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The Wicked One: Mai Nguyen Tri

Tell us about what you do?
I come from a literary background and also trained in all kinds of dance. I found I was more attracted to choreography and being a dance artist rather than a performer for other people’s ideas. For me, my work is about writing stories in a physical way. Then I discovered Butoh and realised it was what I was already, before knowing what it was called. It sounds strange, but the beauty of Butoh is that it’s very hard to describe and define. It’s not set in any specific steps or aesthetic. Butoh is an interesting combination of being both very Japanese and anti-Japanese at the same time. It’s also very primal and visceral. 

What motivates you and how do you choreograph performances? Usually, I need a mini poem or story like a Haiku or a three-sentence fairytale to give the sense of a narrative: a beginning, a climax in the middle and then the ending. These come from very simple themes like the cycle of life. It’s quite primal and energetic but also very zen. 

As a choreographer, I base my performances on structured improvisation. I never set specific steps as a conventional dancer would, so no two pieces will ever be the same. Even though my performance is mainly inspired by Butoh, I am also an improviser. It’s a very specific way of being creative. It doesn’t mean I go out and do my thing without any preparation, it actually requires a lot more closeness with your collaborators. 

Do you make costumes yourself?
I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by a lot of very gifted fashion designers. My daughter-in-law, Rebecca George is a beautiful designer and often designs for me. I often collaborate with her and my son who has been a very close collaborator of mine since he was 15 and made music pieces for me, so it’s nice having the three of us collaborate together.

How did you come to be in Hackney Wick & Fish Island?
All my friends are here, all my creativity, and my children and grandchildren all live here. It’s hard for people because the gentrification is heartbreaking. I spend less time here than I used to because I have a market stall every weekend in Brick Lane. But most days of the week I’m here. What first attracted me was the sense of community. Even though I love being in the big city, I like the village feeling of Hackney Wick and that when I go from A to B I end up saying hello to 20 people along the way. It makes me feel secure, like I’m part of something and I like being part of a tribe.

What aspects of HWFI do you love most?
As an artist, I never felt I could quite fit in the London art and dance world. I need to have that human connection to be able to start my own wave of creativity. Performing in Hackney Wick, I met lots of people who were like-minded and fitted into my own sensibility and creativity. I liked how it was this little island tucked away and hidden from the world. 

I find that local artists have this desire to incorporate their art into their way of living, which is really me. As a Butoh artist I can’t contain my art into a 9-5 thing. I like being able to jam in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street, if the impulse is there. 

What simple change would improve things here?
Hackney Wick should have been better protected. This area has a lot of great artists yet many others had to move out and that should never have been allowed. This community is very special, and that hasn’t gone from the area but, it has also been joined by different vibes.

Tell us your favourite local hangouts, and why?
I’d have to say GROW. I don’t spend as much time here as I used to, but I love hanging out in the alleyway, it’s where I meet all of my friends and go from one warehouse to another. 

What has the area taught you about life?
This freedom that we have in our heart, our creativity and lifestyle, I think it’s important to remember that it’s there as an abstract ethos and it binds us together no matter if you’re in Hackney Wick or New Zealand or anywhere else in the world. I think one purpose of art is to do that, to express and spread the message of how you want life and human connections to be. That’s why I like Butoh so much. 

What do you feel is your greatest achievement ?
I’m proud that people connect so intensely with my performances. I don’t like to perform just for myself and can’t unless an audience gives their commitment to me, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. I like to surprise people and adapt my performance to who’s in front of me. Butoh can be quite scary at times, and I love children so don’t want to scare them, but I do scare them sometimes! 

What is it about watching one of your shows that scares them? Sometimes Butoh is referred to as the dance of darkness. The concept is that you don’t want to show beauty, like your typical dance performance. Instead, you want to show humanity, and it can be ugly and grotesque. 

Who inspires you around here?
Definitely the guys from Fear of Fluffing for their huge multi-talents and creativity in music, costumes, masks, multi-media works, live music, impulsivity and how they include their art in their lifestyle and ethos. They’ve been one of my most important collaborators here. 

Pete Bennett for his multi-talents as a visual artist and rock musician with his band the O’DUBLO, his clever punk activist approach to art and community projects and his work organizing events and bringing local people together. 

Jordanna Greaves (co-founder of GROW and visual artist) and Yolanda Antonopoulou (founder and manager of the Old Baths Café and Gaia Pulses) both venue founders as well as inspiring local art event organizers, for their gentle and powerful feminine leadership and commitment to ethical and eco- friendly businesses. 

Kevin Headley, our kind angel and Big Issue magazine seller (now deceased, his blue plaque is on the wall of the Lord Napier). And my family, I admire my son and three grandchildren, all Hackney Wick residents and local artists, dancers and musicians. They already inspire me with their arts, performing skills and commitment to the underground art ethos and their natural easiness with the art of jamming, sharing arts and human connections.

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