Discovering dance by happy coincidence, James Vu Anh Pham started on a humble journey of self-expression and gifted the world with his talent. Studying Countertechnique intensively with Anouk van Dijk since 2012 at Chunky Move, James has since 2016 embarked on an international career as part of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s company Eastman.
By Madeline Harms. 

Tell me a little about where you are from and how you discovered dance.
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and was the first generation of my Vietnamese family to be raised in a Western society. From a young age, I studied music intensely, playing the piano, clarinet and saxophone. However, when I performed, I would became stuck in my body because I had to concentrate so much energy into my extremities. At my performing arts high school there was also a dance program and one day a friend suggested I try taking a dance class. Out of curiosity I went and tried a hip hop class and loved it! From then on, I did hiphop every week and was eventually introduced to contemporary dance. It was the perfect combination of being physical and active, as well as allowing me to express myself and release a lot of tension and stress. Once I was accepted into the New Zealand School of Dance it became serious and I made the decision to the commit to this profession.

How was your transition into professional life?
For me it was really smooth, luckily. Going from a school environment to working with Anouk van Dijk at Chunky Move was the best situation that I could have ever asked for. She herself is very nurturing and showed me a new way to approach research and training. My school training was very physically demanding and had a heavy athletic focus. Because of this intensity, in a way I had become numb to my own body; pushing through anything that was hurting me or even not realising I was in pain. Anouk broke a lot of technical aspects down for me and taught me how to control physical demands by thinking on a deeper level to find a heightened sense of awareness.

How did becoming a Countertechnique teacher affect your own approach to dance?
In 2014 I did my first One Body, One Career Countertechnique Intensive (OBOC) and my mind just expanded sideways. I had this feeling that I was really onto something about studying myself and studying the human body on a deeper level. Before that, I didn’t think that I could enhance my dancing in such an academic way, which was intimidating but also refreshing. For me the idea of dance was just about the joy of instinct and expression, and I had never approached it from this angle before. Countertechnique gave me a new ability to go below the surface, to question myself, refine research, and expand limitation, giving me even more joy and freedom of movement.

Do you find that Countertechnique has a major influence on your performance career?
For sure. It is something that I will always use as my own warm up, when I have the time. I have encountered a lot of dancers along the way who become curious about what I am doing, asking what I am working on, and would then request a class from me. Before I know it I find myself sharing a lot, practicing my teaching and connecting with others through this technique. I definitely think Countertechnique has helped me manage and protect myself from injuries and allowed me to make more conscious choices of how I am using my body during performances and in the studio. It also just keeps me interested in moving!

How do you construct your own warm up?
I love combining a Countertechnique class with a cliché muscular training, to push my body and do hard core training. I start with a Countertechnique series for myself, to loosen up my body and intrinsic muscles. Then through that I can access a faster range of movement through external and intrinsic muscles. When I am on tour I mostly do my own warm-up, however for smaller projects I often teach a warm up for the group before rehearsals or performance.

What do you like to focus on in your classes?
Generally I always like to work on a few simple anatomical keys points that surprise and bring new realisations to the dancers. For example, the fact the femur bone isn’t in line with the spine and when standing with the body in profile, the femur bone goes in front of the centre line and the spine is behind it. Bringing attention to fact makes people more curious and invested in their own research. They want to figure out how that knowledge can actually benefit and help them, or they realise they have been blocking that from being a reality for so many years. Another is just ‘seeing what you see’, but I generally do that towards the end of the week when people have already warmed up the other tools we have done in class. Then of course just having fun and dancing together as a group!

How does your class differ when teaching a warm-up class to your colleagues on tour, to teaching an open class?
I really enjoy both, but what I enjoy most about teaching my colleagues is that their research is very defined and therefore all I can really do is give suggestions and remind them about tools. If they’re having trouble in the morning, I try to say things that might help release any pressure and focus on warming up their bodies to get them to a place where they find joy in moving again.

When teaching an open class, I think I am more focused on the simplicity of the basics, so the dancers aren’t overwhelmed or overstimulated by information. Through this simplicity they can find joy in the structure of the class and focus on one or two tasks that I give throughout the class. That way the only thing that might overstimulate them is learning the movement combinations themselves, but they can digest these tasks and try to apply them to as much as they can.

Countertechnique definitely provides a common ground for people, it allows people to speak the same language and things can really work. Everyone is individual, but everyone is empowered by shared information. I think that is really important, in the working environment, you can grow and be nurtured, whether it’s by your boss or your colleagues. If there is support and understanding, it’s easy to see why we wanted to do this in the first place. Dancing is a social act!

What do you encounter in your class as frequently asked questions?
Generally people ask me a lot of questions that relate to what the correct position of the movement is. In this case, I always remind them about the task we are working on. They try again and whilst being in the process of doing the task, they actually complete the movement without even realising. I really enjoy moments like that, when I realise all I need to do is to remind dancers about the tools/tasks we have been working on and then they find so much joy in the little surprises their bodies are able to offer!

Do you have any advice for aspiring dancers?
I definitely think that patience and finding pleasure in the research is very important. It is a very human thing nowadays to want to see fast results! We need to be actively patient, alongside the research and not being so focused on trying to see the end benefits straight away. Furthermore, even when you achieve something, it’s not the end either. I’ve been doing Countertechnique since 2012 and I can still take a class and find pleasure in the research, knowing that I have so much more to learn and that I am no way near to ‘mastering the technique’. We are growing and expanding, finding new information and shedding old information; constantly changing. As long as you find pleasure in the research, then you’re on the right track.

Find out here where James is teaching next.

Next month, the Teacher Profile Interview Series will feature Teacher Countertechnique Lillian Barbeito.​

The Countertechnique Teacher Profile Interview Series is a monthly publication, initiated in October 2017. Madeline Harms is an Australian dancer and writer, currently based in Mainz, Germany. Learn more about Madeline on her blog Travelling Dancers.