The epitome of modern circus
By Rachel Holkner
Asia TOPA is fast becoming one of my favourite Melbourne festivals. It is a hugely valuable months-long showcase of Asia-Pacific performing arts where the sheer volume of performances creates a powerful movement against the Eurocentric tradition of arts in Australia. The quality is consistently so high I would cheerfully throw a dart at the program to select a show. So, happily fed thanks to the Vietnamese menu currently on offer by Chef de Partie Vinnie Nguyen at Café Vic, I settled into the State Theatre for À Ố Làng Phố with very little idea of what would unfold. I was not disappointed.
À Ố Làng Phố (Vietnamese Bamboo Circus) is the epitome of modern circus, a flawless blend of storytelling, elite physical skill, music and choreography. The multitalented cast demonstrate a strength and depth of performance that is joyful and exuberant.
In an exploration of place, time and human relationships, the usual suspects of circus, such as juggling, contortion, dance and puppetry are utilised in a celebration of culture. What shone particularly for me were the harmonious interactions between cast members both within complex routines and in interstitial sections.
Delightful moments of clowning employed gentle self-mockery which was never demeaning of others, so often the go-to of circus clowns. All the comedy sketches were beautifully timed and added poignancy to the overall production.
The lighting, props and costumes remained straightforward throughout with the emphasis on bamboo as a material. Whether woven into a basket or disk, as a short stick or long pole, a juggling club or an instrument, it seemed bamboo was used in its every possible configuration except as a food. Its warmth was echoed by the sepia tones of the opening, transitioning through to a multicoloured and joyous conclusion. Motifs of pattern-making and rhythm grounded the entire performance.
My complete lack of any Vietnamese language proved no barrier at all to my understanding. Through song lyrics or occasional dialogue, the expression of voice and gesture were far more important in conveying meaning.
The entire simplicity of execution lent an elegance throughout, balanced beautifully by the undertones of truth and humour. All these aspects were perfectly integrated into a whole celebration of Vietnam and, by extension, humanity.
Asia TOPA continues through March 2020 at various venues across Melbourne. See http://www.asiatopa.com.au for more information.
Photography courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne