Vietnam Meets Cirque de Soleil: Behind the Scenes at Teh Dar

Blogs - Vietnam: yesterday

Walking up the stairs to the grand Saigon Opera House and finding your seat is a journey that might happen in any major European music hall, from France to Germany to Vienna.

This perception pops, however, when the show begins, and this is a good thing.

Over the next hour, Teh Dar presents an international-level nouveau cirque gone Southeast Asia. Rhythmic beats accompany acrobatic marvels, musical numbers and dances taken straight from the dance circles of the ethnic minority groups of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Video source: LUNE PRODUCTION

Teh Dar, in K’ho, means going in a circle,” Tuan Le, the show’s director, told #iAMHCMC. “With this specific ethnic minority people, the culture is still about the circle.” Focusing on the Tây Nguyên group, Teh Dar is a celebration of a culture both neverending and at constant risk of being lost: they celebrate the idea of the circle, so that it may not be broken.

A Hard Look at the Lune

Forty-year-old Tuan Le is a man young in years and wise at heart. As he sits on the balcony of the Saigon Opera House during one of Teh Dar’s afternoon rehearsals, he looks down at the young performers practising their moves with a look filled with both paternal love and a kind of weariness. The second emotion is understandable: besides directing the youngest cast in Lune Production’s five-year history, Teh Dar is a real risk for Tuan’s credibility.

teh darImage source: Teh Dar

After the tremendous success of crowd-pleasing favourites like A O Show and Lang Toi, shows that toured 12 countries in the past year, he wonders if this high-energy rendition will pass muster as well. Teh Dar is scheduled to start its world tour in a year.

“I think the audience would expect something more,” he said. “I have to see about [the performers’] condition also. Not just physically; it’s also in their mind; where they are at this moment.”

For anyone who has seen a Lune Productions show, this balance between spontaneous audaciousness and established professionalism is par for the course. For Tuan, it’s more about trusting his own performers rather than establishing guidelines or strict choreography: “Whatever story happens in each show, even I don’t know before.”

Embracing the Spontaneous

Teh Dar was released in August 2017, but for Tuan it was a long time coming: “We first came up with the idea 10 years ago.”

“Our goal is, whatever show we pick to do, we go to the new locations and pick local people from there. We focus on different cultures [of Vietnam], so the value of the show should be from there.”

teh darImage source: i.ytimg.com

For Teh Dar, this meant heading to the Central Highlands, and specifically the tribes of the Tay Nguyen. Here he held castings for acrobatic performers, singers and musicians—professions some of the current performers had never considered before. For Tuan, this is part of the show’s beauty.

Rather than focus on what Tuan refers to as “too common” acrobatic ability, he and his partners prefer to search for something more raw, more real.

“When I was searching for a singer for Teh Dar, the ones who came to the audition, they were all the same. They all wanted to be pop singers. When Sier [the current singer] auditioned, she ... just sang a pop song. I took her to the window. The wind was blowing. I asked her to just sing something, anything, when she felt like it. She started to cry, and she sang a song in K’ho, and even the men in the room, they could feel the emotion too, even if they couldn’t understand the words. Some of them had tears in their eyes.”

Raising the Bar

The authenticity and skill level of the performers and producers of Lune stage productions are welcome additions to Vietnam’s cultural offerings. A common lament of tourists has been the lack of high-quality entertainment. Besides the near-obligatory water puppets, most spectacles in Ho Chi Minh City are architectural rather than performative. As the Department of Tourism works to ramp up this sector, high-quality cultural performances will be necessary.

Earlier this year, entertainment mega company, the Tuan Chau Group, opened Quintessence of Tonkin, a cultural stage show about 40km from Hanoi’s city centre, set entirely on an outdoor, water-covered stage, complete with an extravagant light show and a pagoda that rises from the stage floor. Dao Hon Tuyen, the billionaire entrepreneur who spearheaded the lavish production, expects it to become the go-to cultural event for tourists passing through the capital.

Video source: Baara Land

It might sound like stiff competition for Lang Toi, the Northern-inspired Lune Production playing regularly at the Hanoi Opera House, though this would be life comparing garish Las Vegas to a Broadway show.

More important for Tuan is showing foreign audiences what Vietnamese culture is really like. When asked if the show is meant to be a look into the past, he shakes his head and frowns. “Even today, these small villages are still new. If you go to the mountain, if you go to a real ethnic minority area, you could maybe sense it, there’s nothing here real like that.”

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