Minimalist art, maximum effect

(No.1, Vol.5,Jan-Feb 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A long bamboo-like spine runs through the length of Vietnam. It is the character of the Vietnamese people. Like bamboo, their character is strong but supple. It bends to the wind and droops in the rain but always returns to its orginal form.
Poles, whisks, baskets, bridges, boats and houses, all made of bamboo, as well as the supple strength and grace of young bodies filled the stage of Saigon Opera House in the A O Show. Young men used the bamboo poles to create intricate patterns or fly through the air. Young women crossed narrow bridges and rode the canals and rivers in boats of bamboo, floating on the gentle ripples of the young men’s shoulders.
It is hard not to turn to poetry to describe many of the scenes in the show. The moon shone overhead through it all. Always changing, it was sometimes full, sometimes only a crescent, and once even a blood moon. I think the moon is a good symbol of Vietnam. It is softer and more romantic than the sun, always changing but always returning to itself.
Humor was a vital part of the show, as it is in the life and character of the Vietnamese people. The young cast, using only woven baskets on their backs, became in turn turtles, curious frogs, quacking ducks (although I thought they looked more like flamingos) and an enchanting and inquisitive crab.
A bustling market scene was typical of the street life of Vietnam. One cloying note was the scene in the park and conflict on the street with the cast in western dress being loud and aggressive. The background music was appropriately modern, raucious and, to my mind, empty of meaning. When I talked with Mr Tuan Le, the creator and director of the show, he expressed concern that so many Vietnamese young people embrace the liberating but ultimately stultifying pop culture of the West. Maybe the scene was put there as a warning to young people who too eagerly embrace not only the best but also the worst of foreign cultures.
There were so many impressive (and expressive) scenes, some almost surreal in the perfect blend of lighting, choreography and traditional music. Whole structures were built from bamboo poles, baskets and bodies, including a stupa, or pagoda-like tower, and an absolutely fascinating industrial machine.
One scene in particular took my breath away! The lighting evoked the gentle night with the full moon shining on a watery landscape. One young man in a basket boat slowly rolled round and round on the stage. The staves of the boat were mostly cut away, leaving a few that suggested to my mind the stalks of newly-planted rice. It was like being back in the Mekong Delta, riding through the quiet, flooded fields in the moonlight.
The A O Show is really a new kind of performance circus. With its myriad uses of bamboo as its only prop, it joins the vanguard of the modern European movement to use only natural, renewable materials in the various art forms.
According to Tuan Le, the originator and director, the A O show was two years in preparation. It now includes seventeen performers who strive to make each performance fresh and new. There are plans to take the show abroad, and shows in France and Spain are already scheduled for this coming summer.
Tuan Le and the cast have done an outstanding job of producing a performance of complex simplicity that creates an experience of timeless Vietnam.
Tickets are available at Saigon Opera House, 7 Lam Son Square, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City or email: reservation@aoshowsaigon.com. Ticket ranges from VND504,000 to VND1,176,000.

By Jonathan Bar-On
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