Drought and Rain, by the French Vietnamese choreographer Ea Sola, was originally produced in 1995. Five years in the making, it was staged with an ensemble of women performers who had no professional training but who had lived through the Vietnam War. Brought to Sadler’s Wells 16 years on with a new ensemble of women who once sang to soldiers, it’s a poignant, abstract piece, a meditation on conflict and suffering.
Performed in Vietnamese with English surtitles, the production unfolds on a stage that’s black and bare, except for the groups of percussionists on each side. As the performers slither onto the stage holding cut-outs of ancestral figures, it’s clear that ideas of ancestral heritage will be a key theme of the piece. The Prologue Song, sung by Doan Thi Ket, reinforces this fact, referring to the ancestors who “opened up our pathways”. There is no other dialogue, only movement and songs which embellish the scenes, everything coming together to depict the journey undertaken by the Vietnamese people during the war and in the years since.
A group of women, dressed for work in the paddy fields, move across the stage like single shoots of rice. As they hold out their hands they symbolise the desperate need for rain. The consequences of drought are then portrayed by a young girl who acts as the puppeteer of a faceless and colourless mannequin; the movements of this mannequin project the women’s quiet desperation and despair. It’s a beautifully understated scene, yet it is also incredibly effective.
The full effects of war are then brought into play. Small photographs of men emerge from the shirts of a group of women. These men are victims of war, and as their pictures are revealed by half of the women, the other half appear to be losing something of their hearts. Once gentle in their movements, these women become wild, grappling with one another, in a striking echo of the consequences of the Vietnam war.
Conflict is the running theme throughout this production; drought vs. rain, peace vs. war and joy vs. sadness. Sola’s choreography contains a deep vein of spirituality as well as an element of musicality. It’s also refreshing to see a stage owned by women who have lived the experience which they express so purposefully through their movements. Drought and Rain is a sophisticated piece of dance theatre, richly symbolic and full of poignancy, but there are times when Sola’s scenes can be a little too abstract and, running to seventy-five minutes, the piece feels over-extended.