Fusion part of modern circus evolution

December 04, 2022 - 08:29
After two years of stagnation due to the pandemic, performance art has been revived. Recently, the circus has made a strong comeback. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Vietnamese circus, People’s Artist Tống Toàn Thắng, vice director of the Việt Nam Circus Federation, talks to Ngô Minh about the plan to develop a national circus.

Inner Sanctum: Artists of the Việt Nam Circus Federation have made an impressive comeback with many awards achieved abroad. Could you say something about this success?

Duo Phạm Thị Hướng và Trương Hồng Thúy won the Gold Award at the 2022 International Circus Festival in Saratov, Russia, for their performance of "Red Swing". The two actresses have been invited to perform at the international circus show in Spain from the beginning of November.

Meanwhile, Khánh Huyền won the Bronze Award at the "Without Borders" International Circus Festival in Saint Petersburg, also Russia, for an aerial silk performance. When competing in a major international arena for the first time, Huyền tried to overcome psychological pressures to provide an excellent performance, conquering the judges' hearts and nearly 2,000 spectators. Her performance surpassed the scores of other performances to win the Bronze Award, and she was honoured to receive an invitation to attend the International Circus Festival Gold Elephant in Girona, Spain, in early 2024.

Thanks to the achievement, Sergei Belyakov, head of the Russian State Circus, has continued to invite Vietnamese performers to circus festivals in the coming years.

Thirty years ago, People's Artist Tống Toàn Thắng was well-known for a performance with pythons. Photo courtesy of the artist

Inner Sanctum: The Việt Nam Circus Federation has made a spectacular comeback. Looking back at the difficult times in the pandemic, what do you think about the energy of circus performers?

In 2020, we had just finished a tour in Quảng Ninh when everything had to stop because of the pandemic. The shows in Quảng Ninh were very successful and warmly cheered by the locals. This year, we continue the plan to perform in Quảng Ninh.

The period of social distancing was the most challenging time for us. Having no shows meant no income, and the artists’ life was tough. They had to find other jobs to cover their expenses, such as being shippers and selling ready-to-eat food.

We received support from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to organise performances without audiences. These shows were recorded and broadcast on TV or social networks. These programmes helped us survive.

Inner Sanctum: Does Vietnam Circus Federation have plans to perform in Quảng Ninh in the near future?

We plan to tour Quảng Ninh every year because the audience here loves the circus very much. This is also a place where many tourists gather. Performances are always crowded. We see this as a good opportunity to promote Vietnamese circus and culture.

In 2021, unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, the circus festival Nơi hội tụ ngôi sao xiếc Việt (Where Vietnamese circus stars converged) was interrupted. We hope to continue to have more interesting programmes in Quảng Ninh in 2023.

Inner Sanctum: Regarding circus acts, many think of the immense difficulty, demanding training, and inherent risks. Is this a barrier to finding talent?

The human resource of Vietnamese circus is a complex problem. There were auditions, but we couldn't find a qualified person. Circus shows require hard work, a lot of grit and face high risks. Some people practise for several years but have an accident and have to quit.

Many parents do not dare to send their children to circus training because of hard and risky work and fear of a limited future. Thinking in the circus profession is also different now. In the past, we entered the job with the ideal that no matter how difficult or challenging, we simply persisted with it. Now, many young people think mainly about income.

Moreover, the future of the circus cannot be predicted because many children, despite their great potential, cannot develop, even after practising for a while. Many young artists finish studying but do not work for the Việt Nam Circus Federation, but for a private circus, or for a theme park and resort, to perform for tourists.

SMOOTH OPERATOR: People's Artist Tống Toàn Thắng, vice director of the Việt Nam Circus Federation. Photo courtesy of the artist

Inner Sanctum: Does the Việt Nam Circus Federation have any solutions for finding the next generation of talent?

Due to the difficulty of entering the circus, we find the right kind of performer to practise multitasking. Previously, each actor only needed to master one performance, but now he must perform many performances. This creates creative inspiration and increases a performer's income. When I started my career, I performed with pythons, but now I can sing, dance, and write scripts.

Many of our shows encourage performers to interact with the audience on stage. This not only helps attract the audience but also makes the performers more loved, thereby increasing love of this exciting profession. For sustainable development, circus art needs a generation of talented people who are enthusiastic enough to follow the profession. To do that, we must spread the value of circus art to young people.

To retain talent, we offer training, creating conditions for them to participate in domestic and international competitions. We also focus on promoting the prestige of the federation.

Inner Sanctum: People have many options for entertainment nowadays. What has the federation done to attract audiences?

Before creating a circus item, we often study audience tastes and trends among young people to make a suitable script. The federation has coordinated with the Việt Nam Cải Lương Theatre to stage and perform Cây Gậy Thần (The Magic Baton) and Thượng Thiên Thánh Mẫu (The Heavenly Mother). The plays are part of the long-term project "Vietnamese Legend" to honour the nation's traditional cultural values. At the same time, it also has many innovative elements to attract audiences. The performances certainly made a hit when we combined circus performing and cải lương (reformed theatre) in an art piece.

We plan to combine circus with tuồng (classical drama) and other contemporary performing arts. However, we always determined that, no matter what skill is connected, the circus must still be the circus, and performers must practise hard and methodically. Circus artists want to be successful. In addition to practising, they must cultivate more knowledge to be versatile.

Inner Sanctum: Will the combination of circus and other theatrical genres create a more sustainable future?

The circus combining with other art forms is nothing new. To do this, I think artists of each art form must let go of their egos. When art forms come together, they will support each other towards a common goal. I always dreamed that the circus could combine with various traditional art forms.

In foreign countries, opera combines very successfully with the circus. Therefore, to attract audiences, the circus or any other art forms must renew themselves and resonate together to connect and share the stage.