Portraits of Anne Nguyen

“Anne Nguyen, a consummate artist in hip-hop freestyle” by Ingrid Merckx – Politis (15 june 2006)

French female break-dancing champion and promising young choreographer, Anne Nguyen is imposing her style on present-day hip-hop. A movement and discipline whose misguided commercialism she deplores, hoping to get it back to its roots, so it can continue to stand its ground.
Being a warrior. “That’s what being hip-hop’s all about”, she adds with a sly look. It’s not an attitude, it’s a philosophy. Clearly, we’re a million miles away from the American ghettos of the 1980s. “At that time, people were defending a political cause. Nowadays, in France, hip-hop no longer has any enemies. But there are still battles to be fought”. Mainly against commercial hip-hop and the inhumanity of the urban environment. The diminutive twenty-seven-year-old, black hair cropped short, almond-shaped eyes against a pale skin and innocent smile, Anne Nguyen shows me her Manual of a City Warrior over a cup of verbena tea. A collection of twenty or so poems, some of which have been published in Graff it ! magazine. “Break”, “Right angles”, “Egotrip”, “Chair Freeze”… they all bespeak her view of dance, its place in space and, by the same token, in life. They are a reminder of what must not be forgotten: that break-dancing is a transgression of movement, that rap is spawned from thoughts articulated in the dark, from being locked up, that the world can be perpendicular, that objects extend beyond it, that the body is a raw material to be finely honed in the mind, that we must strike a balance between flesh and concrete, and also be aware of our power to change our way of thinking by trying to change our way of moving.

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All this, Anne has written in response to unwelcome trends, in a desire to get back to “hip-hop values” at a time “when it has become so fashionable there’s no information any more. It has been wrongly appropriated”. And also out of a need to refocus, to remain herself in a world that she entered at a “bad time, when everything was already changing, when the hip-hop state of mind was collapsing”.

ust over six years ago, Anne Nguyen knew little, if anything, of hip-hop: she would dance upright in her bedroom while listening to rap. And the world of hip-hop knew little of Anne. Today, she is one of the most frequently seen dancers in France, and, no less, the 2005 French female break-dancing champion. “I’ve won that particular battle (1), but I’ve also won others. That one has at least given me a title that carries some meaning for the uninitiated”, she giggles. More important to her, however, is the recognition of having been chosen to judge the annual national championships last April. She prefers to show her self-assertion by announcing that she has just set up her own dance company, Par terre, and is getting ready to perform Square Root at the Hip-Hop Tanz festival in Pantin between 22nd and 24th June (2). A self-choreographed show and her first solo. “And maybe the last”, she adds, a serious, but not overly proud, look in her eyes. “It marks a phase. The need to lay the foundation on which to build things with others.” Others who might share her vision of hip-hop.

She came upon it fairly late, in the summer of 2000. “Beginnings always begin in the summer, and once you’ve started, it’s difficult to stop”. She had done some gymnastics as a little girl, a bit of martial arts, and a “lot” of capoeira when she was in Montréal, in 1999, where she spent a year studying English. Hip-hop, there, was rarely performed upright. She learned how to break dance. Back in France, she felt a growing desire to study and also to dance. Not on the hard paving stones of Les Halles, too tough if you’re just starting out, “especially for a girl”, implying not only that it’s a male-dominated milieu, but also that it’s just too tough, full stop. “You get hurt in break-dancing”. But instead in gyms with a male crew, the Dalton posse, or in school playgrounds. She soon started giving lessons in Montréal, where a certain number of students attended regularly, and in dance schools in Paris, up until the time she joined the Black Blanc Beur dance company. An experience she soon brought to a halt: “We ended up five guys and five girls. It was like Hip-Hop Academy”, she winces. I don’t listen to commercialised rap, I’m not here to do commercial dance!”, she proclaimed defiantly. She clocked up a score of battles, just for the fun of it, to be with her mates, for the atmosphere, the pure enjoyment. And because in the beginning “You don’t know exactly what you’re doing. You do more and more phases and freezes just to hear the crowd roar”. Once again, it was another rut she didn’t want to get into. Because it became a cult of performance and sporting achievement in which dance had come to a “standstill”. Because, under the leadership of a certain Benji, who changed the “public relation codes”, the battle scene spiralled out of control. “Now, there are at least three every weekend in the Paris area alone, and there’s always money at the end of it. And that breeds untrammelled arrogance, aggression, swindling and provocation”. So where was the respect inherent in hip-hop? Anne took to her heels.

