It starts like any teleworker’s meeting, with Nguyen peering at her screen, squinting as she activates the app. Gradually, eight other people pop into view around her, each framed in a box. One woman idly checks her phone; another peels a banana.
A surreal, high-pitched wail signals the shock of group activity: shoulder shimmies, frantic hopping. The dancers claw at their faces. They whip, thrash and dive out of view.
Nguyen stands apart, commanding the darkened centre square as she chants and howls long-held laments. She’s reached a boiling point: “I have nurtured/ You corrupted/ I am erupting/ Don’t interrupt it …”
The perspective tilts and dancers plummet from one frame to another. They reassemble to form the parts of a single, muscle-bound giant, with Nguyen as the head. (This was inspired by the dance company Pilobolus, famous for its human pyramids, with whom Nguyen has collaborated.) It’s all the eerier for such a mundane, intimate setting: the dancers’ bedrooms, lamps, walls covered in posters.
The Phenom video went from crazy idea to completion in eight days.
“I had entered a light despondency,” says Nguyen from her home in Oakland, where she is quarantined with her partner. She’s recalling the period in mid-March as California’s stay-at-home order set in, when she’d planned to shoot a dance-based video for Phenom – “It teeters on the edge of mania and rage; it needed a physical manifestation,” she says. But with the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, she had to cancel the film shoot.
On top of that, live events to promote the band’s fifth studio album, Temple, due out May 15 on Ribbon Music, were evaporating. The South-by-Southwest music festival in Austin, where Thao and the Get Down Stay Down had planned to debut songs from the album, was cancelled.
A national tour bringing the band to Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club in July was postponed. This was an especially bruising blow for Nguyen, who grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. She formed the Get Down Stay Down in 2005 while attending the College of William & Mary.
“I didn’t know what would happen with the record,” Nguyen says. “And I didn’t think we could release Phenom without a video.”
Her manager, Joe Goldberg, floated the Zoom idea. “I was like, hmmm,” Nguyen says. She’d ventured onto the app only the week before, for a yoga class. She wasn’t impressed.
“I was concerned that if we couldn’t pull it off, it would be very clear.”
Director-choreographer Erin S. Murray, Nguyen’s choice to make the original Phenom video, also was sceptical. Phenom has a menacing feel, and with the Zoom format, “it could go cute very quickly,” Murray says. She took her dog for a walk and thought: Why not try it?
“I want people to go, ‘Wow, how did they do this?’ ” she says. “So I basically recorded myself on a laptop webcam and pasted it into a grid, to find out what would work in that format.”
Murray had already mapped out the dancing for the original concept, but little of that material worked on Zoom.
“I wanted to make sure the choreography felt like it was made for the Zoom grid, not like we’d made up a dance and fit it in,” she says. “I wanted it to feel like nine friends had gotten on a Zoom call and done this together. It’s not about the movement being technically challenging.”
From her home in Los Angeles, Murray called the dancers (mostly friends) and taught them the choreography remotely. They had one six-hour rehearsal online, worked out kinks the next day and filmed it from their apartments. A director in Canada, Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, came in (via Zoom) to handle the technical side, cleaning up the timing and transmission glitches from all the different Internet speeds.
A few days later, the group had a finished video – without any of them having been in the same room.
Why the rush? Glimmering through the wrecked plans for the Temple album’s rollout, this project offered a ray of light. Nguyen didn’t want its novelty overshadowed.
“Zoom was so of-the-moment that it was already dangerous,” she says. “It is such a constrained medium. At that point, there was this restless helplessness and energy, and you could still be creative within it. But it had to happen within that time frame, before people got tired of looking at things on Zoom.”
Nguyen still mourns “the sacred exchange of energy in a live music setting.” Losing the tour dates hurts. The band is in the same fix as the rest of us, sacrificing opportunities for which there is no decent substitution. Well, what can you do? The Phenom video is cathartic.
Here is a group of people making the best of a raw deal.
“People can relate to it,” Nguyen says. “They can look at it as a very common bond.”