Tuan Le: from childhood juggler to Director of Vietnam’s largest circus company

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Last week we published the first half of our interview with Tuan Le, the director of the Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam, which is bringing its show Lang Toi to Perth Festival in February.  In this part, we speak to Tuan Le about his childhood, how he came to meet the other founders of the Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam and his own circus background. Links to tickets at the conclusion of this article.

You met the boys Nat Ly and Lan Maurice when you were children.

Our little family history is very interesting. Lan created one of the first circus schools in Vietnam and he actually auditioned my brother to go to Russia to study circus in 1980. Nhat Ly was the student of my father. He was learning trumpet from my father. So we have that family relationship since I was a very young kid. Nhat Ly was also a circus artist before but then he turned into a music person.

Of course we were living abroad so Nhat Ly and Lan were living in France and I was living in Berlin and we were disconnected for over 10 years. But then I came to Paris to perform and I got a phone call to Nhat Ly and he came and he was surprised that I was able to live as an artist in Europe at that time. We had already talked about some wish, what we could do in Vietnam at that moment but we didn’t have any precise or particular ideas or direction what we would do. But then Nhat Ly reconnected me with Lan Mauriceand I went to visit him where he was working as a circus teacher. Maybe you didn’t know but the foundation of the concept for Lan Maurice is very important for all of our creation. He took that concept to build the most flexible and famous nouveau cirque in France before this.

Of course I went to see Lan Maurice at the time that I was a performer and I invited him to support me. He’s the man behind that brings the success to all of our shows.

So before you were directing shows, you were working as a juggler?

Yes, I started from a very very early age in Vietnam. I think I was about 6 or 7 years old and I started to perform as a professional juggler in Vietnam, until I was 12 and then we moved to Berlin and I stopped for a little bit and I went to the school for ballet and artistic in Berlin. Afterwards, the very important part, I joined an international cultural centre called ufaFabrik in Berlin. That’s the place that actually was the main foundation of my work today actually.

Just going back to you as a 6 or 7 year old. How did you start juggling? Were there people in the family who taught you or friends?

Yeah my brother graduated from the circus school in Moscow in 85 and he returned to Vietnam and he taught me how to juggle. At that time we have a lot of struggle in my family because my Mum passed away when I wasone year old and my Dad was a very famous trumpet player but he had a strokeand was paralysed when I was about 6 years old. It’s not the idea of my brotherto push me to make money but by accident that happened at the same time. So I was able to join the circus with him and very quickly I became a very well-known little wonder kids who were good jugglers. I was able to support my family in Vietnam for a long time.

That’s an amazing story. Very sad. Did your brother continue in the circus?

He did with me for a while. But then he stopped and went back to Russia to study for the director of circus afterwards.

So where were you performing?

I was in the Ho Chi Minh city circus troupe. We didn’t have a circus tent in that moment. The interesting part is the opera house where my shows are playing throughout the years is where my father used to perform and where I used to perform and now I am not on stage anymore but my shows are playing there regularly.

So you don’t perform now? You’re behind the scenes?

No. I’m not on stage any more.

Do you miss that?

I do and I don’t [he laughs]. For jugglers you need hours to work on yourself when you want to be a professional juggler. Now I’m not juggling on stage but I juggle with all my work, almost 200 people are working under the circus.

The company has become quite big. You’re like the Cirque du Soleil of Vietnam. You’re quite large.

Yes and no. Our company is called Lune Production but it isnot compared to Ciruqe du Soleil because I think what we are focussing on is the sun and is going to the Western and Europe and the modern times. Lune Production is really focussed on, for the moment it’s only Vietnam, but in the future it’s going into the East-Asia and all the culture. All of our shows are related to the culture of its location.

So it’s very much focussed on Vietnam.

Of course a lot of people the closest they would get to compare is the Cirque du Soleil. Which is fine with me because I grew up in my career as a juggler as a creator. Even now I am still in touch with Cirque du Soleil.

