Postcard from Perth Festival 2019: Lang Toi, One Infinity

Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam, Lang Toi; Gideon Obarzanek, One Infinity

Lang Toi: My Village is a contemporary circus work about traditional Vietnamese village life created and directed by Vietnamese juggler Tuan Le in collaboration with French-born but Vietnam-raised brothers and co-creators Nguyen Nhat Ly (who is also musical director) and Nguyen Lân Maurice (Artistic Director) together with choreographer Nguyen Tan Loc and a troupe of 15 Vietnamese acrobats and four musicians (some of the acrobats also sing or play instruments).

All three co-creators and the show itself have a hybrid artistic and cultural background: Tuan Le had previously performed with various European companies including Cirque de Soleil; Nguyen Nhat Ly received his musical education in Paris and has worked in traditional and ethnic music, education and research; his brother Maurice trained at the National Circus School in Hanoi and performed with Paris-based Cirque de Plume before becoming director of circus school Arc en Cirque in the French town of Chambéry; the show itself had its genesis in a masterclass at the National Circus School in Hanoi; and the Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam now has permanent homes in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An. 

In short: Lang Toi is a fascinating mix of high-end European so-called ‘New Circus’ (of which Cirque de Soleil is probably the most famous and commercially successful example) and traditional Vietnamese elements and materials. In fact this use of ‘ethnic’ content and forms of expression (including personnel, instruments, techniques and themes) is fairly typical of the genre (and a symptom of globalisation generally); what saves the work (at least in part) from accusations of cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism is the presence of the Vietnamese performers, who unfailingly transmit an air of unfeigned joy and passion in their work (though one can’t help feeling that the representation of village life has been somewhat de-historicised and sanitised in the process).

The most striking aspect of the work for me (albeit one also typical of ‘New Circus’) is the continuous flow of action (in contrast to the discrete series of ‘acts’ typical of traditional circus). The program refers to this as ‘storytelling’ but to me, the through-composed nature of the work was (thankfully) more musical or choreographic than narrative in terms of its principles of development, and the form of visual representation had more in common with genre-painting than narrative – collective scenes of village life like Brueghel’s ‘Children’s Games’ came to mind. In fact the work is above all image-based, and could be described as a work of visual theatre as much as circus; though spoken language is used on occasion, it’s mostly in the form of briefly uttered speech acts such as greetings, commands, suggestions, protests or words of encouragement (all of which tellingly remains untranslated) rather than dialogue providing narrative information about characters, setting or events.

Despite some astonishing displays of skill, the prevailing physical and emotional tone is gentle and even intimate rather than being emphatic or spectacular, perhaps in keeping with aspects of Vietnamese culture but also certain traditions in French art and music. Lang Toi could even be called a work of Impressionist circus or theatre, with a nod to the influence of East and South-East Asian culture on late 19th-century French art and music (ironically in part as a consequence of French colonialism). In particular, this effect of Impressionism applies to the extremely subtle transitions from one action or image to the next; in fact one could almost say that the entire work is in a continuous state of transition.

Bamboo provides the principle material support for the entire work: set, props, musical instruments and possibly even the fabric of the simple and softly coloured costumes. Central to the design is a collection of bamboo poles of varying height and thickness which are tossed, juggled, used as climbing poles, balanced on, stepped across and joined together in various ways to form swings, trapezes and high wires. They also form the basis for various images of village life: tent-like structures, climbing-trees and (memorably) an acrobat manoeuvring an invisible boat with a bamboo pole across an undulating surface of bamboo poles. Once again, the transformational and imaginative use of minimal set and props is a common feature of New Circus; it also reminded me of Western (and particularly French or French-inspired) physical and image-based theatre companies such as Théâtre du Soleil, Complicité and the work of Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord.

In sum, I found Lang Toi an exquisitely realised work, but one which raised artistic and political questions for me about the complexities of history and culture.

In particular, I couldn’t help reflecting on the legacy of colonisation and war as well as current political, social and environmental realities in Vietnam – issues which were largely conspicuous by their absence. To be sure, this is to be expected in what is essentially a high-end work of popular entertainment by a company somewhat problematically described in the Festival program as ‘Vietnam’s most recognisable cultural export’. In fact there was only one moment of turbulence in the show, when yet another harmonious image of village life was disrupted by an outburst of music and lighting, a scattering of the performers and set and the appearance of a dishevelled woman screaming as if traumatised or possessed. Once again it remained ‘generic’, and had no lasting consequences, much like the brief storm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Nevertheless for me it was a reminder that all is not sweetness and light in the village.

