Viet Nam News
By Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
Over centuries, the tragic story of Mỵ Châu, the princess of Âu Lạc Kingdom, and Trọng Thủy, the prince of the northern rival Kingdom has served as a warning about the big neighbour’s ambition to take over the country.
Văn Lang was the land of King An Dương Vương, who had only one crown princess, Mỵ Châu. As fate would have it, the princess fell in love with Trọng Thủy, son of her father’s rival.
An Dương Vương had a military secret that would help him and his less populous army ward off any foreign attacks. Trọng Thủy was sent to Âu Lạc with the mission of seducing the princess and eventually, steal her father’s secret.
The two fell in love, got married and lived happily in Âu Lạc, but the prince still had in mind his father’s assignment. Naïve and loyal to her husband, Mỵ Châu negligently showed her husband the deadly secret that had helped defend her father and his kingdom. After stealing the sacred and powerful turtle claw, Trọng Thủy made an excuse to go visit his parents in his country. Before he leaving he asked: “How could I find you if anything bad happens before I am back?”
To which, Mỵ Châu said: “I have a goose feather cloak, and I will spread its feathers along the way. Follow them to me.”
Soon after he got home, Triệu Đà launched another attack on the Âu Lạc Kingdom and captured the citadel. King An Dương Vương fled on a horse with his beloved daughter behind his back.
“The enemy is behind your back,” was what the Sacred Turtle told the king, who killed her for having lost the citadel and he walked into the deep sea.
As a spy, he’d fulfilled his duty, but Trọng Thủy loved his wife. He followed the white feathers to find his wife dead and jumped into a nearby well. Legend has it that the drops of Mỵ Châu’s blood immersed with sea and turned into pearls, symbolizing her clean conscience. The pearls are said to be even shinier and more beautiful if washed with water from the nearby well.
The way the love story of Mỵ Châu and Trọng Thủy has been narrated over the years has pointed suspicious fingers at women who marry foreigners.
A more contemporary and humane approach to this famous legend as been presented by the Viet Nam Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Choreographed by Bertrand d’At, director of Ballet National du Rhin for 15 years since 1997, the ballet turns the mystic legend of two thousand years ago into today’s love, something every young man and woman can relate do.
It is told in nine easy-to-follow scenes, but I felt two or three-act piece with smaller scenes would have carried greater heft.
Using the recorded tunes of Debessy was perhaps the biggest setback of this piece.
Opening out as a busy scene from today, the story evolves via a dream of the young man. A full screen sheer curtain was placed between the audience and dancers performing behind it.
It was appropriate at first, as it referred to the dream and the ancient love story, but not having it rolled up towards the end of the ballet spoilt things somewhat.
The ancient costumes were beautifully designed at attention paid to details, like the headwear, the deep red colour so significant to the ancient land of Phú Thọ, where ancestors of Việt people originated from, have turned into graceful belts of corps de ballet.
VNOB’s young and very talented dancers showcased their grand jumps and pirouettes. These were so well done that one felt they could land a job with any bigger ballet companies. The many flaps and flowing attire undermined the usual graceful tutu of the prima ballerina, but it I guess it could be an innovative change younger audiences can accept.
Thu Hằng as Mỵ Châu and Emeritus Phan Lương as Trọng Thủy were impressive. The two rival kings, An Dương Vương, played by Emeritus Artist Cao Chí Thành, who’s grand jeté has become a legend in the dance world, and King Triệu Đà played by Đàm Hàn Giang, dubbed the Prince of Ballet in Việt Nam, pulled off their roles well.
I am used to seeing ballets with many women dancing in it, so it was and was so surprised to see VNOB having quite many young balerinos in its corps de ballet. This should be a knock-out: a pas de deux with two men dancing.
The King and Queen in a ballet can be quite dull, as they wear clothing so ornate that it is impossible for them to dance. Not so in Love in Citadel. Here there were only two kings and no queen. And they had their own solo parts to play.
Someone murmured next to me, “I don’t find King An Dương Vương very powerful!” Well, I guess this was because he wore such a simple light outfit, he got to dance quite much and, last but not least, his crown was too big to wear while dancing, so he took it off every time he danced.
I suppose if you’re King, you’re not supposed to take of your crown, the ultimate sign of power, in front of the public.
Towards the end, the beautiful pas de deux between the main couple before they departed to war was so moving that I wanted to see the sheer curtains rolled high up.
The closing scene is that of a young couple reuniting in today’s time, leaving the past, like a dream behind.
This tragic love story had been a theme in all art genres in Việt Nam, including tuồng (classical drama), chèo (popular drama) and cải lương (reformed opera) and modern theatre.
Mỵ Châu-Trọng Thủy was premiered as a ballet 30 years ago by choreographer People’s Artist Trần Minh. Ten years ago, another ballet named Red Pearls choreographed by Việt Cường and Kim Quy retold this story.
The 90-minute showt by Bertrand d’At brought together the best of east and west. It premiered in Hà Nội in November 24, 2010 for Thăng Long-Hà Nội’s 1000th founding anniversary. D’At founded a company called Ballet de L’Est in 1996 before he joined Ballet du Rhin. Toward his last years, he helped the Shanghai Ballet in China stage A Sign of Love and worked with Viet Nam Opera Ballet Theatre.
D’At was found dead in his apartment in 2014, so was absent for the staging what could have been his last work in Hà Nội.
However I believe, Love in Citadel, can carry on. It an be a summer programme at the Lincon Center in New York City, for instance, where there is always an audience for innovative theatre. — VNS