1648kilomet – The Art of Spreading Joy “From ‘I’ to Others”

Part of Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020, “From ‘I’ to Others” was a workshop presented by 1648kilomet centering on the theme of humanity. Participants engaged in a creative experience based on their own stories, using the language of movement and drawing to explore and express themselves.

Part of Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020, “From ‘I’ to Others” was a workshop presented by 1648kilomet centering on the theme of humanity. Participants engaged in a creative experience based on their own stories, using the language of movement and drawing to explore and express themselves.

1648kilomet is…

1648kilomet was founded in early 2016 by choreographer – dancer Vu Ngoc Khai and producer Van Quy Ngoc Ai. 1648 kilometres is the length of Vietnam as the crow flies. This is a “rarely-mentioned” number that the two founders came across during their research on the cultural history of Vietnam. 1648kilomet has produced and staged many meaningful and professional arts events, , as well as undertaken community projects, especially with those of disadvantaged situations.

Vu Ngoc Khai shared that the idea for the “From ‘I’ to Others” project came by chance around 4 years ago, when he joined a workshop for students at Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Visually Impaired. Through this event, he realised that artists often harbour a deep empathy for disadvantaged people, which touched him and drove him to ponder on what he could do for this community. Around the same time, Van Quy Ngoc Ai had the chance to meet with children born to Vietnamese mothers in Taiwan and learned more about their psychological issues. The same as Khai, she contemplated how to support their mental health through activities that use the arts to sow the seed of joy.

Along with their wish to support the disadvantaged communities, both founders of 1648kilomet share the love for and wish to tell the story of Vietnam through dancing and music while preserving the pureness of Vietnamese culture. Thus 1648kilomet had been active even before they became an official initiative in 2015 with several notable performances, including Nón (Conical Hat), Đáy giếng (Into the Well), and more. Carefully and subtly using elements of Vietnam’s culture and traditional music, these projects were all well-received by the audience.

The two founders of 1648kilomet: Vu Ngoc Khai & Van Quy Ngoc Ai. Photo: Ngan Huynh

Blurring the line between the artists & the audience

Vu Ngoc Khai has had an extensive period of time working in Europe, with connections to international theatres and organisations. Van Quy Ngoc Ai has been working in journalism for more than 17 years, long enough to empathise with the challenges Vietnamese artists are facing. They asked themselves: How can we tell stories the way we want? How to contribute to the reciprocal interaction between the development of the arts and the policy environment for diverse creativity? That’s the reason why since its establishment until now, 1648kilomet has realised many productions that shortens the gap between the artists and the audience, between the world and Vietnam; many of which were created for those to whom the arts are normally seen as elitist, distant, and almost incomprehensible.

1648kilomet believes that artists could not realise projects nor create without the audience. If artists wish to have an audience, they need to actively make their approach and share the stories on what they are doing. Openly yet seriously, the artists hope that the public can feel the familiarity coming from the daily life that everyone can relate to, rather than from some distant, surreal world.

Dance performance “Cái Tổ” (The Nest) at Goethe Institute. Photo: Trinh Quang Linh

Audiences in Vietnam have less advantages than those in other countries, shared Van Ngoc Quy Ai. Even though children here are taught art and music in school, the teachings are very theoretical, without regard to individual expression. That education system forces  people to follow the crowd, to see things in black and white. 

In every production, from performances to workshops, 1648kilomet always includes a Q&A session after the show for artists, organisers, and the audience to discuss together. They want to make connections through an open dialogue so that both sides can learn more about one another, and frequently remind the audience of their message: To appreciate art, ease your mind and let your heart listen, to not overfocus on what the artists are trying to say or what each movement conveys; what is important is our own experience with that work of art. In that experience, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘better’ or ‘worse’. The more you learn and experience, the more likely you’re to find your own preference.

Contemporary dance workshop Made in Vietnam 2018. Photo: Dai Ngo

In return, Van Quy Ngoc Ai also expressed the demand for the audience to be considerate and respectful to works of art.  If respect doesn’t exist, the artists themselves would be the most vulnerable, and the artworks might also be violated. As such, the two founders are always clear on their requirements for students (joining workshops) and audiences (attending performances), from strictly following the time schedule, preparing proper attire, not using phone and recording devices, not bringing food/drinks into the auditorium. To implement these, 1648kilomet themselves have to put in an immense effort before and during the events. Khai and Ai want the audience to be aware that they are here, in this place, and whether they pay for entrance or not, they need to be deserving of their spot in the audience. 

