Hip hop dancer mixes modern and traditional theatre

Nguyen Duy Thanh will perform his first dance at the Viet Nam Youth Theatre on June 28 as part of the Hanoi Dance Festival 2019.

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Hip hop dancer mixes modern and traditional theatre
Nguyen Duy Thanh will perform Thán at Viet Nam Youth Theatre in June 28.

The work, entitled Thán (named after a kind of tuong singing) is inspired by tuong (traditional opera) and follows the language of this art form.

"Thán means ca thán – a kind of tuồngsinging," Thanh said. "I made this work combining hip hop and traditional art. I chose thán because I felt it suited me."

The dance will begin with Thanh standing still on stage like a statue featuring a tuong gesture. But the upper half of his body will move to the left and to the right expressing the typical movements of tuong.

By chance, Thanh saw a statue at his friend's house and was inspired.

"Gestures in tuong are often shown in a circle," Thanh said. "When performing a gesture in tuong the artists always spread their arms in an arc and never straighten them."

"There are very interesting rules in tuong that it always has yin and yang. Before showing the left movement performers have to move the right first."

Hip hop dancer mixes modern and traditional theatre
Hip hop dancer Nguyen Duy Thanh performs Yes Yes No No which is choreographed by Tran Ly Ly. 

However, Thán is made based on tuong characteristics that include fierceness and heroism.

Thanh hopes that tuong will help improve the beauty of his dance. With tuong, flying into the future is as difficult as a butterfly escaping its cocoon. Through his performance he wants the audience to be involved with the dance.

Thán is not just a dance performance. It also includes music and light. Thành thinks that everything is important on stage. The performer is just one of factor, like lighting and props, with each having its own role.

These factors will help the audience imagine the space of the dance. Musician Phu Pham will play electronic music and the lighting will be conducted by Dang Xuan Truong.

Hip hop dancer mixes modern and traditional theatre
PROPS: Thanh will perform with a large box. Photo Hoang Nguyen

Thanh will perform with a red rectangular wooden box. Red is the symbolic colour of tuong, and in combination with turquoise light it is designed to express heroism and ferocity.

Although focusing on sound and light, the dance will stimulate the minds of the audience.

"I only build the background and how the story continues depends on the audience," he said. "I don't know what message to convey through my work. I just want to create a space for every audience member to imagine."


Thanh is a pioneer in combining hip hop with traditional art in Vietnam as well as being the first hip hop dancer to co-operate with dancers and choreographers.

His first co-operation with musician Manh Tien and choreographer Tran Ly Ly entitled Zen won 1st prize at the National Dance Festival. This award has greatly encouraged Thanh and helped him collaborate with many international artists like Sebastien Ramirez; Arco Renz and Heiner Goebbels.

Hip hop dancer mixes modern and traditional theatre
Thanh originally started his career as a street dancer. 

In 2014, Belgian artist Renz was looking for a Vietnamese dancer for his project in Vietnam. He watched Thanh on YouTube and invited him to join his project. The two artists also worked together in 2016.

However, Thanh's appearance recently in Everything That Happened And Would Happen by Goebbels is a milestone in his career.

Last year, he met the German artist at a dance summer camp in Hanoi. His creativity and performance style convinced Goebbels and he invited the Vietnamese hip hop dancer to join his project.

Everything That Happened And Would Happen includes performance, movement, sound, live music and images. All these factors are brought together on the site of a former railway station in Manchester in the UK. This performance features about 20 artists including dancers and musicians.

Hip hop dancer mixes modern and traditional theatre
The Vietnamese hip hop dancer has had the chance to perform around the world. 

Thanh was the only Vietnamese performer to take part in the project. He spent a month in the UK for rehearsals and performance. The show was performed in Mayfield last year. Fifteen shows were sold-out, according to Thanh.

The show had a North American premiere in Park Avenue Armory, 14 —18 Now, Artangel, and Ruhrtriennale in New York from June 3 to 9. It has also a performance schedule for next year.

Hip hop came to Vietnam in the early 90s. But it wasn’t until 2000 when it became a strong movement for young people. Many of them wanted to dance hip hop to become trendy.

Following the trend, Thanh started hip hop in 2002 when he was just 13. When going to a piano class at the Ha Noi Children's Palace he passed Ly Thai To Garden and saw a group of kids dancing. He dropped out of his class and studied hip hop from there.

He founded the hip hop team Halley in Hanoi in 2003 and participated in Big Toe — the number one hip hop crew in Hanoi.

He also participated in competitions and won awards at regional contests including First Boty Southeast Asia 2010; 2013 and 2014 in Singapore and Thailand.

However, these championships did not help him feel certain about the path of a hip hop dancer. He wanted to perform hip hop but not follow foreign styles. Tien and Ly encouraged him to combine hip hop and traditional art.

"Now, I think I'm on the right path," he said. "I do want to keep developing my career as a dancer by mixing up the art of hip hop and contemporary dance. I truly want to express Vietnamese tradition and culture in my dances like Thán." VNS

Nguyen Binh

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