At the Regal Theatre until February 17 

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One Infinity is a Festival co-commission that began as a musical collaboration between recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey and guqin (a kind of traditional Chinese zither) master Wang Pang and his ensemble Jun Tian Fang. The musicians were then joined by UK electronic/ambient co-composer Max de Wardener; finally director and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek staged the work with dancers from Beijing Dance Theater and Dancenorth Australia, associate choreographer (and Dancenorth associate artistic director) Amber Haines, lighting designer Damien Cooper, sound designer Jim Atkins, costume designer Harriet Oxley and a set co-designed by Obarzanek and Cooper.

The Chinese title of the work apparently translates as ‘beginning/no border’, and the program notes from Lacey, Wang Peng and Obzarnek share artistic, cultural and philosophical themes of collaboration and communion. Lacey has a longstanding interest in Western Early Music (which is of course deeply connected with religion and spirituality); Wang Peng has an almost mystical view of art and culture as unifying forces; and Obarzanek’s work has increasingly focused on artistic and cultural collaboration, as well as the relationship between dancers and non-dancers, performers and audiences, performance and ritual.

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The work is staged in traverse, with a central runway covered by highly reflective black tarquette that resembles dark water or Chinese lacquer-ware – especially under the glow of Cooper’s exquisite lighting. The musicians are seated on the floor, with the dancers initially seated unobtrusively amongst the audience down the centre of both seating banks (Chinese on one side, Australians on the other), with a single dancer (likewise Chinese and Australian) seated at the top of each seating bank and framed by a kind of box like a figure in a shrine. At the start of the show, Obarzanek (and a Chinese translator) inform the audience that at certain moments during the show we are to copy the movements of the figure at the top of the seating bank opposite us, and a brief practice demonstration follows; the movements mostly involve arm or hand movements, and occasionally standing or sitting, and are reminiscent of birds or butterfly wings, or the multiple arms of gods.

Musically the work was introduced by a recorder solo from Lacey and followed by a series of classical solo, duet and ensemble works for guxin interspersed with further solos from Lacey and a Chinese bamboo flute player (whose first almost toneless breath-playing solo was for me the most hypnotic moment in the show) as well as pre-recorded music and sound by De Wardener (including passages of organ and electronic noise) which played an increasingly dominant role in the latter half of the show. Lacey and Wang Peng are mesmerising performers, and the liquid bird-like sound of the recorder complements the fragile delicacy of the guxin beautifully – the extreme quietness of the latter instrument (usually played unaccompanied) here amplified so that the sound of the player’s fingers against the strings made an even more visceral connection with the audience.

I was less convinced by De Wardener’s music, particularly in the latter half, when it began to resemble the clanging electronic soundtrack of a sci-fi film (and sadly so much contemporary theatre) and for me clashed with the aesthetic of the rest of the work. As for the dancers: as well as leading the moments of audience participation, they created a series of slowly moving mandala-like shapes on the seating banks during some of the music pieces (which we observed either directly opposite us or by twisting around to look at them), before descending onto the floor and engaging in slightly more animated movement patterns for the final section of the work.    

The moments of audience participation were surprisingly effective both kinesthetically and visually – especially each time the lights came up on the opposite seating bank to reveal a wave of slowly moving arms and hands. These moments also made me reflect on the difference between contemplation and participation as forms of aesthetic experience. This was also a fascinating aspect of Obarzanek’s previous work with Dancenorth Attractor (seen at last year’s Perth Festival and reviewed here); the key difference being that in the latter case volunteer audience members (including this reviewer) joined the dancers onstage and received instructions via headphones, whereas here the entire audience remained on the seating banks and mirrored the movements of their dancer-instructors, so that the visceral thrill of joining the dance (or watching us do so) was replaced by the more meditative pleasure of performing (or contemplating) mirror-movement.

As with Attractor, however, I found myself less engaged by the choreography of the dancers – particularly once they descended onto the floor, when dramaturgically the work seemed to implode. I also couldn’t help feeling that the strengths of the Dancenorth dancers were somewhat under-utilised – and/or perhaps somewhat mismatched with their seemingly less skilled or less autonomous Beijing Dance Theatre counterparts. I was also unsure about the costumes – particularly the loose, flowing, softly coloured ‘Asian’ costumes of the Australians (as opposed to the more tightly fitting and brightly coloured ‘Western’ outfits worn by the Chinese dancers). Perhaps the contrast was a deliberately cross-cultural choice; if so, I wondered if it would have been more effective to see them all in similar street clothes (or even rehearsal clothes). 

For me the heart of this work was musical (in particular the exquisite work of Lacey, Wang Peng and the Jun Tian Ensemble), with the participation of the audience providing a fascinating and mostly effective physical counterpoint, supported by the lighting and set design; while the contributions of the dancers, choreography, costume and sound designs (as well as De Wardener’s music) were somewhat more equivocal. Ultimately (and perhaps ironically) One Infinity seems a less unified work than Lang Toi; nevertheless both are works of great beauty and virtuosity; and both raise fascinating questions about the aesthetics and politics of collaboration.  

One Infinity was at His Majesty’s Theatre, February 7-10 

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