Ai considers her working style “strict”, but clear – right from the beginning – in order to set the right expectations for the Vietnamese audience. For example, in Europe, from a young age people have been taught to applaud at the right moments in a classical music recital. Or how should they behave when going to a ballet? How to dress when they go to the theatre? Compared to these, the Vietnamese are rarely imparted on fundamental knowledge. Thus, as Van Quy Ngoc Ai shared, 1648kilomet had been on a mission to both create and educate their audience to appreciate art. She believed that if they want people to understand and respect their choices, they need to speak out, to set out every specific requirement. In the long run, these will become habits, there will be an audience who understands and appreciates every single value that artists are trying to create. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in feelings, but the right attitude in front of the arts is a must.  “It’s in fact hard work in terms of organising”, she smiled and said. Yet no matter how challenging it gets, Ai and 1648kilomet would follow through to the end and not give up.

The art of spreading joy “From ‘I’ to Others”

Joining Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020, 1648kilomet presented “From ‘I’ to Others” – an art – movement workshop designed by choreographer – art director Vu Ngoc Khai and art educator Nguyen Minh  Nam. The workshop is part of a long-term community project of the same name which was started in 2018.

Workshop From “I” to Others. Photo: Ngan Huynh
Workshop From “I” to Others. Photo: Ngan Huynh

The arts aren’t simply entertainment, they could help people see joy, take care of their mental health, improve emotional quotient and emotional intelligence.
– Van Quy Ngoc Ai –

The project “From ‘I’ to Others” aims to bring the arts closer to communities, with its first two years focusing on children living in special circumstances. From 2020 onwards, the project welcomes children’s adult caregivers and those who are interested in healthcare.  The key message running throughout – not only in this project but also others of 1648kiloment – is “spreading joy”, understanding one’s self and other people. As Vu Ngoc Khai shared, in modern society, people are losing so many human connections, the consequence of rapid social development, in which people live in a hurry, always wanting more, always wanting things faster. Vulnerable as they are, people put up the defence to protect themselves, which perhaps makes them all the more lonely and isolated. When we see someone needing help, we take so much time to consider, even to the point we don’t dare  extend our hand. Vu Ngoc Khai said, in his 12 years living and working in Europe, his biggest learning was the great importance of caring for one another, of each individual’s thoughts and feelings. In “From ‘I’ to Others”, the “I” included more than just the individual, rather concerned the four factors of Individual, Innovation, Inspiration, and ‘Inside out’. The group wanted to highlight individuality, the distinctiveness and uniqueness of each individual, to enable people to feel proud and let others learn to accept that individuality. The group wanted to inspire and motivate people to change from within.

In this project, Van Quy Ngoc Ai is mainly in charge of organising, and also working as facilitator for several dance movement therapy – storytelling workshops for children. As the one pursuing professional dancing, Vu Ngoc Khai facilitates movement programmes; while also connects and communicates with local and international partners in the industry for collaboration. The group invited arts enthusiasts and experts specialising in other artforms  including storytelling with puppets, photography, visual arts, music, and more to join them on this project. Not only contributing their time, members of this non-profit project also put in their talent, experience, effort as well as financial support. 

Vu Ngoc Khai believes that “spirit” is what lifts us up, gives  us positive energy, helps  us overcome sorrows and move forward. The arts can touch and inspire our spirit immensely. That’s why 1648kilomet decided to bring art closer to people, especially the disadvantaged community.

Workshop From “I” to Others. Photo: Ngan Huynh
Workshop From “I” to Others. Photo: Ngan Huynh

From “I” to Others is a long-term non-profit project that 1648kilomet builds from the ground up. In its first two years, the group funded the project from their own pocket. All sponsorships went into workshop logistics, accommodation and travel expenses for local and international facilitators. Fortunately, they received tremendous support from friends and partners – Ngo Hong Quang, Kim Young Nam (South Korea), Ichi Go (Germany), Christopher Boyd (Belgium), Nguyen Minh Nam (Ve Voi Project), Ibsen Tiny Stage, Mekongaholics, photographer Son Tran, fashion designer – restaurateur Chuong Dang, June Entertainment, and many others. 

In 2019, with the support of Mekongaholics and three other projects, 1648kilomet landed a sponsorship from Lime Orange. However, due to Covid, the grant was cut down to half the original amount. Yet thanks to that, the project activities in 2020 had longer duration, reached more young children in special circumstances, and 1648kilomet was also… less busy. Unfortunately, a performance-exhibition event expected to open to the public was cancelled. 

Van Quy Ngoc Ai and Vu Ngoc Khai take turns to organise, facilitate, raise funds, and take charge of communications. “There were many times we were so desperate and just had to cry out ‘Why is no one lending us a hand!’”, Ai laughed and told us. While there were many times they wanted to take a break, both founders of 1648kilomet shared that “From ‘I’ to Others” is not only a project for the public, but also for themselves. Each member of the group acquired tremendous knowledge and experience to develop and scale up the project, while maturing on their own path of self-healing and self-care.

Written by Chii Nguyen
Photos by Ngan Huynh, Trinh Quang Linh, Dai Ngo
Translated into English by Dinh Vu Nhat Hong
Graphics by Rongchơi

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