Interview by Art Zeen
////////////////////////////////////////////////////// The Vietnamese-German director kick started his career as a juggler at the age of 7 in Saigon. In 2010 he became the first Asian to win the Award of Excellence from the International Jugglers’ Association (IJA). He is also the first Vietnamese performer to join one of the world’s largest entertainment companies, Cirque du Soleil. Tuan Le’s first new circus production as a director, Lang Loi (my village), has been shown more than 300 times around the world including France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Hungary and Hong Kong. Official Website for the AO Show //////////////////////////////////////////////////////
A full moon hangs in the sky over Saigon’s colonial French Opera House. More than 300 visitors from around the world are flocking to the theatre to experience the AO show, a hybrid circus and dance production. The show has no words but Tuan Le’s production sways the audience with romance, energy and humor.
The show captures Vietnam’s past and its process of urbanization with great theatrical effects and a few props made of bamboo. The acrobats smoothly assemble bamboo sticks and buckets to form bridges, factory assembly lines and fishing boats.
Tuan Le proudly notes that it is the longest running show in Saigon’s history and he doesn’t intend to stop there. “My goal is to achieve at least 200 performances by next year,” he says. The AO production has been showing in the Opera house since March 2013.
Almost 30 years after Tuan Le performed on that stage in the Opera House, he returns for the first time and as a director in his hometown. “I feel very lucky,” Tuan Le says. The Vietnamese-German director kick started his career as a juggler at the age of 7 in Saigon. In 2010 he became the first Asian to win the Award of Excellence from the International Jugglers’ Association (IJA). He is also the first Vietnamese performer to join one of the world’s largest entertainment companies, Cirque du Soleil. Tuan Le’s first new circus production as a director, Lang Loi (my village), has been shown more than 300 times around the world including France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Hungary and Hong Kong.
Born in Saigon to a family of artists, Tuan Le is a child of the world. In 1991, 14 year-old Tuan Le went to study at a circus school in Russia prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Following that, he immigrated to Germany with his family to continue his studies, and was later signed to Chameleon Variete Theatre and joined the Art’s commune Ufa Fabrik in Berlin. Since then, Tuan Le’s international career has taken off.
Tuan Le says, “I was, I am and I will always be Vietnamese,” but wherever he goes, he also feels like a local, “If I wake up in Berlin, I feel like a German and if I wake up in New York, I become a New Yorker. ”
Art Zeen caught up with Tuan Le in one of his favorite cafes, hidden in a quiet alley behind Saigon’s bustling central street.
Art Zeen: Both of your productions, the AO show and Lang Loi focus on Vietnam’s past or rural lifestyle. What inspired you?
Tuan Le: I returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2003 after 11 years of living abroad. When I arrived in Saigon, I realized that the city wasn’t how I remembered it. When I went to the villages, it was consistent with my memories. But there was a contrast between the beautiful landscapes that I remembered and the poor living conditions of the villagers. Now I still visit villages often to see the natural landscape and that’s what I really wish to preserve through my artistic creations.
Art Zeen: Your AO show is a happy quest into Vietnam’s past, there was no sign of a war-torn Vietnam. Did you intend to only focus on the positive narrative?
Tuan Le: When people talk about Vietnam, they always connect it to the war. I don’t want the war to be the first thing that people (foreigners) talk about when they meet me. The war has been over for a long time. I was born in 1977 and the war ended in 1975. What happened to the post-war generation, which I belong to? Yes, I learned about the war in school but I want my work to give people a different topic about Vietnam to discuss. There is so much more.
Art Zeen: What do you wish to achieve with the AO show?
Tuan Le: I want to inspire young Vietnamese to be creative. How can we be updated with modern technologies but still stay connected with traditions? If all you focus on is bringing back traditions, you go back in time. But if you only focus on modernization and globalization, you just become everybody else in the world.
Art Zeen: Do you think traditions are lost in the country’s process of modernization?
Tuan Le: Yes, and not just on stage. I often see pictures of Vietnamese women wearing long traditional dresses, Ao dai, riding bicycles around the city. But you don’t see this anymore today. Instead, you see hundreds of people wearing masks, riding motorbikes around the city. I won’t say which one is better but as an artist, I find the former to be more creative, romantic and beautiful.
I don’t think this is a question of development only for Vietnam. It is for the world. These days in Vietnam, wealthy people from the city want to spend a lot of money to get space and get away. But the villagers are building apartments in the middle of nowhere. It is not a conflict but it is a contrast. I allude to these perspectives in my show but let the audience search for the answers themselves.
Art Zeen: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to represent Vietnamese art?
Tuan Le: I don’t feel that I carry the burden on my shoulders to represent Vietnamese art. But I think Vietnamese artists should do more to preserve our culture. The country is shaped by different cultures – thousands of years of Chinese rule, followed by the French and American influences. For someone like me who was born here but have traveled around the world, I see great value in my culture. I think about what we can share with the world.
Art Zeen: What inspired you to found your own TL (Tuan Le) production company in Vietnam? Do you think you will be a better businessman than artist?
Tuan Le: The biggest market for us is Asia, which has a huge population. There are also many places, which have never been exposed to art consumption before. I think if I wanted to, I would be a good businessman. But I am an artist at the core. I can be poor but I can’t stop being creative. I wouldn’t want my only role to be staying up late at night counting money.
Art Zeen: How is your company different from local production companies?
Tuan Le: The structure of circus art already exists here in Vietnam. But what my team is trying to build is very new for the country. We do a lot of research with local artists to help bring out their uniqueness. We reconcile circus and acrobatic techniques to deliver the message and realize our artistic imaginations. I hope to get more support from different sources both in terms of financial and talent contributions.
I also hope to help shape the identity of Vietnamese circus in the next five to ten years, predominately involving using bamboo on stage. Bamboo is a very exotic element and is deeply rooted in the Vietnamese rural life. We eat with bamboo chopsticks, we fight with bamboo sticks, we sleep and make love in bamboo beds and we even eat bamboo… I want to bring this exotic element to the stage.