From Juggling To Cirque Du Soleil And Creating The À Ố Show
By Niall Mackay, host of A Vietnam Podcast
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The final guest of Season 6, Tuấn Lê, is the director of several unique cultural shows in Vietnam, including Lang Toi – My Village, À Ố Làng Phố (The ÀỐ Show) and Teh Dar. Tuấn started his career as a solo juggler. He learned from his brother at a young age and saw it as a fun trick. Learning to juggle was just a fun thing to do as a kid, there was never an intention for this to be a pathway to a career!
He polished his skills living in Germany and performing with Cirque du Soleil. During his time with Cirque, he became a choreographer for their Toruk show. He returned to Vietnam in 2012 and and is the co-founder and creator of Lune Productions which produces the aforementioned shows, with À Ố Làng Phố described as a global sensation by The Guardian.
À Ố Làng Phố, roughly translates to “from village to city”, and uses a bamboo set and apparatuses. They show Vietnam transitioning from a rural past to an urban future. Hence the name “bamboo circus”. I was lucky enough to see the show earlier this year and can attest to its quality. As well as regularly performing at the Hanoi and Saigon Opera Houses, the show in 2019 toured Australia and was performed at the famous Sydney Opera House. It is now a regular performance at the Saigon and Hanoi Opera Houses.
Tuấn is from a family of performing artists. His grandparents were a classical music conductor and a ballerina. His father was a successful trumpet player, and his mother was a TV producer and theatre director with her own company. As per Tuan, “I grew up in an artistic environment you could say. I was taking ballet classes when I was five.” Tuấn was not under the same parental pressure as many children in Vietnam to become a doctor, engineer, or accountant.
Despite the outbreak of war in Vietnam, his family was still able to work as performing artists for a time. His mum was still producing a TV show during and his dad played music in clubs. Then when the war ended, “everything stopped.” Life became more difficult for his family like many others in the post-war years.
Tuấn had started performing in Saigon before his family moved to Germany in 1990, where everything changed. Performing arts was no longer a priority for the family. As Vietnamese immigrants, it wasn’t considered something that could provide a future. Tuấn stopped performing entirely for a few years.
He was later introduced to a new format he hadn’t been aware of before, variety and cabaret theatre. He joined the school for circus arts in Berlin and realised he didn’t want to study as a traditional circus juggler.
He wanted to use the theatrical tools of music, dance, acrobatics, and of course juggling, to tell a story. At that time in Berlin, he was lucky enough to meet classically trained variety theatre performers. Thanks to his curiosity and creativity he put his heart and soul into creating a dream.
“When the lights come down, my dream will begin, and it will guide the audience into a world that after the show will leave them with positive energy and have an impact on them”, Tuấn exudes with passion. “We want to create emotional connections between the art and the audience.”
By 1996 he had started to perform in cabaret and variety shows in Berlin. He was invited to perform at a festival and won a prize for newcomer juggler!” He was then introduced to more theatres across Germany and performed in these for over 10 years. In 1999 he was invited to perform at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal where he started to get noticed and got into a network of circus and variety performers.
Soon after this, he got a phone call from Cirque du Soleil to perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York, no audition required! He performed with them for a year in New York then went on tour to other cities in the U.S, Canada and Europe. “I was very lucky”, Tuấn adds.
Next was a lucrative contract on a cruise ship, where he got to see the world starting from Miami, around the Caribbean down to Mexico and across the Atlantic to Europe. Life on the cruise ship is seemingly easy, everything is provided for you, “food available all day, never have to do your own bed or laundry and most of the time you’re out to sea.” The only thing to do was perform.
After several months of this Tuấn got scared at the complete lack of responsibility. The entire trip would be repeated every two weeks, with the only change being the guests onboard. A life like this wasn’t for someone like Tuấn who needs to be stimulated and creative. He was also getting scared of being on the water for so many days at a time. As many as 12 days without seeing land. Despite being a luxury 5-star cruise ship it started to feel small and living out a suitcase wasn’t for him.
After 5 months, Tuấn had to make a difficult phone call to the Entertainment Director when they arrived in Europe. Tuấn told him, “I just can’t stay on the ship anymore.” Even though he tried to persuade him otherwise, Tuấn’s mind was set. “They offered me some time off the ship for a few weeks and then return, but I knew if I took that I wouldn’t return to the ship so I was honest with him. I had to do what my heart told me and tell the truth.”
He was dropped off at a port in Italy, took a taxi to the airport and bought tickets to fly straight to Vietnam! When he landed he stayed with relatives and his girlfriend at the time, but he was restarting from zero.
After 22 years, he returned to Vietnam in 2012. In his first production back he had a really hard time expressing himself to the other artists what he wanted. This wasn’t just a language barrier, but a cultural one in the way that Vietnamese people communicate with each other.
“Even nowadays I still struggle with my written Vietnamese!”
The lockdown in Saigon from late May 2021, has stopped all shows but Tuấn is hopeful that they can perform again at the Saigon Opera House before the end of the year. And despite being delayed because of the pandemic, Teh Dar is still set to be performed in Saudia Arabia by February next year.
After experiencing our fourth lockdown in Saigon, we appreciate live shows and events even more, and the nourishing feeling we receive from attending them. Now even more so after hearing Tuấn’s vision and passion in creating his. We recommend attending any of Tuấn’s shows, if and when you can, as soon as you can.
Tuấn answers the usual questions asked of every guest at the end of the show.
Have you ever tried Durian? “It’s not my favourite food.”
What is the craziest car you’ve seen? “A fancy car we drove not less than 200km/h in Germany!”
What’s something that happens overseas that would be looked at strangely in Vietnam? “When men walk together with their hands on the other one’s shoulder.”
What’s something that happens in Vietnam that would be looked at strangely overseas? “In Bulgaria when someone shakes their head it means yes and when they nod their head it means no!”
What advice would you give to someone before they came Vietnam? “Open up your mind, open up your heart, you will be very welcomed by Vietnamese people.”