Sean Nguyen-Hilton’s ‘this room is a body’ solo offers roadmap to change

Sean Nguyen-Hilton has gone through a process of deconstructing and reconstructing himself as a dancer, which is revealed in the solo he'll perform this weekend. (Photo by Orfeas Skutelis)

Credit: Photo by Orfeas Skutelis

Combined ShapeCaption
Sean Nguyen-Hilton has gone through a process of deconstructing and reconstructing himself as a dancer, which is revealed in the solo he'll perform this weekend. (Photo by Orfeas Skutelis)

Credit: Photo by Orfeas Skutelis

Credit: Photo by Orfeas Skutelis

It’s said that a concert dancer dies twice — first, at the end of the artist’s performing career, and second, at the end of the artist’s life.

For Sean Nguyen-Hilton, this first life passage gave impetus to a period of creativity involving deep investigation — of self, of the power systems that shaped his art, and of theory and philosophy that opened new horizons on his future. With “this room is a body,” a 75-minute solo performance ritual that debuts this weekend at the Windmill Arts Center, Nguyen-Hilton aims to show that the end of a concert dance career is not a death, but rather a transformation.

The performance is the culmination of a two-year process that involved writing, music composition and intuitive movement practices. Nguyen-Hilton offered an in-progress showing at the Windmill in 2021, which Wussy Magazine’s Erik Thurmond described as “a meditative swirl experienced at a satisfying clip, an astute work functioning on many levels.”

In Nguyen-Hilton’s performance of the work on video, undertones of his ballet past are felt like obscured fragments of memory. But he uses his strength and facility to bypass those well-worn lines and discover new pathways around his body — accessing, Thurmond wrote, “his expertise for eloquent, complex and fearless movement while using it to question the very form he is working in.”

The genesis of “this room is a body” took place a little more than two years ago, when Nguyen-Hilton decided to grow his hair long and create a solo. He began reflecting on a nearly two-decade career as a professional concert dancer.

He worked within a system where the dancer is a commodity and white, and where technically proficient hetero-normative bodies tend to be preferred. To meet the profession’s stringent standards, Nguyen-Hilton struggled with body identity issues, eating disorders, substance abuse and alcoholism. As a gay man, and an immigrant from England, Nguyen-Hilton often felt he had to change his movement and behavior to fit societal expectations.

Moreover, professional concert dancers are often regarded as choreographers’ tools, not creators. Their traditional role has been to realize a choreographer’s vision by executing movement exactly as a director tells them to. “I felt like a machine,” said Nguyen-Hilton. “I felt like what I was doing was never good enough.”

As memories of past trauma surfaced, poor mental health sent Nguyen-Hilton into a period of inactivity. He gained 80 pounds, drank excessively and began to reject dance altogether. “I didn’t want anyone to look at my body. I didn’t want to be on stage. I didn’t want to exist.”

He sought healing through creativity. He wrote, composed music and started a drawing practice. He read books on queer theory and contemporary aesthetics. He began to weave it all together with a personal narrative.

Nguyen-Hilton sought insight in José Esteban Muñoz’ “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.” Muñoz puts forward a theory that today’s world is toxic for queer people. This resonated with Nguyen-Hilton, who had spent much of his life concealing his queerness and changing his behavior to survive.

“This room is a body” features a film of movers on a hillside, which represents a horizon, said Nguyen-Hilton, “and that the possibility of what the future could be.”

Structurally, “this room is a body” borrows from philosophers Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s thought model of a rhizome. Rather than follow a more linear “tree of life” pattern, where ideas spring upward from a seed in the ground, the rhizome model develops thought the way grass grows, sending roots outward horizontally. It’s more like a map, said Nguyen-Hilton. “You couldn’t say where it starts and where it ends,” he said. “It’s always in the middle. It’s always connecting things.”

Nguyen-Hilton’s title — and additional recorded text — draws from Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?” It’s a heady philosophy, but Nguyen-Hilton gleaned from it the idea that a “body without organs” is a site of potential. Just as a field needs a grain of corn to become a cornfield, an empty stage — as a realm of possibility — needs the artist’s “desiring body” to come into it in order for the artistic, and sometimes spiritual, thing to happen.

Nguyen-Hilton encountered a few roadblocks getting there, mainly fear. “Fear of being judged, fear of being misunderstood,” he said. “Fear that no one really needs to see a white man talking about his feelings.”

But he kept pushing, digging, dancing in the dark, and came out knowing that the end of his career as a virtuoso dancer is not a death, but rather a rebirth. Since he started the process, he has lost 80 pounds and stays fit and sober. He’s let go of the idea of being someone else’s dancer or creative tool. He’s accepted parts of himself he’d felt ambivalent about and has found a sense of agency in speaking his truth. And he’s found a sense of inner peace within a tumultuous world — a peace that enables him to go out into the world and help people in the best ways he can.

It’s a form of activism through example. “It shows other ways, other possibilities,” Nguyen-Hilton said, “not necessarily as absolutes, but as what-ifs and roadmaps. Living that and embodying that, and practicing that is for me, quite revolutionary.”

“Just the realization, that people make things change,” he added. “We are transformation. The body is constantly transforming, inherently, down to a cellular level. And so, the work is really just an exalting of that.”

An artist talkback will follow each performance. On September 24-25, at the Windmill Arts Center, Nguyen-Hilton will present a workshop using the writing, sound recording and intuitive movement practices with which he built his solo.

PREVIEW

“this room is a body”

8 p.m. Aug. 26-27, 4 p.m. Aug. 28. $15-$25. The Windmill Arts Center, 2823 Church St., East Point. flyonawall.buzz/this-room-is-a-body.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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