May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which is not why I chose this week’s Portrait, but it adds a little celebratory bump to the story. Jason Vu is a nonbinary Vietnamese American dance and performance artist. A researcher in dance, somatic inquiry, sound and sensory attention, Vu creates practices and performances that ritualize non-oppressive ways of knowing, doing and becoming.
Vu is currently part of the 2023 exhibition at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, where he will be showcasing two dance films and premiering an evening-length work, “Through Noise.” Vu has previously toured 48 cities throughout the U.S. and Europe dancing for singer Melanie Martinez (choreographed by Brian Friedman) and the performance company Dana Foglia Dance, which is internationally recognized for its innovation in contemporary dance and contributing choreography to Beyoncé’s performances in film, TV and live performance. His dance film “Princess” has screened at festivals in the UK, Canada, New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, and is streaming globally on Nowness Asia.
Where do you hail from?
I’m originally from Fremont, California. Do you know where that is? It’s about an hour east of San Francisco. It’s a very Asian American community. It’s that silicon valley, Tesla headquarters, big tech environment. I was born there and at 18 I went to college in Rhode Island – I went to Brown and studied biology and then dance. After that I went to LA for a short dance career, and then Covid happened and I moved to Philly for grad school.
Very nice. Are you the only artsy one in the family?
In my immediate, nuclear family, my oldest sister is a musician, and my other sister is a doctor. Neither of my parents are artists. I would say that being an artist in my family was quite hard. My parents don’t really understand it, they’re immigrants who came here after the Vietnam War as refugees, so to support a career in the arts is a little far from their experience. They had to focus on more lucrative work and didn’t really see art as a career. My dad had siblings who were musicians, so music does run in the family, but I’m probably the only dancer in the extended family that includes about 40 cousins and a ton of aunts and uncles. I’m kind of the odd ball out.
What were you like as a kid?
Interesting… I was really energetic. I was pretty hard to tame so I was quite annoying… in a charming way! I got easily excited about a lot of things.
[Laughing] So you were “extra.”
[Laughing] Yeah, I would say I was pretty extra. I’d get in trouble in class because I would poke and harass and whisper, some would say I was deviant, but in fact I think I just had a lot of energy, and my body always wants to be in movement, so sitting in class and trying to pay attention to someone talking never worked for me. I’m just not that kind of learner. I’m about to graduate from grad school and I’m still not good at listening to lectures.
Do you think being in the Asian community, which often has a big focus on academics, made it harder?
Yeah, I would say it informed me and it was a challenge, though I did my best at things that I was good at and excelled there. I’m not a very linguistical person, but I’m a very logical, spatial oriented person so I’m very good at math and science. I’m a very STEM-y kind of Asian. But I do think that being in a fully Asian American community did inform a lot of the ways that I think about dance.
My high school was big on standardized texts and academia, and not so much creative thinking. It was just teach to the text and get the answers right. So when I went to Brown to get a liberal arts education, my brain couldn’t handle the open endedness that art and creative thinking asks you to do. I was like, “Where is the answer? Did I get it right?” and they were like, “There actually is no right answer, we just want to know what you’re thinking.” And I was like, “I don’t know what I’m thinking! I just want to know the logic behind getting to the right answer.” So it took me a long time to… well, I’m still like that a little.
Did you say you studied biology first?
Yes, technically, I only have a degree in biology. Originally I thought I wanted to go to med school as my lucrative career. But I didn’t like the rigor and hard lab sciences involved in the classic bio degree, and halfway through college I wasn’t into the idea of being a doctor anymore. I knew I could do it, I was intelligent and hardworking enough, but I loved to dance and that seemed like more of a challenge. Something out of reach that was mysterious, like what was beyond that horizon? So I made the switch. I stayed and finished college but started taking a lot of dance classes. So I studied biology the first 2 years and the last 2 years studied the humanity of health and at the end of my college career I did a dance show. I think I am a scientific and biological thinker. I like data and logic and the idea of health and well being. But now I focus on that via art.
What type of dance do you do?
I primarily do what I would call somatic, which is my personal definition of the study of life through the understanding of bodies and movement. But for me, it isn’t so much about the style or form of the thing. It’s more about the reason inside that motivates you to do the movement. It’s very intention and desire based, so say if I want a drink of water, it’s about the act of picking up the bottle and pouring the water into my mouth. So it’s very fundamental in terms of bodies in action, and that can often look like other dance styles. I’ve trained for many years in ballet, I’ve trained in contemporary styles, I’ve done jazz, I’ve done hip-hop and other African diasporic dance. In LA I studied under my biggest mentor, Dana Foglia, and she’s a powerhouse. She studied with Alvin Ailey and now she’s a sought after choreographer who choreographs for people like Billie Eilish, Beyoncé, Jenifer Lopez, and other big names.
Yeah, and I don’t know if it has to do with being Asian American, but there’s a kind of transplanted feeling where we have recent culture, but it doesn’t feel like American culture, so I often feel like I’m in the in-betweens of a lot of different cultures. Trying to settle my artistic life in the middle of all that can be tricky. My show is called “Through Noise” and it’s about how we respond to the things that we hear and ‘how do we make noise?’
