April - May 2008.
BDC was warned not to be disappointed if only 300 or so audience members showed up at its performance at the 1100-seat National Cultural Hall in Vientiane. It was said that this was the average turn-out at “foreign embassy-sponsored events”. When asked why, we were told that Laotians believe that these shows are not for them, and that they wouldn’t understand them. Therefore, it was a wonderful surprise to see the hall fill up and to enjoy the rapturous response to Battery Dance Company’s modern dance repertoire. The Interior Minister and his wife hugged the dancers on stage at the end of the performance, particularly thrilled that young Lao hip- hop dancers who had taken part in BDC’s workshops, had been persuaded to perform as a surprise encore in BDC’s show.
Learn to Improvise
In a country that has had so little exposure to American culture and which is subject to intense government restrictions such as Laos, it is hard to know in advance how to design a program with maximum impact. We were unprepared for the fact that there were no spaces for the workshops with proper flooring and had to make do with cement. I'm not sure what to say about this. We are categorically opposed to putting our dancers and participants at risk, which is definitely the case on cement; however, if we'd said "no", then the resonance of our program would have been dampered, not only through the loss of workshops that reached many young people; but their subsequent appearance on stage at our performance which served to endear us to the local officials and the audience alike.
Starting our 4-day program in Laos, we acclimated to the 3 H's - hazy, hot and humid. We're New Yorkers after all, so this is familiar to us though slightly out of season. A great Lao meal on the first night following a day of recreation, shopping and theater reconnoitering (Barry and me) on our first day off since April 11 helped to restore us. Even more so, the delightful manners of the Lao people reinforced our feeling of being welcome in this beautiful country.
This morning, we were introduced to 30+ young dancers and singers, members of several dance groups here, who jumped into Carmen's modern dance master class and will join Sean in hip-hopping this afternoon. A huge air-conditioned hall was arranged for the classes, complete with great sound system, mirrors but, unfortunately, a cement floor. Carmen modified her class (no jumps!) and off they went with abandon and excitement to learn some new techniques. Apparently, we are the first professional American dancers they've met, and their enthusiasm showed! Last night's performance was a stand-out for the Company.
We filled the orchestra of the National Cultural Hall -- 920 people strong -- with a large proportion of young people who rewarded us with a tremendously resonant response. Laos is a relatively isolated country, the least Westernized in Asia that we've seen. And yet the audience clearly followed all of the action on stage and gave back so tangibly with laughs, gasps and applause. The dancers responded in kind and raised their performance to the very top notch. We were deeply touched by Ambassador Ravic Huso's effusive praise at the end. We'd met him earlier in the week, and he'd promised an honest assessment; and given his no- nonsense delivery, we understood him to mean it! Laos' Vice Minister of Information and Culture Mr. Bouangeun and his wife were also charming on the stage -- with a little English and a lot of hand gestures, they made it clear that they loved the performance and hope we'll return soon. We're sad that our short stay here is over and hope this isn't the end of our contact with Laos! Working with Amy Archibald, the APAO here, and her delightful and talented staffer Sengsouriya has been a treat. A special thanks also to our driver Sengthavy whose smile and guidance were welcome throughout!