It takes a circus: Xiec Lang Toi, Part II

From one man’s a dream to a village of a circus.  In the second part of the series on the Vietnamese circus, Làng Tôi, diaCRITICS guest correspondent Ly Lan Dill speaks with the artistic and creative mind of the production,  Tuân Lê, and finds out how he made his dream into the circus.

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The authors of Làng Tôi generously agreed to share a long rehearsal to talk about the show, their careers, their thoughts on art and creation, and their upcoming projects. My Vietnamese not being up to the challenge of the double interview, I started with Tuân Lê, the show’s artistic director, in English and then heard Nhất Lý Nguyễn’s version in French. Nhất Lý, the show’s composer and coordinator, talked on behalf of himself and his older brother, Lân, the troupe’s trainer.

Tuân Lê

The press packet states that the idea for the show was conceived and created in Hà Nội. What it does not mention is that the roots of the show do indeed begin in Viet Nam, but some 30 years back. At the time, Nhất Lý Nguyễn, already an accomplished artist, was studying music with Tuân Lê’s father, the reknowned trumpeter Lê Tien Trach. Tuân Lê was still a young boy but already heavily influenced by his artistic family, especially by his older brother who studied the circus arts. At eight years old, Tuân Lê was  performing a juggling act inspired by Charlie Chaplin in small venues in Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh (TPHCM, Ho Chi Minh City).

Tuân Lé started at the National Circus School in TPHCM. He later obtained a visa to study in Russia, as had his brother. At 13, he went to Germany with his family and after a difficult period of adjustment, he started training again at a German circus school. Very quickly he became a much sought after juggler on the German cabaret circuit.

As he tells it, he was looking to expand his horizons and remembered his father’s former student, Nhất Lý Nguyễn, who had continued his studies in Paris. Nhất Lý’s older brother, Lân, had also trained at the National Circus school in Vietnam and had gone on to perform with Cirque Plume before becoming artistic director of a circus school, Arc en Cirque, in Chambéry, France. Tuân Lê headed to France and found the two brothers. They remembered a little boy at their teacher’s home; here, they met a fellow artist and peer.

It was during this time in Paris that they started to dream of creating a new Vietnamese circus. They knew they wanted to go back to create a truly Vietnamese circus. Nhât Ly states it well when he says, “There are a lot of great performers in the world. Who are we? Just three guys. We needed to focus on what makes us different and that is being Vietnamese.”

The three were given their chance in 2005 when they were invited to give a 3 week master class at the National Circus School of Hà Nội.

Lân Nguyên worked with 9 groups of 10 performers every day, asking each to invent a new show per week. With the rough outline of 27 shows, Tuân Lê got to work on putting together the best acts and organizing a full length performance. Nhât Ly went and found traditional musicians and worked on improvising a score based on the movements of the performers. The creative process was radically new for the performers and musicians. Tuân, Lân, and Nhât Ly asked them to use their own creativity, to find their own idiom. They were no longer to do what they were told but rather use what they knew to create something unprecedented. Tuân Lê admitted that it was a unique creative opportunity; one that might not be possible any longer. With a troupe of roughly a hundred, the three put on the first incarnation of Làng Tôi. It was met with mitigated results.

The premiere on May 5, 2009 had been billed as a circus show for the whole family. The public was expecting bears and monkeys, bright lights, and colorful costumes. They did not know what to make of the drab, brown clothing, the dim lights, the graceful but non-spectacular acts. They had been given artistry and emotion; they had been expecting entertainment and lightheartedness. There were those who understood and appreciated the show but it was not the success the three had hoped for.

Tuân went back to Germany to continue perfecting his own performances. Lân went back to Chambéry and his circus school. Nhât Ly went back to Paris to finish his Master’s in Musicology. He had recorded the show and decided to show it to his thesis supervisor. Seeing the potential, his supervisor found French funding and producers for the show. The three were asked to cut the troupe down to 14 performers and 5 musicians, to tighten the plot, and make other adjustments in view of a European tour.

The current version of Làng Tôi was born. It premiered in Paris in 2008 at the Quai Branly Museum, the Paris museum of primitive arts. By premiering there, the new producers squarely placed Làng Tôi as an artistic creation, and also as an exotic one, a new Vietnamese circus.

With over 100 performances throughout Europe and Canada over the past three years, Làng Tôi has come back to Paris this summer as part of La Villette’s circus festival. And as such, it has accomplished Tuân Lê’s dream: a new circus from Vietnam.

Looking back on his career path, Tuân Lê admits his family was not easy with his choice of an artistic career but with the years and the success, they more readily accepted his chosen path. He is proud of having been able to bring back to Vietnam the idea that the circus is not just entertainment. The more an artist invests into his performance, the more he receives from his audience; that is the lesson he hopes he has conveyed to the troupe, that a performance is not about showing off but about breaking walls to communicate emotions. He is also proud of having giving the Vietnamese performers hope that they are capable of showing the world another vision of Vietnam, a vision of youth and creativity that is not overshadowed by the geopolitics of yesteryear.

During our hour chat, Tuân Lê very professionally and smoothly outlined what seems to be a fairy tale come true: an initiatory journey of the young man who left home, descended into the underworld of suffering, was reborn stronger than ever, and returned home bringing back the lessons learned. The man behind the performer appeared not in what he said but rather in what he did not say. Not once did he mention being the first Vietnamese to tour with the Cirque de Soleil in 2009 with Banana Shpeel. Nor did he mention becoming the first Asian to win the Award of Excellence from the International Juggler’s Association (IJA) in 2010.

Talking of future projects brought out a more passionate voice. In the next 10 years, he hopes bamboo acts will become mainstream and perhaps in 20 years, there will be more personal circus performances that convey a story and a message. When asked if he was considering creating a school for his brand of circus, he modestly side-stepped the question, agreeing that at some point there might be the need to create a school but for now, his projects are more towards working with other artists such as Nguyn Lê here in France, a number of dancers in the United States. “There is no category of Vietnamese living abroad… Where you live changes how you work. My generation lives abroad and we have the magnificent chance to create projects. The difficulty is that everyone is everywhere. We need a meeting point to come together.”

Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.


Stage Director: Lê Tuân Anh

Authors: Nhat Ly Nguyễn, Lê Tuân Anh, Lan Maurice Nguyễn

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