This playful, exhilarating work by Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam explores the changing pace of modern life as the city encroaches on village traditions.
Image credit: Nguyen The Duong
One of the delights of contemporary circus is its flexibility as an art form; its familiar array of tricks and techniques can be used to explore everything from the fragility of the environment (Company Here and Now's Perhaps Hope) to the playful spirit of the rehearsal room and the limits of the human body (Gravity and Other Myths' A Simple Space). In the hands of Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam, the circus arts are used to explore the impact of urbanisation on Vietnamese village life; the accelerating pace of change as tradition gives way to globalisation and hip hop and rap music take the place of cai luong ('Vietnamese opera').
Fifteen acrobats and five musicians perform the piece, staged at the Subiaco's art deco Regal Theatre as part of this year's Perth International Arts Festival. Any work about urbanisation and modernisation runs the risk of descending into the didactic and romanticising the past; not so here. Tightly directed by Tuan Le, A O Lang Pho is a playful, exhilarating production in which humour and skill are deftly balanced with depictions of transformation and change.
As the work begins, the stage (which seems just a little small for the production, though not to the point where it restricts the work overtly) is simply decorated with a tripod constructed of three long bamboo poles, a large wicker basket, and an oar. These props establish the style of the show: simple elements used imaginatively to explore village traditions - fishing, duck herding, flirting - coupled with acrobatics and circus arts performed at an extremely high standard.
As the work unfolds, apartment buildings appear - again constructed from bamboo and rattan - and small irritations appear as urban density begins to impact on people's privacy and quality of life. Throughout the production, artistry and humour are cleverly balanced, resulting in a fluid, engaging and entertaining work.
Baskets balanced on her head, a young woman walks calmly up the bamboo poles which are now held by her fellow performers at steep, intimidating angles. Acrobats balance atop spinning baskets and tumble into the darkness. Humourous interludes see the performers don baskets on their backs and transform into scuttling beetles before hoisting one another on their shoulders in a unique and stylish take on the familiar human pyramid, topped off by an impressive contortion routine. Arms emerge from baskets with hands bent to create ducks' bills; quacking and pecking one another, they provoke squeals of laughter among the younger audience members.
Long lengths of bamboo reappear in a routine that recalls Scottish caber tossing but performed with a juggler's skill before transforming into an even more impressive balancing routine, the extended bamboo poles balanced end to end. After dance battles and live beat boxing pushes the work into more urgent and contemporary modes, A O Lang Pho takes a step sideways into classical circus traditions with a routine uniting aerial hoops and a cyr wheel to exquisite and mesmering effect. An additional sequence evokes the buzz and beauty of dragonfly wings,and is equally breathtaking.
By the time A O Lang Pho reaches its vibrant, percussive conclusion it's apparent to all that the Vietnamese circus tradition is in safe, assured and imaginative hands.
4 stars out of 5
A O Lang Pho
Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam
Regal Theatre, Subiaco
16-25 February 2017
Perth International Arts Festival
10 February - 5 March 2017
Richard Watts travelled to Perth as a guest of Perth International Arts Festival.