For a time, she worked with contemporary choreographers who “taught her a lot”. It wasn’t so much a question of pitting the stage against the street, “what matters is being able to express yourself”. Nor did she want to make hip-hop a city culture, it’s an “urban culture”. Simply a “non-disadvantaged” burbs dweller herself, she is the living proof. “There’s always been a bit of everything in hip-hop. Some kids arrive at Les Halles in their Porsches”, she grins. “It was a movement born out of oppression, but oppression doesn’t just exist in impoverished districts. It’s everywhere, in the environment, the city’s architecture… Martial arts were not born in a field of flowers.” In 2003, she broke her leg. So she was forced to take a back seat and reflect on the direction she wanted to go in and on the direction hip-hop was taking. “The whole culture was built on lyrical battles. When radio stations insisted that 40% of air time was devoted to the French chanson, everything changed. French rap exploded. Overnight, it had gone from underground to commercial, with tracks conjuring up images of thong-clad girls and the cult 4WD. Gone were the identity references and the serious issues, dress codes were turned on their heads. People loved rap for the money and the posturing associated with it”. She stopped listening to French rap, she denounced those with a “linear, not cyclical” vision of things, she cited only KRS-One and Nas as her references and dressed in a less “hip-hop” way. At the very most, the change was discreet, visible, say, in the slightly flat cut of her hair, or her long T-shirt worn tight over her jeans. She wanted to “study the past”, get back to basics and the Latino roots of hip-hop. She wrote articles on what really happened in battles. And drafted a manual that might well be described as “covert resistance”.
Read more in Politis n° 906

(1) A confrontation through dance, mid-way between a competition and an encounter, where a series of acrobatic feats and choreographic moves acquire challenge status.
(2) Hip-hop Tanz: festival organised in Seine-Saint-Denis by the Moov’n Aktion association with the Pantin national dance centre.

Portrait of Anne Nguyen by Thomas Hahn – Tanz (December 2010)

She has a university background, writes poems, publishes theoretical articles on hip-hop and runs the dance section of hip-hop magazine Graff it !. Brainy? Not exactly. Simply balanced. Anne Nguyen has won the “Battle Of The Year” several times, has been a breakdance world champion. Her choreographic experience came from working with Black Blanc Beur, Rêvolution, as well as with Faustin Linyekula and Salia nï Seydou. With her own creations, Anne Nguyen proves how women can skilfully alter this mostly masculine domain. She gives a brand new face to powermoves –with a method that has very masculine connotations, dismantling series of moves and reconstructing them. Circles are turned into linear courses, right angles and interrupted trajectories. Thus is created a lively modular system, a blend of breakdance and contact dance which dissolves the body’s natural order, like in Pablo Picasso. Anne Nguyen applies the principle to legworks. Paradoxically, with her, it looks natural.

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At the moment she is presenting her fourth creation, the duet “Yonder Woman”, choreographed for herself and Valentine Nagata-Ramos, who has also won laurels as a b-girl. A doctor in white uniform brings them on stage.

"We are like animals inside a laboratory”, in some way inside a research center in breakdance, where the spectator is watching an experiment carried out on two sprites, friends, sisters, or guinea pigs, resembling a Tex Avery movie. In “Repères” magazine, Anne Nguyen has published an interesting article that relates how, in her previous creation, she has used contact dance in order to bring together the bodies of breakdancers. She has used a scientific and methodical process.

Envisioning hip-hop’s future, Anne Nguyen also reflects upon the meaning of synchronization in breakdance. It already works really well with her partner. Seems more difficult with b-boys. A new creation, “Terre Chair”, is already underway. Two Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters will there join the “Yonder Woman” duet. That Anne Nguyen should practice this martial art form is another result of her research on contact in breakdance. “Terre Chair” will only premiere in 2013. Before that, she wants to create a piece for eight “stand-up” dancers, again in permanent bodily contact, in order to conduct further her research on contact in hip-hop. For now, she is working on her collection of poems “Manual of the City Warrior”. “The city is a cage”, she says, and: “dancing is spiritual. The purpose is to preserve our part of humanity.” From there also comes her so much different hip-hop.