If we took the time to understand how noise works in Philly or in America we might better understand love and grief and all sorts of things. Through deep listening we can access a lot of poignant and rich information. Circling back, I think that’s very Asian of me, because in Vietnamese lineage there’s a long Buddhist religious and spiritual foundation. Though my parents are Christian Catholic, I identify as Buddhist and my desire to be in dance comes from a desire to practice a kind of meditation, a well-being and oneness with the universal spirit.
What was your coming out journey?
Very early on I felt that I had some non-heteronormative desires or likings towards bodies; I was probably around 7 or 8. My first crush was in 5th grade, a sweet crush that I call “The boy on the playground.” My first friend in 7th grade would give me hints or prompts like, “You know it’s okay to be gay, I like gay people.” Prior to that no-one had expressed acceptance to it, so that got me comfortable with the idea of it, and I came out to her. Soon I became openly gay to all of my classmates, but no-one in my family knew. In 8th grade I got into a relationship, which I barely remember except that it was tumultuous at the end, and I remember my mother driving me to tennis practice and me being upset. My mother said, “If you were gay, you would tell me right?” and I said, “Yeah, I would tell you but I’m not.” Five minutes later I confessed, “Yes, I am.” She said, “Okay, but don’t tell dad.” That was heartbreaking, the message that this was something I should keep hidden.
What about your siblings?
I came out to them before my mom. We were on vacation, watching “How I Met Your Mother” on TV, and my sister asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no and she said, “Then who is it that you talk to on the phone all the time?” I burst out crying and she asked if I had a boyfriend. I said yes and she hugged me and said that it was okay, and then she said, “By the way, our oldest sister is also queer!” I was like, “Oh my God!” I was so relieved. It was a sweet moment.
I came out to my dad in 12th grade when we were taking a walk with my dog. He took it okay, he already had an inkling. I mean my dad had been telling me to “man up” for the majority of my life so it wasn’t a shock. He just said, “Okay, but if you ever feel you want to change, trust that feeling.” I said, “Okay, I hear you dad. I’ll be open to the idea of shifting should that ever happen.” And by college, I was pretty much out to the world.
And here we are! So let’s talk about what you’re doing now.
Sure, so I’m just finishing my grad program at UArts, it’s an MFA in dance. I also teach at the school, contemporary dance, yoga, somatic inquiry; and I teach students’ creative thesis senior project. I love those students, they’re so special and it’s an amazing school. The dean is radically open minded, and personally I think it’s the most progressive school in the states.
That’s great to hear. We need as many progressive places for learning as we can get right now. What can we expect from your show? What are you excited about?
Well, first of all it’s my first solo show. I’ve done a full show before, but that was as an ensemble with 25 other people. This is just me as the headliner and the sole performer, so it’s a really big deal for me. I’ve had to embrace the fact that I’m just one person, but I have a lot to share. I love that it’s going to be at the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI) where I get to center my ancestry, my history and my voice in the broader context of Philadelphia. I’ve very clearly situated my work here in Philly and a lot of the sound, the music, and the score that I made for this show is field recorded noises from around Philadelphia. I’ve taken pictures and recorded sound from small Vietnamese businesses around the city and they’re part of the show. You’ll see others as well, there are signs and sounds from other cultures included.
One thing that’s nice is that yes, the AAI is Asian centered, but it feels like they embrace the work of all people of color. I am excited about centering my voice within a larger context of how we understand things like identity, distribution of wealth, the way we listen to each other, and the way we love each other. I’ve been working with a composer too. It’s the first time I’ve made music for one of my pieces and it includes the sound of me putting away the dishes, bikes revving down the street, the birds in the trees, the children playing in the park at 11th and Lombard, sounds that are specific to this place. I’m excited that people might open their ears in a different way because of this show.
I’m listening. So let’s wrap up with some random questions. Are you allergic to anything?
I’m allergic to nickel. I can’t wear any belts or jewelry made from nickel or I have a reaction to it.
The most used app on your phone?
This is boring, but honestly, it’s probably my email app. I check my email all the time. All the time.
I’m glad you do since that’s how we connected! Do you watch any of the dance shows, and if so which is your favorite?
I don’t really watch any shows now, but it was the show, “So You Think You Can Dance” that got me interested in dance in the first place!
Favorite book as a kid?
“The Hungry Caterpillar.” That was my favorite story, and I was also called that because I ate a lot as a kid.
I just read that to my nephew last time I visited. Favorite holiday?
The Fourth of July, not because I’m patriotic but because growing up my extended family would rent out a beach house up in Oregon each summer. All my cousins and my parents and siblings would go and we’d make a big pit for a campfire and we’d sit on the beach and shoot off fireworks. It’s a warm memory of quality time with the family.
And final question, who would you like to collaborate with and what would you collaborate on?
Woah! That’s so hard but also so, so good! Okay, there’s a singer-songwriter named Nick Hakim. He’s LatinX and he’s not even queer but he’s just a beautiful musician and he composes these jazz, R&B arrangements that he does all in his home. I’m pretty sure I’m going to feature some of his music in my show. I play the piano and guitar but I really want to get more into songwriting. I’m also taking voice lessons. I want to transition to new things in addition to dance. I’m ready to take the next step.