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In the Spotlight: A O Show

A O show, currently being performed at the Saigon Opera House, might be the first accomplished Vietnamese “cirque” that proves that tradition and modernisation can coexist harmoniously. Or as director Tuan Le describes it, “A O is an open picture about Vietnam” that runs from the South to the North, from the past to the present and from the rural to the urban.

Surprisingly, there isn’t even a written story behind the show. The creative process of the director, the choreographer and the music director (who have worked together once before) is to collaborate with the actors and the musicians in creating the show, making it a living, breathing and ever-changing organism.

After all, who else if not the artists themselves that literally embody Vietnamese culture, art and traditions? For instance, the actors come from different artistic backgrounds (circus, dance, hip-hop martial arts etc.) and Tuan Le tries to put on stage each artists’ ability, imagination and creativity.

The result is a well-crafted and refreshing performance; packed with outstanding acrobatic sequences, contortionism and break-dance moves; all accompanied by live music. I really enjoyed the use of traditional and rural objects, such as bamboo canes and woven basket boats as props for the actors to use and perform on. The sequence of the “dragonfly” is visually beautiful, so it is the caterpillars’ scene where fishing baskets are cleverly used by the actors to recreate the movement of the animals.

However, it was the music choices of music director Nguyen Nhat Ly that mesmerized me. In particular, during the exciting break-dance and acrobatic dance scene (representing the Vietnam of today), the adaptation of traditional instruments with contemporary hip-hop/funky rhythms was explosive as well as a successful example that past and present can work together and give life to something new and honest.

While interviewing People’s artist, Thanh Hai, he was kind enough to guide me through the backstage work and to show me the details put into the creation of the music for the show, which is truly a journey through Vietnam on its own, “we use around 17 musical instruments throughout the performance but there are only five musicians playing which meant that we had to look for skilled and knowledgeable musicians who would be able to play all of them.”

I was particularly surprised when he told me that the contemporary guitar sound present in the ‘modern’ sections of the show is in fact a Vietnamese guitar, “it is a classic Western guitar but it was transformed into a Vietnamese one, for instance the arm of the guitar is curved and carved vertically and the strings are made of nylon. In A O we mainly play Southern folk music (Cai Luong) that is why the instruments sometimes sound like they are from Western traditions because it is part of the southern musical culture, too.”

Many of the instruments, however, come from different parts of the country, “our intention is to showcase all the music from Vietnam.”

The cast is constantly working on the choreography and is experimenting with new scenes, “the musicians have been working with the performers since the beginning, in June 2012. They watch the performers, study what they are doing and feeling; finally they adapt to what they have seen, it is very hard for the musicians to catch the fast movements of the actors,” explained Thanh Hai.

I was particularly impressed with the fusion between traditional and contemporary rhythms, and I asked him if he thinks that Vietnamese traditional music should ‘modernise’ in order to survive to posterity, he seemed completely unconcerned about it, “musical instruments are vessels to convey messages, it is up to the musician what he does with the instrument he uses (at this point he starts playing blues with a traditional Vietnamese guitar to make his point), Vietnamese want to approach new things but that doesn’t mean we want to abandon our traditions. Young people prefer to embrace new music; I don’t think that it is necessarily bad. Most foreigners, on the other hand, like to listen to our traditional music because it is new for them, but that doesn’t mean that they understand it”.

It is undeniable that A O Show has behind it a strong group of people who are skilled and passionate about their respective artistic disciplines; you almost forgive them for the very few cultural clichés. The show is produced here and the entire cast and crew is formed by Vietnamese or expatriate Vietnamese.

Projects like this should be seen as a good example for local people to cherish their traditions and their artists.

For more information on A O show, visit their website.

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