The Influence

For dancer and choreographer Tra Mi Dinh, Ann Veronica Janssens’ installation Blue, Red and Yellow is a sensory inspiration. By Kate Holden.

Tra Mi Dinh on Ann Veronica Janssens’ installation Blue, Red and Yellow

A colourful art installation.
Ann Veronica Janssens’ Blue, Red and Yellow (2001) at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, and dancer and choreographer Tra Mi Dinh (below).
Credit: Kevin Todora, courtesy of Nasher Sculpture Center (above), Pedro Greig (below)

Tra Mi Dinh is a rising star of contemporary dance and choreography, nominated for a Green Room Award and the most recent recipient of the prestigious Keir Choreographic Award for her 2022 work The ___. Born in Sydney and trained at the Victorian College of the Arts, she has danced with Lucy Guerin Inc, Chunky Move, Amrita Hepi, Dance Makers Collective, Stephanie Lake Company, Lee Serle and many others, and her choreographic pieces include HOLDING (2021) and (UP)HOLDING (2023). She will be contributing original commissioned work to Sydney site Carriageworks’ New Breed program in a collaboration between Sydney Dance Company and Carriageworks supported by The Balnaves Foundation that runs from December 6 to 16.

Dinh wanted to talk about the work of Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens, particularly her sculpture Blue, Red and Yellow (2001), which takes the form of a large, colourful, glowing box inside which people wander through thick fog.

How did you happen to see the piece?

I was over in Denmark because I was doing some auditions for some companies. It was in February 2020, just before everything happened. A friend who was living in Copenhagen suggested going to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art: it was an exhibition called Hot Pink Turquoise, a body of work by Ann Veronica Janssens. I really like artists who work with light and with glass, and she does a lot of this, so I experienced this work Blue, Red and Yellow.

It’s stunning. It’s a structure within a gallery room: you can see from the outside there’s this glow of shifting colour inside, it’s not clear what it is. Then you walk in and, again, can’t really see what’s happening because it’s so foggy; you put your hand out and you lose your hand in the mist. There are only about 10 people walking through at one time. It’s such an acute, gorgeous sensation of being in a cloud: you nearly run into a person, you have a bit of a giggle, “Oh, I’m sorry! I’ll go this way…” and you have these wonderful chance encounters with people.

For me it was the feeling of being enveloped, completely immersed: your body, all your senses are inside this cloud, this morphing, shifting landscape. All the other bodies in there are shifting the air and the particles in different ways and you’re in a suspended ephemeral moment: it keeps shifting but you’re able to enjoy it. You get maybe five minutes and then you walk out. It’s a beautiful, gorgeous piece.

An exquisite metaphor of conjunction and isolation, blindness and other types of perception…

It’s prioritising the senses, all the senses of your body. As a dancer I live in my body, I’m highly attuned to what’s happening in my body and my perception of energies in a room, other people’s energies. I feel that this work – the walking tentatively through a fog, finding a way and maybe finding others – encourages a curiosity for people to heighten their awareness of others. You may feel alone but really you’re with everyone else. Or everyone else is also feeling this and feeling their way through.

What it’s like to take your firm, controlled dancer’s body to that space, where edges dissolve and the lights go on inside…?

It’s a beautiful, reflective listening. Dancers are so aware and so open all the time. We have to be able to trust each other and play without a worry, so you have to be open. Also you have to have a lot of respect and listen to what other people need.

That’s what I really like about that artwork. For me, it’s not hard to listen to what my body’s saying, or lock into how I’m dropping my weight into the ground. But a work like this encourages people who aren’t so aware of what’s going on in their body to think, What’s the sensation of the mist on my skin? And how close is my hand to my face even if I can’t really see it? What is the distance between me and my best friend who walked in with me, and how close am I to the person I don’t know? It’s a moment for sensing and enjoyment of sensing.

I love having a shower without the fan on and natural light coming in and really fogging it up: that’s one of my favourite places to be! I really love experiencing – I think that’s why I’m a dancer – I love sensation. This visual field, of an artist working with light, it feels I’m bathed in it: it’s a sensation, it’s totally visual but it becomes tangible as I experience it in my body. I really love that play of light, and light through glass. These artists often seem to work with that.

Twilight or watching the sunset is when I feel most calm, or when I actually stop doing other things and I watch the shifting landscape. I feel that this work reminds me of that feeling.

I thought you’d be drawn to the sense of motion and dynamics but you’ve spoken about something more intimate.

It’s interesting how different art forms can elicit different things. I love dance as a dancer and a choreographer: as a dancer I get to indulge in this incredible experience all the time. But dance and choreography are not so easily felt by the observer. We’ve lost, in this contemporary age, a connection with dance, so people find it hard to lock in – they feel, “I don’t know what I’m meant to be understanding here.”

It’s a real challenge with dance. The way I feel when I see these beautiful works by Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell and Janssens: have I ever felt that way when I’m watching a dance piece I really love? I don’t know!

How do you think Janssens’ piece relates to the new work of yours?

I thought I was going to make this work about the idea of when light hits a piece of glass, the way if it’s coming in from one angle, it’ll kink itself and then go out at another angle. Or if you put a light source into a prism, it’ll be split. I’m interested in the form and design and patterning that can be used with dancers, groups of dancers: of the idea of one source of something and then it being split.

Now the work has moved more to an interest in this moment of twilight, the beautiful shifting time between day and night that you can’t really put your finger on – I really feel like I’m watching the most tangible experience of time. It’s this beautiful shifting moment of about 40 minutes that we can all have a look at, and we’re doing different things. It makes me feel really human watching this time passing. My favourite colour is blue and there are so many versions of it in the sky at that time. So in thinking about Janssens’ work and mine, I want to feel enveloped in whatever this colour is, or whatever this time of day is, I want to feel wrapped in a blanket. Also I watched Fantasia recently, and there’s that moment when Zeus goes to sleep and pulls the cloud over him like a duvet. I was like, that’s how I feel when I’m watching the sunset or these colours shift. I feel I want to get into this cloud. And that reminds me of this Janssens work, where you’re enveloped by the very intimate landscape around you. That’s when you know you’ve made some incredible work, when people can have a real emotional and physical reaction to something.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Tra Mi Dinh".

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