Behind the scenes of Vietnam's circus show 'My Village'

For a performance that has been receiving critical acclaims both nationally and abroad, it takes a whole team of makers working together.

Backstage the troupe of "My Village" (Làng Tôi) was busy rehearsing for their debut at Hong Ha, the Vietnam National Tuong Theater in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

A new stage  —  one that is smaller and less fancy than the glorious Hanoi Opera House, but no less historically intriguing — only meant more prep work and adjustments.

The Opera House had been hosting over a hundred of "My Village" shows since last summer. It did not take much time to move the show to a new stage, creative-wise, but there were technical changes, dexterously taken care of by a crew of professionals.

The troupe has done hundreds of shows abroad, from Asia, South America to Europe. They have made it seem so easy. 

When the audience come to "My Village," what they don’t see is that in order to put together a show that lasts about 60 minutes, it takes months of effort, technically and administratively, to engineer the process. The transport of equipment, the size of the stage, the safety for the performers, and more — all the backstage steps that might sound trivial but take a great deal of efforts to organize.

Lang Toi’s cirque performers during a rehearsal at Vietnam Tuong Theater 

The show began as an experimental idea. In 2005, the creators, Nhat Ly, Nguyen Lan, and Tuan Le, returned to Vietnam and attempted to hatch the first version of the show. Each man his own trade: Nguyen Lan Maurice laid the groundwork for the program through his research and coordination with the cirque performers, Tuan Le visually directs and choreographs while Nhat Ly works as the music director.

“The creation of the nouveau cirque was a combined effort between Tuan Le, Lan and me,” said Nhat Ly.

A special thing about "My Village," he said, is that every element is of equal importance. The stage direction, the music, the stunts and the choreography are organically connected so that a change in one factor, such as the music structure, can easily influence the choreography and the performances, and vice versa.

It is this combination of both traditional music and performances that makes nouveau cirque distinctive from the traditional Vietnamese circus. "My Village," "A O Show," or "The Mist," all by Lune Production, consist of traditional Vietnamese materials from the music to the cirque performing techniques.

In "My Village," the traditional materials are the bamboo props, the rafts, the folk instruments, and music from across regions in Vietnam: the show begins with a southern lullaby and ends with a northern one. There is also folk music from the highlands in both central and northwestern parts of the country. 

Nhat Ly said the selection of music from all three regions was intentional because the emphasis was on the idea of a Vietnamese village. When the audience watch the show, they can find a bit of their own in the piece. Everything is meticulously calculated and jointed perfectly. There is no empty break.

There is mutual respect and understanding between the creators, the cirque performers, the musicians and the technicians, which is reflected in the way they work together. 

Dinh Anh Tuan, a performer, for example, has been working with the "Village" troupe since 2008. A virtuoso in juggling, Tuan had been working with the Vietnamese National Circus for more than a decade. In 2008, the "Village" troupe started with 40 performers. It is now scaled down to the finest 16. 

"What distinguishes nouveau cirque from the traditional circus for me,” Tuan said, “is that in Lang Toi, it is really about making a quality artwork that lasts, that carries real values. We as performers are allowed freedom to work and create something on our own.”

“It is really different from working in an environment where performing cirque is more like a routine than an art performance. Here, everyone works together, influences one another, shares with one another,” he added.

Dinh Anh Tuan (front) has been with the Lang Toi troupe over the past decade. 

Tuan Le, the show director, whose stage career with Cirque du Soleil and Teatro Zinzanni has already mounted to a world-class level, said the concept of "My Village" mobilizes the strength and personal forte of each performer “so that they can maximize their creativity” and to “live to their fullest."

On stage, the cirque performers, donning silk costumes in shades of brown, skillfully move around in a continuity of passages. There is neither chronology nor a fixed storyline. The whole piece is more like a patchwork of settings in an ordinary village: scene of a weekend market in the countryside, scene of a folk swinging game, scene of men and women erecting a house, scene in rice planting and harvesting seasons.

The moves are demanding, yet performed at ease. Steeled with years of training and experience, the artists perform feats of contortion, acrobatics, juggling on structures made from bamboo or rattan.

