The following review is made possible through a Critical Residency programme supported by
By Nabilah Said
(730 words, 6-minute read)
You go into a circus performance with certain expectations. You want the big shebang, the SPECTACULAR SPECTACULAR. The physical feats that no average person can do. Cirque du Soleil has come to define the hallmarks of the contemporary circus – a focus on storytelling, with sophisticated costuming and technology, and physical feats that challenge the limits of the human body – all thankfully moving us away from the trained, exotic animal. À Ố Làng Phố, whose director, Tuấn Lê, used to be from Cirque du Soleil, satisfies our expectations while delivering surprisingly tender – and at times humorous – observations of modern Vietnamese life.
Still, there is always the danger of exoticisation. Billed as a bamboo circus from a group credited as Vietnamese Bamboo Circus (its founders are from Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam), À Ố Làng Phố could have easily been just a show of technically excellent stunts, and set on the stage of Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre (its largest space), it could have been reduced to a beautiful spectacle – best viewed from afar, othered.
And À Ố Làng Phố did showcase some excellent stunts. There are 16 acrobats in the show and over the the course of 70 minutes, we witness acrobatic stunts which all involve bamboo or rattan baskets of some kind. These include: juggling with tall bamboo poles, high diving off bamboo beams, balancing on large rotating rattan domes and even creating human pyramids elevated on large domes of rattan. (See this video for what some of these look like.)
One standout circus skill is the cyr wheel, performed by a solo acrobat rotating like a gyroscope on a large bamboo hoop. As he spins, his hands gripping the edges of the hoop, he looks alternately like the Vitruvian man and a skilled ballerina, and I think of how the audience might compare this picture of elegance to, say, the Australian Ballet which often performs on the same stage. The hoop adds to the aesthetics onstage: it looks like a rattan dome that is half woven, the edges of rattan left deliberately sharp, which seemed to suggest both the fragility of the natural world and its capacity to bite back.
Climate change isn’t a random add-on. À Ố Làng Phố translates to “from village to city”, and the narrative that ties the show together is a Vietnam that is rapidly modernising. Early scenes of fishermen in their boats and quibbling ducks give way to a construction scene, and a charming extended sequence of daily life in the typically narrow housing of Vietnamese cities, where, for example, a young canoodling couple are interrupted by the loud pounding of spices by their upstairs neighbours.
This intersection of urban life with a collectivistic society creates interesting frictions that are brought out well by the performers, who demonstrate a talent for clowning and physical comedy that delight the audience. These snippets, a reprieve from the bigger stunts, give surprising heart to À Ố Làng Phố and help pull the audience deeper into the specific Vietnamese backdrop of the work. Sometimes, as when a performer goes into the audience to give out fried snacks, we are directly given an “in” into that world.
Nevermind that we don’t understand the language – the emotions and reactions are often conveyed through gesture, expression and perhaps more memorably, by the live music played onstage by a group of musicians. Comedic entanglements are accompanied by a well-timed sound effect, more sober scenes with rousing, emotional notes. Instruments such as the Dan Nhi, or two-chord fiddle, and the plucked lute are well-employed to create an appropriate sonic backdrop to the world of À Ố Làng Phố. The programme notes informs us that the music is based on the Cải lương, or a type of sung opera that comes from South Vietnam.
Whilst paying tribute to the useful properties of bamboo and its significance to Southeast Asia and its traditions, À Ố Làng Phố is undeniably contemporary. Besides acrobats, martial artists and jugglers, some of the performers are clearly trained in street dance and breakdancing, and at least two can beatbox, as evident in a scene that could be part of a dance battle in the streets of New York. The show is quietly subversive too – besides the references to climate change, there are brief scenes that appear to gesture towards the refugee crisis and gay rights. The creative team has made a smart, innovative show that is stripped back and yet isn’t short on opulence and spectacle, proving that (SURPRISE SURPRISE) circus belongs on our contemporary stages as much as it does in the big tops.
This review is based on the performance of À Ố Làng Phố on 28 February 2020 at Arts Centre Melbourne, presented as part of Asia TOPA. Click here for more information.
For more ArtsEquator articles on Asia TOPA, click here.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.