Because you worked with them. You were a solo artist with them!

Yes. I was a solo artist with Cirque. They had a production on Broadway and then they invited me to return to Cirque to be a creator and I was the head choreographer for a show called Toruk, which is inspired by the movie Avatar by James Cameron.

I saw that show last year!

In the arena?

Yes here in Adelaide, it was at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre.

You saw the video projection. So I was part of the creation team for that show.

Tuan Le working with the Cirque du Soleil on Toruk. Image: Cirque du Soleil

You’re a busy man!

Yes I am but actually I never work. I live my life but I’m not busy really.

You said you moved to Berlin when you were 12. How did that come about?

In a way we escaped in a very smart way from Vietnam. I got the funding to go to the circus school in Russia to study and my father and he got an invitation to go to Moscow to fix his health because he was paralysed. At the same time, my brother was learning at the school for the arts to be a circus director. And my other brother was a violin player at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. So we came to Russia and at the time there was a political crisis and the family decided to take the train. From Moscow we took the train to Germany to apply to migrate.

That’s a long train ride!

Yeah. It was a quite interesting trip and escape. We already planned if we didn’t make it we would jump off the train and carry our father and run through the forest. The Plan B but that did not happen.

Wow. Thankfully you made it! You had a very interesting childhood!

Yeah I know. We made it and even now to return to Vietnam, the majority of people who try hard to give up their life to escape they would never think that they would go back to Vietnam. I think the opposite. I am not going back to Vietnam. I am going to Vietnam to share my knowledge and to give the people the opportunity to help the environment, to work in the positive and creative.

So do you live in Vietnam now?

Yes I live in Vietnam since 2012.

You tour a lot with your shows. How much of the year are you away from Vietnam?

Three months but sometimes six months. We have our three creations playing in the 3 big cities in Hanoi, at the Hanoi Opera House, and at a smaller theatre in Hanoi and at the Saigon Opera House. We have estimated around 260 shows per year and we have our brand new own location in Hoi-An, which is really our home in this small, beautiful theatre of 300 seats and that hopefully will be our permanent location for the next year.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Hanoi-Opera-House-from-Lune-Productions-website.jpeg
Hanoi Opera House (Image: Lune Production)

So nine months of the year you’re in Vietnam and another three you’re touring around the world like you’re coming to Australia to perform the show.

Exactly. And Lang Toi “My Village” is our very first creation. Next year in May it will be exactly one decade. It will be 10 years.

I asked the same question of Nhat Ly so I will ask you also. How do you do the one thing for 10 years and not get bored of it? With the one production.

If it’s only just the creation, that’s not enough. We havein our company, the main focus is to build a system in Vietnam but also a theatrical system that will work that we can survive and live by selling our tickets. We don’t have any support from the Government with money. Of course they support us with the location; they give us the opportunity to perform in the most important location in Vietnam. We also have a big team working in marketing and how we can keep to show and sell the tickets to be able to sustain our company.

We were talking just before how you travel 3 months of the year. You were in Australia a few years ago for AO, and you’re coming back next year for Lang Toi. How many countries have you toured to with the various productions?

I think the majority was in France, in Germany, in Greece and in Europe. And Lang Toi performed over 200 shows around the world. This will be the first time Lang Toi will be performed in Australia. I think it is a very interesting challenge because last year when AO Show was there, we had amazing response from the audience. I think it was one of the best reactions of the AO Show that we could receive at the Perth Festival and of course Lang Toi will be a little bit different but I believe this will be a great success also.

You can see Lang Toi at Perth Festival from 8 to 17 February with the exception of Monday 11 February. Adult tickets cost from $36 to $70 plus booking fee and are on sale now.

There are discounted tickets available for Children, concession card holders and Friends of Perth Festival.

To ask your own questions of the Lang Toi team, there will be a Q&A session at 3:10pm after the Saturday 16 February 2pm performance

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