Project Agent Orange: Dance, Movement, Dialogue

Recent revelations about the presence of the defoliant known as Agent Orange on the Japanese island chain of Okinawa, where the US military trained during the Vietnam War, have brought the conflict back into spotlight. Of course, for many – namely the Vietnamese – the horrors of that war and the legacy of chemical warfare have never ceased.

Agent Orange is a blend of herbicides used during the Vietnam War, which lasted twenty years, from November 1955 until April 1975. The US military sprayed 19 million gallons of the chemical in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1962 until 1970 to defoliate the thick jungle that served as Vietnamese guerrillas’ cover. The immediate impact: Millions of dead and maimed Vietnamese. The long-term impact: Birth defects that continue today, forty years after the US military stopped spraying.

Natalia Duong, a Vietnamese American dancer and choreographer based in New York, grapples with the issue of Agent Orange and how it has affected three generations of Vietnamese.

“Children are literally – physically – inheriting a war they never lived,” says Duong.

Doctors have found high levels of dioxin, a toxic carcinogen and the main ingredient found in Agent Orange, in Vietnamese mothers’ milk, and it is believed that Vietnam’s groundwater is contaminated with dioxin.

“AO is a just a microcosmic example of a much larger conversation regarding the lingering and long-lasting effects of war, particularly chemical warfare,” says Duong.

Agent Orange, dance, New York artists

Natalia Duong of Project Agent Orange. Photo by Alvaro Ponce.

To start this larger conversation, last year Duong, a recent Stanford graduate in Psychology and Dance, formed Project Agent Orange, a collective that aims to educate people about the physical effects of the chemical through dance and movement.

The collective has performed throughout New York and New Jersey, and they are producing evening-length shows that will run at Dixon Place May 31 through June 2. With Project Agent Orange, Duong hopes to bring together art enthusiasts, social activists, and community organizers for an open discussion about the impact of war that remains long after the troops go home.

The performances provide Duong and Project Agent Orange a platform for dialogue that may be difficult to address, but it’s important and essential to discuss, Duong says. The performers of Project Agent Orange use dance and movement to see life from the perspective of those who have been exposed to Agent Orange. Duong says “leveraging different parts of our body to locomote” allows the collective to experience how the affected Vietnamese have learned to cope with their disabilities.

And there are discussions, which Duong finds promising.

“I met with (Vietnamese) Ambassador Ngô Quang Xuân and his daughter Ngô Phu’o’ng Lan,” says Duong via e-mail, “and they told me that psychological aid is beginning to be offered to families whose members have been affected by AO. It’s an important step.”

The purpose of the collective is to increase awareness of not just the effects of Agent Orange but to introduce the uninitiated to the concept of Agent Orange itself. As Duong points out, the victims aren’t just Vietnamese or Asian; members of the US military and their families are affected as well.

As with the droppings of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the effects of chemical warfare are intergenerational and have resulted in both health and mental health issues for survivors and their descendants. Project Agent Orange’s goal is to reverse the continuing effects of war by making an impact with its performances.

For more information about Project Agent Orange, please visit the collective’s blog.