Devised by the founders of company Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam, À O Làng Pho (from village to city) is billed as a “Vietnamese Bamboo Circus” following on from a work (Làng Tôi) first presented in 2005. This instalment draws inspiration from aspects of Vietnamese life. A 70-minute runtime makes it suitable for families, as does its presentation, which is as crisp as the best spring roll.
I traveled in Vietnam many years ago, and bamboo products, used in fishing, farming, and domestic duties, were everywhere. Posts featured in scaffolding, thinner lengths were crafted into kitchen utensils, and strips provided wicker for rice-sifting dishes and baskets. A supersized version – the “basket boats” – transport goods and people across rivers. À O Làng Pho drew on such goods in showing us features of traditional village life that have been adapted for the present day.
Village life wasn’t so sleepy for the performing ensemble as they assembled and used their bamboo apparatus in explosive tumbling runs or impressive balancing or contortions. Sifting dishes were launched in high-energy games of chase and catch that gave the performers opportunity for physical humour. A rare miss, say a dropped attempt to catch a dish between legs, just showed how chilli-hot these moves were.
Perhaps due to the limitation of bamboo-based apparatus, some tricks weren’t as spectacular as what you might see elsewhere. However, inventiveness with props, and performances zesty as lemongrass, were more than enough reward. Music from traditional instruments (based on sung drama of South Vietnam), capably created a serene mood to accompany sailing on a river, or ratcheted up the tension for the bigger tricks.
We might quibble that the transition from village to city wasn’t all that gradual. This hardly mattered, as now our characters found humour in new situations, like managing noisy neighbours in an apartment block. Bamboo and traditional instruments retained a presence, but acknowledging the changing times, these were joined by electric guitar and a hip-hop battle.
Director (and company co-founder) Tuân Lê has used the skills and personalities of his 16 acrobats to make an overflowing Banh mi of circus delights. Aside from pleasing us, À O Làng Pho intends to prompt the Vietnamese people to value their distinct cultural assets.
It was appropriate that the traditional music showed itself as relevant to Village *and* City. There was a lot of precision and detail to take in, so I could happily watch this effervescent work again.
A O Làng Pho
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 28 February 2020
Season: 27 – 29 February 2020 (closed)
Image: A O Làng Pho – photo by Nguyen The Duong
Review: Jason Whyte