to understand in my body the histories that my family has lived that have never seemed real enough. They always seem like these stories that belong in the movies, or as distant from who we are now. And maybe that’s partially the way in which they are told. But the stories that my father and my grandfather and my mother and my aunts and uncles have are incredible, and yet they seem so distant from my lived experience that I think, in a small way, performance helps me access some of what that memory is, and allows me to, for a brief moment, attempt to experience a little bit of that history that seems completely improbable and impossible to me.
That makes a lot of sense to me. One of the images or experiences that sticks with me, from your Trở Về Nước performance, is the chicken scene, where you’re using the floor as a place to take apart a chicken, ostensibly to cook it. It felt very quotidian, as you said, very much the daily life. But at the same exact time, stories are being told about the past. And so there’s this taking apart, in order to sustain—the reason why you consume the chicken is to sustain your own life, and the reason why you take apart the past, on some level, is to sustain the memory of it, so that others can understand their families. By this, everyone can understand the past, and ostensibly themselves, on some level. I remember that scene feeling so grounded and real to me, like you got it, and you thought of a way to perform it, and to share it with other people. And I don’t know how many people in the audience felt like they had memories like that from their lives, or if it was this symbolic something that couldn’t be accessed, but for me it felt really real, just real. It’s surreal but it’s real, the same way that the stories you’re describing, the improbable actual—
Yeah, absolutely. That’s exciting to me that that was your response to that scene because it was something—that particular scene is something that still sits with me and will likely be a part of this next performance that I do, because I am interested in revisiting it again and again and again. I’m interested in what that repetition and reiteration does, to the piece. But it’s funny [chuckling] because the thing that my dad always says about my work, is that, “Do you think anyone’s gonna get it? Do you actually think anyone’s gonna get it?” And it’s a totally valid question. It’s a huge concern for people who are making work in or about a community that might not otherwise have access to it. So for me, a huge question in my performance still is this question of translation and legibility, which is something that I wrestle with constantly because my Vietnamese is not to the level in which I feel like I can fully communicate ideas in it. And so a lot of my work is in English. But, again, what is so exciting to me about performance is after that particular scene, I had invited an aunt to the performance, and she speaks very little English. My family was kind of concerned that she wouldn’t get it. And so [chuckling and smiling] there I was, onstage, hacking apart a raw chicken, with its head and feet more or less intact, not by the end, which for some was a very quotidian act, and for others was a jarring act. And afterwards she came up to me and she said, “You know, I got it.” She said this to me in Vietnamese. But she was like, “I didn’t understand all that you were trying to do with the piece, but I got the chicken.” This is going to be paraphrased. “It’s the way in which we’ve been pulled around and beaten up for a long time, and we haven’t had a way to respond.” I think that’s something that she said. For her it was the mere physicality of the dismemberment that felt very real, and for her, clicked. She’s also a person that has a physical disability, so I think there are a lot of ways that the embodiment of that process was very visceral for her as well.
Captivated by the conversation between Natalia Duong and Julie Thi Underhill? Part Two continues soon, here on diaCRITICS.
Natalia Duong is a performance artist, choreographer, and writer, native to the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work investigates the physical proliferation of war as embodied by people affected by Agent Orange in a movement-based research collective titled Project Agent Orange. Her work has been featured in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, New York City, and San Francisco. She has collaborated with artists to perform internationally in Edinburgh, Paris, Vietnam, and Kampala, Uganda. She currently lives and works in the Bay Area, where she is a doctoral student in the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies department at UC Berkeley.
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