It takes a circus: Xiec Lang Toi, Part III

This is the story of how three men became a circus that became a village. In the third and last installment of diaCRITICS guest correspondent Ly Lan Dill converses with Nhất Lý Nguyễn about how he and his brother, Lân, became involved in the creation of Làng Tôi along with artistic director Tûan Lê.

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Nhất Lý Nguyễn

Làng Tôi, the new Circus of Việt Nam was imagined, conceived, and brought into being by three artists. After Tûan Lê, the artistic director, explained the origins of the show and his personal artistic path, Nhất Lý Nguyễn took time off rehearsal to talk to me about music, art, being Vietnamese, and collaboration. Nhất Lý and his brother Lân were both born in France and later accompanied their parents back to Vietnam in 1962 when Nhất Lý was 3 three years old. Their parents’ political convictions kept the family in Hà Nội until 1985 when Nhất Lý, at 23, left for Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh (TPHCM, Ho Chi Minh City). In 1985 he came to live and work in France before returning to live in Vietnam in 2008. Though I have heard of others going back to Vietnam after the end of the American war, this was the first time I have heard a Franco-Vietnamese couple bringing their children back in the 1960s.

Both brothers grew up in Hà Nội in an artistic milieu. Lân studied the circus arts at the National Circus School, and Nhất Lý started off as a clown before switching to music and in particular, the trumpet. As a young adult, he headed to TPHCM to study with Lê Tien Trach, renowned trumpeter and Tuân Lê’s father.

When they eventually came back to France, Lân continued performing with various circus’s, notably with Cirque Plume, before becoming artistic director of Arc en Cirque, a circus association in Chambéry (France). Nhất Lý remained faithful to his music, working on a musicology degree that would later open the doors for Làng Tôi to be performed in France.

Talking to Nhất Lý about music is an exercise in concentration and focus. Passion and enthusiasm has him skipping from one subject to the next, from explaining the organization of European musical traditions to listing the traditional Vietnamese instruments and then commenting on different Asian forms of music. It is something to be experienced. His conversation matches his artistic “method” if ever such a thing exists. He goes from one passion to another, collecting everything that interests him and finding links and ties between what to the rest of us are utterly disparate elements. It seems only natural to him that the đàn nguyệt of hát văn (the traditional trance music) should speak to the curves and sinews of the contortionists on stage. Does that make sense? It does to him. It reminded me of making connections and correspondences, not of truth through symbols but rather between art forms.

And so he walked me down the paths of his interests. When asked what was Vietnamese about the show, he wondered why do we need to look for purity? “What is pure? Before, there were no frontiers, everything circulated. There are gongs everywhere. The H’mong flute? The H’mong are spread across three countries. […] Yes, Vietnamese music is different than Chinese; it is the sum total of all 54 ethnicities in Vietnam, but can anyone say they are truly Vietnamese, Kinh one hundred percent? So why shouldn’t I mix H’mong instruments with Kinh instruments? Isn’t that what Vietnam is, borrowing here and there and making it ours?”

As I listen, trying hard to keep up, I briefly wonder if this position can only be achieved by a bi-cultural person who had forged his identity in a Vietnam that was less open to non Kinhs than it is today. Before I had time to consider the question more fully, he was pulling me along into the organizational miracle of the European symphonic orchestra. “That is the true brilliance of the European tradition: having organized music early on into a set structure and allowing musicians to evolve within this specific form. […] The Chinese tried out this organization, but it was merely substituting their instruments into a Western form….” That was not what he wanted. He wants to create Asian music everyone listens to. “The whole world listens to symphonic orchestras, why does no one listen to Asian music? The point is not to maintain a rigid identity but to preserve our wealth, to put our cultural wealth to work to create new values. With that kind of goal, you can [be] anywhere and still work at it. […] To appreciate our cultural wealth, you have to travel, meet other people and appreciate their differences. First you have to change people’s minds. You can’t just take things, you have to give first and then wait until they share with you.”

His work for the 2005 version of Làng Tôi consisted of finding “a functionality for each timber to express the tonalities of feeling, a certain Vietnamese atmosphere. It’s the timber of the instruments that is important; that’s what you need to listen to. The timbers of La Y San’s gong from the Tay in the northern Highlands, of Nguyễn Minh Chi’s Cheo drums; Pham van Doanh also comes from the Cheo tradition. There’s Pham van Ty who has been practicing hát văn even when he had to hide to do so. And Nguyễn Duc Minh was a flutist at the Conservatory; he went up to Ha Dang to study with the H’mong. I want to explore/create a new Vietnamese sound space, the elemental timber to Vietnamese music.”


He is critical of the contradictory sides of Vietnamese cultural production, of a certain lack of confidence coupled with an equal unwillingness to change because people are convinced they are already the best. “The Vietnamese have to pull themselves together and stop thinking that the others are better. The Vietnamese have always known how to use what little means they have to the best of their ability. I’m optimistic that Vietnam will change just as China did. There is no other choice. Confrontation, like in my early days, is useless. It only destroys us. You have to know what you want and go for it.”

The past six years, and throughout the different reincarnations of Làng Tôi, have imparted their fair share of lessons. “Originally, the show was highly criticized in Việt Nam. It was ugly, too dark, too simple. Certain artists saw it for what it was, but it was generally deemed a failure. We were lucky that certain people in Europe saw its potential. They said it needed to be adapted for the Western market and that was something they knew how to do. It was not easy to let go of your creation. We knew how to create, but we didn’t have the means to bring the show to this level. So we focused on what we really wanted: making a statement with Làng Tôi. We went back and forth for a year, letting go of some, but not all, of our artistic choices and learning along the way. It has not always been easy, but we have all learned a lot. […] I’m proudest of having brought hope to the performers. Before Làng Tôi, the circus artists and musicians really hoped it would work but really underestimated their capacities, convinced they were not good enough. When we began, everyone wanted to share their experiences. Now, things are different. There are more responsibilities; we’re not as free. But we have all learned that we are capable of creating a successful show. That we have the tools to create for ourselves and that we Vietnamese need to stop working for others.”

Nhất Lý has all sorts of other projects in the works; a jazz trio and a cartoon based on the zodiac are just two on the list. He is pouring his energies though into his central project: Viet Stage / Sân Khâu Việt, an artistic laboratory he has been working on in Hà Nôi since 2008. “The economy has opened up, but Vietnamese artists still self-censor heavily. […] The laboratory encourages meetings and accelerates exchanges. Evolution is natural when you create; the laboratory merely accelerates the process by confronting different artists. I want this to be a meeting place, somewhere to come and exchange ideas, research, put on shows, put together studio recordings. I want everyone to come, young and old, to experiment and find new ways of making music, of creating. I want it to be an artistic hub. Cinematographers, mixed media artists, musicians… a new energy at the cultural level. […] Vietnamese artists from everywhere need a meeting place; it’s here in Hà Nôi.”

Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.

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