The Hanoi Opera House has welcomed home a dizzying display of modernistic acrobatics that jumps into the heart of centuries-old Vietnamese village life.
With more than 300 performances in Europe since it premiered in 2009, Lang Toi, or My Village, is equal parts circus and ballet as it depicts the communalism of rural living to the backdrop of calming traditional music and high-octane acrobatics.
“The message is of course about the country, especially about the creative ideas of development of working together,” says director Tuan Le, a 39-year-old Vietnamese immigrant to Germany.
The performers’ grace is made stunning by their disregard for gravity. Actors hop off one another and onto the set as their colleagues toss objects from one dancer to the next, never missing a throw or hitting someone.
The play is centred on its omnipresent bamboo poles, symbolic for their use in construction. Dancers rhythmically swing and pass the polls as they slowly build a structure over the course of the show.
“Through this bamboo we create a new technique, to create a new image and picture to this element,” explains Tuan.
Unlike many dance performances in the region, Lang Toi does away with bright, regal costumes and instead features simple peasants’ rags. These aren’t apsara dancers full of ceremonial pomp — Lang Toi’s acrobats bring chaos to the ballet which is as delightful as it is surreal.
The focus on dark, ordinary objects — albeit carefully designed — is an intriguing break from radiant colours. Rich emotions of spirituality, love and fear also predominate the generally speechless performance.
The music blends instruments not often heard in modern Vietnam, including the dan moi mouth harp from the Central Highlands.
Duc Minh, Lang Toi’s dan moi player, says he picked up the instrument in his youth in order to stand out from his peers.
“It’s not in the normal Vietnamese education to play this kind of musical instrument,” he says, adding that he was always attracted to the “exotic” instruments of his country’s heritage.
With the old instruments long out of fashion for aspiring musicians in Vietnam, Minh says his infusion of traditional music has helped to modernise the local arts.
“It’s becoming the excellence of modern trends and modern music, because people are trying to put into modern music different tastes and different touches,” he explains.
While for the past seven years the show has toured the world to critical acclaim, director Tuan says it is a joy to be back in Hanoi for the indefinite future.
“We have never had a resident place in Vietnam until today, so it went on tour for several years and now it’s come back to where it started,” he says.