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Vietnamese cultural show stolen by men on stilts

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- An original dance show showcasing Vietnamese culture entitled ‘Xin Chào’ was given a soft opening for the press under the circus big top in Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City on the evenings of 10, 11 and 12 December 2010. It was to have an indefinite season.  Billed as a ‘sensational extravaganza’, whilst it certainly had its moments it failed to hit the mark.
The first thing that was extravagant about this show was the ticket price. At VND400,000 ($20.51) one might have expected a buffet thrown in. Yet we did not even receive a programme. Given the lack of coherence of the sequence of acts and scenes some explanation of the author and choreographer’s intent would have been helpful. Furthermore, one had to stumble in darkness to find a seat, there being no usher employed.
They might also have supplied ear plugs, as the volume of the music was excessively high. One ought to be able to exchange comments with a friend sitting next to one at a show orally, rather in written form, as we had to do. The choice of musical accompaniment was also strange; a strident Jimi Hendrix-type cacophony broken only at one point by traditional Vietnamese music also played at full pelt. Here, there were no live musicians playing time-honoured Vietnamese music as at the water puppet show.
What did we get for our dongs? Basically, all the elements of the circus plus dance. There was juggling, somersaulting, acrobats on bicycles, dragon and sabre dances, a magician, a contortionist and characters, notably a fairy, up above on the fly wire. My companion, Warren, a straight-talking Australian, was not impressed. His most notable comments were ‘jazzed up circus’, ‘seen better street performers in Sydney’ and ‘You can get that at kid's birthday party!’ Actually, the standard of the performers was in my view high and individually they mostly delivered quality. Many looked very young, so there is scope for developing this talent for the future. However, for the moment if a circus is what you are looking for, I would advise the existing real circus, which, at VND60,000 ($3.08) is a truly jolly good value show.
What of the celebration of Vietnamese culture? Yes, that was all there, too, with the conical hats, bamboo-pole vendor, lotus pond and ao dais, but some of it was just too stereotypical and almost as anachronistic as a London businessman with a bowler hat. There was a nod to the minorities with a short parade of dancers dressed in a number of their national costumes. However, that true icon of modern Vietnam, the motorbike, was nowhere to be seen. It would have provided much needed comic relief if they could have sent in some clowns and monkeys from the street straddled on motorbikes. Most of the scenes were drawn from Vietnamese myth and history. It was certainly colourful and fast-moving but the whole thing lacked coherence and even the locals found it hard to follow what was being referred to. As outsiders Warren and I found most of it perplexing.
Yet for all this the one thing that had us the most spellbound had nothing to do with  Vietnamese culture. Bizarrely, three western gentlemen on stilts dressed as snow-clad, walking trees stole the show. Now this was sheer Tolkein and straight out of The Lord of The Rings! The manner of their being slain by a Vietnamese warrior was technologically clever to boot.
For whom was this extravaganza intended? Certainly not the poor, as the price already quoted indicates. Was it meant to show Vietnamese culture to tourists and resident foreigners? The audience, of no more than 200, was, I calculated, a mere 8 per cent non-Vietnamese. The bulk of the audience consisted of local families with young children and balloons. Very few, I suspect, had come out of an interest in dance and modern choreography, as the author might have liked.
In conclusion, Xin Cháo had all the right ingredients but failed to serve up a satisfying dish. Vietnamese culture it certainly did display. Also talent for dance and acrobatics in Vietnamese youth was much in evidence. A reworking of sequences and themes, a more targeted market and an eye on ‘value for money’ is all that is needed for the future success of extravaganzas of this nature. And please do not forget to retain the stilt walkers.

Reviewer: Pip de Rouvray
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