Cirque du Vietnam shows a country in transition
Within millimetres of the pavement, myriad motorcycles roar past, beeping furiously.
Street vendors jostle for space with doormen of swank department stores that offer the latest Hermes, Cartier and Chanel, alongside hawk-eyed shoeshines, and smart bellboys ushering “la belle et le grand” to lunch with oversized menus in three languages: Vietnamese, English and French.
It’s a melee. A melange. A metropolis on the edge of the Mekong Delta, once known as “the Paris of the Orient”, known formally as Ho Chi Minh City, but to all simply as Saigon.
Across Dong Khoi Street, up a flight of steps is another world, the sound-proofed red, gold and crystal world of an opera house in the heart of the city. Built in the flamboyant French Third Republic manner in 1898, it is officially known, somewhat drably, as the Municipal Theatre.
In this grand colonial leftover, so grand it once acted as the Parliament of South Vietnam, we could be in the heart of Europe. But no, today we are in the heart of Vietnam.
Sitting on the edge of the stage of the Saigon Opera House, as it is also known, a slender figure calmly ignores the hammering of a sudden tropical downpour on the roof and a cast of 15 acrobats thundering about him.
This is Tuan Le, the founder of Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam.
He is the director of the show A O Lang Pho that is in rehearsal behind him before an Australian- exclusive season at the Perth International Arts Festival next month.
This world-famous Vietnamese circus artist has juggled his way from Hanoi to Broadway and back again. Tuan Le is also caught between his international fame and a yearning passion for the vanishing villages of Vietnam.
Tuan Le may be sitting in a nostalgic epitome of French culture with its elegant dress circle and sumptuous plush velvet but the show is wholly Vietnamese.
The title A O Lang Pho, is a deceptively simple phrase that is difficult to translate directly but loosely means “village-city”.
A O Lang Pho tells a story of people’s daily lives in a paradoxical Vietnam, once predominantly rooted in village life, but now in dramatic transition from the old ways to the new.
Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam, like Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, specialises in a contemporary form of circus which blends traditional big-top skills with the power of dynamic character-driven storytelling.
The company has just returned from another European tour ahead of its Australian debut at PIAF with A O Lang Pho, a glorious show about the serenity of village life being shattered by urban progress.
Many Australians are familiar with the story of modern Vietnam, indeed we are part of it, but we are less familiar with the engaging story of its traditional ways.
Traditionally, Vietnamese society is centred on village life but the urban sprawl is set to overtake this special world and transform its character, perhaps fatally.
Tuan Le has seen that change in his homeland as he has criss-crossed the world pursuing his dream of performing.
“I think now Vietnam is changing very rapidly,” he says. “It used to be more village than city. I have lived back here now for four years.
“Every time you go away for a week or a month or a few months and you come back, you see changes. Even at the corner nearby your house, things are changing and different.
“The speed of the life here is much faster.”
Ho Chi Minh City is home to 10 million souls sitting in the south-east bend of the S-shaped map of Vietnam. It is tipped to double in population in the next four years and engulf another two provinces.
It is a gross understatement to say Vietnam is in transition. The country is experiencing a rampant explosion with irrevocable consequences for its diverse natural beauty, ancient traditions and 54 ethnic groups.
On the first of his return visits, Tuan Le was inspired by the natural beauty and rhythm of village life, which is portrayed in A O Lang Pho.
“I think it is very poetic and beautiful, and I want to share this with the audience,” he says.
“We are creating images and the vibe of the village and the arrival of the city. It is an interesting transition in Vietnam. We show the contrast of these two images in our country.”
As he talks, a barrage of athletic performers ricochet past him, executing flying cartwheels, somersaults and mid-air splits under the watchful eye of Vietnam’s most-recognised choreographer, Nguyen Tan Loc, and renowned training director, Nguyen Lan Maurice.
They are joined by Maurice’s brother, the composer and music director Nguyen Nhat Ly, and an ensemble of five musicians who play traditional and contemporary instruments.
The brothers Ly and Maurice were born in Vietnam but grew up in France and developed their artistry in Europe. Considering themselves as “having more Vietnamese than French blood”, they share with Tuan Le and Tan Loc a real passion for Vietnam’s rich cultural heritage.
The foursome founded Lune Productions in 2012. Through productions such as Lang Toi, The Mist, and A O Lang Pho, they rose quickly to national prominence and toured the world under the banner of Cirque du Vietnam, a neat homage to their collective heritage of working with the trailblazing Cirque du Soleil as well as France’s Cirque Plume and Arc en Cirque. Everything sounds like an art form in French.
They started working on A O Lang Pho in 2013, blending a variety of performance styles under their house brand of “new circus”. They use traditional village items such as bamboo poles and woven baskets, drawing on physical theatre, martial arts, contortion and ancient Vietnamese arts and crafts. They also incorporate modern hip-hop and Cao Lau, a theatrical genre from the 1920s often known as Vietnamese Opera, which has multiple elaborate scenes and great emotional expression.
A O Lang Pho treats audiences to cascading scenes of village and urban life brought to life with drama, humour, stunning athleticism and ravishing music. Blood-red sunsets and ethereal moons light up scenes of rice harvesting in the paddies or fishing on the delta, along with everyday chores, cooking and washing, all punctuated by an undercurrent of war. Picturesque scenes of fishing under the moon transition to scenes of modernised agriculture and manufacturing.
The performers’ sinuous bodies move through amazing routines of acrobatics, yoga and balancing stunts using bamboo poles and woven baskets as props, costumes and sets in a variety of ways to create characters and scenes.
Tuan Le acknowledges the importance of tradition in the work of Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam.
“I think tradition is very important and it should be the foundation and the inspiration that we take from our roots to be creative,” he says. “We cannot be creative from nowhere.
“I think it is very important that you know the value of the tradition.”
Amusingly, choreographer Tan Loc adds the trenchant observation: “People today don’t know where rice comes from or even how it’s made. Young people forget simple values, so we remind them. They have to know the basic things to bring them to bigger values.”
Tuan Le says the creative team works closely to find the perfect performers, a bit like a painter considering what colours and pigments he will work with.
“I can write something before but I can only really start working after I have seen and begun working with them, and understanding their feelings,” he says.
Tuan Le’s empathy with performers runs deep because he is one himself.
Born in Ho Chi Minh City, he “ran off to the circus” as a youngster to Moscow and Berlin, where he caught the eye of Cirque du Soleil and was signed up as its first Vietnamese contracted artist.
As a director, he has gone on to develop many shows of his own for Cirque du Soleil, most recently Toruk (with Tan Loc), an Avatar-inspired James Cameron homage production.
He was the first Asian artist to win the prestigious award of excellence from the International Jugglers’ Association. With the formation of his own company in Vietnam dedicated to using contemporary circus to showcase his beloved country’s traditions, his life and career have come full circle.
This visit to Australia will be the first for 39-year-old Tuan Le.
“I am more than excited,” he says.
“We are looking forward to Perth and the summer because we will have been touring for three months in France in the winter beforehand.”
He is also looking forward to sharing images of his country with Australian audiences.
“I hope they will feel something and discover something they have never seen before, something they never expected from Vietnam,” he says.
Cirque du Vietnam is as dazzling as Cirque du Soleil, but certainly no facsimile.
A O Lang Pho has a message and it has a heart. Its spectacle, its emotion and its magic will envelop you.
A O Lang Pho A O Lang Pho A O Lang Pho is at the Regal Theatre from February 16-25. Tickets from perthfestival.com.au.
By John Michael Swinbank - The West Australian - January 9, 2017