Review: Saigon’s AO show is a ‘new circus’ experiment with dazzling effect

Entertainment

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Bamboo acrobatics, hip-hop, suspended basket boats and an evocative tale of South Vietnamese cultural survival in a time of huge economic transition. While ‘new circus’ is not actually so new anymore; the Canadian company Cirque du Soleil has been going since 1984; what stands out about the AO Show is the way it combines these modernist forms with classical instruments, ethnic innuendos and light-hearted dramatic improvisation.

I watched the show, a sixty-minute performance, on a Saturday evening. Unlike its opulent setting in Saigon’s Opera House, itself a stunning reminder of French colonialism, the show has a minimalist albeit effective design and relies heavily on bamboo poles, woven mats traditionally used for drying fish, and basket boats of various sizes to convey life on the Mekong Delta. Symbolically, these basket boats are torn at the end of the show, reflecting the difficulties of maintaing tradition in a changing world. While the first sketches show villagers conducting daily life together, going to market and producing rice, in the last scenes these same villagers are dealing (rather comically) with the realities of tenement housing and the hustle and bustle of city life. This dichotomy between rural and urban life is the main theme of the show, and it’s a tribute to its choreography that tension can so elegantly be portrayed with such a limited number of props.

One hallmark to the show’s innovative approach is the way its performers were scavenged from circus troupes, stunt performances and street dance groups. The quality of the acrobatics may not be as polished and fluid as the Cirque du Soleil’s or as advanced as the New Shanghai Circus’s, which really does appear to stretch the limits of human athletic ability, but the simplicity of the movements means they don’t detract from the storyline. That’s not to say, however, that the show doesn’t contain its fair share of catapults, gymnastic turns in the air and leaps from great heights!

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What the medium of ‘new circus’ offers is a fun and novel way to explore another country’s heritage through acrobatics, dance, theatre and music. The AO Show offers a glimpse of Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective and for this reason, if nothing else, it’s worth watching. Inventive and technically pioneering, the show intends to tour Europe in 2015. For now, it continues to wow audiences in Saigon with an engaging theatrical experience.

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