“We have to be constantly self-inventive,” said Lan Huong, who has been performing in the show since 2010. “The training process pushes you to express yourself outwardly, which is something highly appreciated here. The creators of the show actually change the way we look at cirque, compared to when we were doing traditional circus.”

Lang Toi's cirque performers during a rehearsal at Vietnam Tuong Theater

The music is part of the essence here. 

Whereas in traditional circus, musicians often play a fanfare with trumpets and drums to highlight the turning points of the story, in nouveau cirque, the music, which ranges from pop, rock, jazz to electronic, are more approachable and popular among the audience.

Even though the whole panoply of instruments is entirely folk-based, for ethnic music is central to the overall theme of the show, the perceptible impression feels uncannily contemporary. 

The mélange of sounds from different folk instruments in one mini-orchestra might explain the freshness.

Nhat Ly's background portrays a music enthusiast who abandoned a highly academic track for a passionate pursuit: he initially left Paris for Hanoi to experiment on traditional instrumental music in Vietnam for his Master's dissertation in Ethnic musicology. The study was never completed, but the researching process en route to that end was fruitful in another perspective. 

One particular failure had a defining edge to the shaping of his musicality. It was when his 1994 solo trumpet album with compositions of famed Vietnamese musicians like Pham Duy, Ngo Thuy Mien, Trinh Cong Son and Cung Tien was perceived as analogous to popular European music in the 1960s. 

He returned to Vietnam on many occasions after that with more independent projects here and there. And "My Village" is one of his more conscious experiments, which is essentially the outcome of years of research and development.  

Nhat Ly has sought each of the artist for the band and invited them to be part of the project. He makes sure that the role of his musicians, all masters in their own métier, is emphasized and essentially accentuated. 

The show features 20 folk instruments, played by a band of five. The artists are responsible for their own materials, but Nhat Ly is the one who sews the fragments together. 

The integration of distinctive musical ingredients into an exhaustive whole shows the depth of their expertise in instrumental music. 

“We try to be innovative with our practices,” said Quoc Chi, a meritorious artist who had been working with the Vietnam Cheo Theater for almost 40 years before joining the five-men band of "My Village."

Sitting by the right corner of the stage, this one man alone plays more than four types of instruments: eight drums, a monochord, a plucked zither, and a T'rung––a traditional bamboo xylophone from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. 

In his view, the musical concept of the show does not deliberately try to be modern to meet the ears. “Vietnamese traditional music is already quite cutting-edge in a sense," Chi said. "And all we do is using traditional instruments to perform traditional materials, but with new rhythms and special effects." 

Nguyen Duc Minh, another musician in the band, the youngest of the five, is already a renowned Jew’s harp musician in Vietnam. Minh has been playing for the show since 2008.

Minh came to know the Vietnamese Jew's harp đàn môi in a rather natural way. He said he was drawn to the instrument out of pure interest, which he attributed to his growing up in Dien Bien, where he lived in a city surrounded by mountains.

 Nguyen Duc Minh and his set of Jew’s harps. 

Minh does not consider his attachment to the instrument is to preserve it, as hardly anyone else in Vietnam plays the instrument and knows it as in-depth as he does. On the contrary, "I play for myself", he said, "I was drawn to its sound, which is a mixture of bass and percussion." 

Even when the Jew's harp is played in many ethnic groups in mountainous areas in Vietnam such as Hmong, Thai, Kho Mu, Jarai, Minh said there is little sense of expanding it to something further. 

"My Village" offered a constructive opportunity for his self-development, as an artist. "In a society still conservative toward contemporary art, the show is in the vanguard," Minh said. 

The way for the show to expand, according to Nhat Ly, is by constantly renewing and improving itself.

“There is a concrete structure in terms of stage, choreography and music, but the details are prone to change and which are jointly discussed and done together with the artists," said Nhat Ly. 

Cohesion is the key, and the chemistry between the creators with the artists is simply built up after years of rapport and co-determination.

“Both the creators and the artists know that it is the only way we know how for the show to reinvigorate through times.”

The trailer of Lang Toi. Courtesy of Lune Production.

Story by Bao Yen, photos by Linh Pham.