The echo of Saigon Opera House captivates Muscat

On Thursday evening last week, adventurous concert-goers were gently transported to the rice paddies of rural Vietnam and the chaotic streets of its modern cities in a unique performance by Lune Production. There was nothing shocking, astounding or disturbing in the A O Show, but it subtly beguiled and charmed the audience with its delightful portraits of contemporary life using only simple bamboo props and scenery. Fifteen skilled acrobat-gymnasts used every day objects from the villages to amuse and entertain, and through clever imagination to reinvent their possibilities in a ‘Cirque Bamboo’ for all ages to enjoy. The Chinese influence on Vietnamese culture after a thousand years’ occupation was clearly evident, but the more recent French colonisation played a greater part in establishing this wonderful company, as founder members grew up and studied in France, not least at the famous and influential ‘Cirque du Soleil’.
The show began in pitch darkness with the sound of South Vietnamese drums, or “Trong”, beating out an oriental rhythm to set the mood. Huge, upturned rice bowls formed the basis for much of the acrobatics, and as sensitive top-lighting revealed silhouetted gymnasts, the tumbling and leaping began. Dressed in black, the dancers moved seamlessly to a rustic bridge, formed by bamboo poles as tall as the proscenium arch, over which a girl singing a folksong carried her baskets with ease and grace. With swift, nimble movements the poles became boats, or a construction site as bowls carried material conveyor-belt style, describing how urbanisation came to the villages. By the waters edge the baskets became crabs, with actors scurrying about humorously as they mimicked the endearing creatures of the shore. In the farm they formed a coup of clucking fowl until the farmer came out to shoo them away, much to everyone’s amusement. The rattan structures represented alternately rural dwellings, platforms for musicians, or urban tenements with hilarious consequences.

Five musicians played a variety of ethnic instruments which provided an authentic soundscape throughout the show. Prominent was the zither-like “Dan tranh”, evocative of moon-lit evenings in the humid countryside, while the haunting “Sao” melodies of the indigenous transverse flute gave village scenes a timeless poignancy. Amid the urban congestion a Western guitar could be heard in one of the tiny rooms playing Rodrigo’s “Concierto for Guitar” like a student practising, instead of the traditional “Dan Sen” two-stringed lute of his forefathers heard earlier. Later an oboe-like double-reed “Ken” could be heard in a traditional outdoor celebration which may have remained unchanged for centuries.
A highlight of the drama came as dancers and rice bowls built an ever growing pyramid, like a tiered wedding cake, helped by a suspended trapeze, and on the top an impossibly supple gymnast performed breath-taking twists which defied imitation. Rice plates became Frisbees to chase and catch, the rims became hoops for break-dancing with stunning 21st century skill to beat-box accompaniment. In the Finale hoops were suspended for four ladies of the troupe to emulate flying birds, choreographed with precise synchronisation.
All the richness of Vietnamese culture was dramatised, from village to city, in the series of vignettes which contrasted affectionately the innocence of tradition with the discordance of inevitable urbanisation. Costumes were changed to reflect the diversity of modern life. A bicycle was ridden across the stage to pick up a pretty girl in a white dress, a dog on a unicycle collided with an over- crowded Ha Noi bus as an overladen hardware pedlar struggled by. A man in his room played a “Dan Moi” – a kind of jaw-harp – as two lovers clinked glasses on a romantic dinner-date, only to be interrupted by the upstairs neighbour choosing that moment to begin banging with some home improvement. The trusty bamboo pole came in very handy to knock back on the ceiling!
In the penultimate act, a poetically rich visual effect again enhanced by Trinh The’s sophisticated lighting technology, eight dancers revolved rattan skittles in an atmospheric, dramatic kaleidoscope. Quietly gazing up at the night sky, the production seemed to end as elusively as it had begun. But the whole company reappeared wearing bamboo xylophone percussion, “t’rung”, to play out an impressive rhythmic encore in which the audience was invited to join. This mesmerising performance presented a sublime induction into the exotic beauty of Vietnamese heritage to gently begin the weekend. “This beautiful blend of genres creates an entertaining stage language which captures the essence of Vietnam’s fascinating culture”.
If this was Lune Production’s first visit to Oman, an overwhelmed audience hopes that they will return with another show – soon.

Written by Georgina Benison
Photos by Khalid al Busaidi