Ballet Stages a Comeback

Lovers of ballet have recently been treated to a new, Vietnamese version of “Swan Lake” and the return of a local operatic classic.

By Le Diem on November 08,2019 04:09 PM

Ballet Stages a Comeback


More than three decades after a one-off performance, ballet lovers in Vietnam were thrilled to again be able to enjoy the classic “Swan Lake” in Hanoi and were surprised by the new uniquely Vietnamese version. It was a special gift from the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB), marking its 60th anniversary and a turning point for Vietnamese ballet on its impressive return.

Opera first appeared in Vietnam in the 1960s, after the VNOB was founded in Hanoi in 1959 and rehearsals began for opera, ballet and classical concerts. Well-known operas were introduced to Vietnamese audiences at first, performed by local artists. Though welcomed, war intervened and a period of silence followed, broken only in the 1980s after Vietnam was reunified and life had stabilized somewhat. Since then, VNOB has worked with cultural centers of countries renowned for opera, such as Russia, France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, to present more masterpieces of opera and ballet to Vietnamese audiences.

“Swan Lake” was performed in Vietnam for the one and only time in 1985, under the direction of Russian experts. Debuting at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877 and composed and created by Tchaikovsky, the ballet became a global masterpiece of the art form. It has been reproduced in different stagings at hundreds of theaters around the world and requires performers completely master the necessary techniques. It was a significant challenge for Vietnamese ballet dancers and choreographers, however, who could only perform short excerpts, because if the duration was any longer they must invite Russian ballet troupes.

But, in October, for the first time, the ballet returned in Hanoi and was performed entirely by Vietnamese artists; a dream come true for performers and lovers of ballet and confirming the talent of Vietnamese dancers.

The success of this Vietnamese version of “Swan Lake” stemmed from the ambition and efforts of the VNOB team, led by Ms. Tran Ly Ly, VNOB’s acting director. She invited Mr. Le Ngoc Van, a leading director and dancer at the Royal Ballet London, to be choreographer. To “transform” Vietnamese ballet dancers into Russian swans, he held intense training sessions over the course of six months. The orchestra also underwent vigorous rehearsals to reach the musical quality needed. “It wasn’t about time or cost, it was about the passion of everyone spending months working hard on creating something special,” Ms. Ly said.

Thanks to such efforts, the Vietnamese version of “Swan Lake” takes the audience into the timeless love story of Prince Siegfried and Swan Princess Odette in a new way, with 60 local artists performing graceful solos, duos, and group dances. Their talent shone through, dressed in luxurious European royal costumes with the familiar Vietnamese pattern of lotuses, the national flower. The 60-piece orchestra gave soul to each move of the ballet dancers and captured the imaginations of the audience.

The fascinating combination of ballet, opera and live orchestra is exactly what VNOB had pursued all this time. As ballet remains new to many Vietnamese, especially the young, it was a major challenge for all concerned, according to Ms. Ly. “Attracting an audience to this academic art required a performance that kept their interest and could be understood and enjoyed,” she said. “We tried to bring new and colorful features into the art form while retaining its classical value.”

Together with “Swan Lake”, another opera, “The Sculptor”, one of the first Vietnamese operas, was also restaged after nearly half a century.

Performed for the first time in 1975, “The Sculptor” was composed by the late Do Nhuan and is set during the American War on a central highlands’ battlefield, showing the patriotism of local soldiers and people and their relationships as they fight the enemy. Regarded as Vietnamese musical heritage, it was performed about a hundred times and won the hearts of many.

Ballet Stages a Comeback

On the occasion of VNOB’s 60th anniversary, “The Sculptor” was recreated to honor those who contributed to the revival of the operatic art, according to Ms. Ly. During this time of peace, the opera was reimagined by Do Nhuan’s son, composer Do Hong Quan, chairman of the Vietnam Musicians’ Association, who reduced the performance time by a third and focused on love, loyalty, and patriotism rather than the war itself, to help the younger generation approach it more easily. The traditional costumes and music of the central highlands also exhibited the rich culture of the area and is another fascinating aspect of the opera.

Tickets for both shows sold out many days in advance. It was actually a continuation of success found in two other events this year, created in preparation for VNOB’s anniversary and its “experiment” with new-style opera.

It began with “Around the World” in March, a feast of opera, ballet, and live orchestral music by domestic and international artists with great visual and auditory works from around the world and was the brainchild of Ms. Ly.

In the 90-minute show, the audience enjoyed a global musical treat conducted by talented young Argentinean Martín Garcia León and performed by Dance Group, the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the VNOB, with music such as the wonderful melody “Glinka” or “Vase of Flowers” from The Nutcracker, “Confluencia - Río Negro” by Daniel Sanchez Cassataro from Argentina, “Largo al Factotum” from Il Barbieri di Siviglia from Italy, “Hungarian Dance N6” by Brahms, an exciting dance by Leonard Bernstein in the Western story “Mambo”, poetic French romantic dance by the Can orchestra from Orpheus, and folk and contemporary works by Ly Ngua O and Trong Com from Vietnam, among others.

Ballet Stages a Comeback

The unique feature of “Around the World” was the stage design, with the orchestra on a second stage over the performers, showcasing the smooth combination between musicians, dancers, and opera singers.

As “Around the World” was welcomed and appreciated by audience members, VNOB presented another feast of dance, the Hanoi Dance Fest 2019, in June. The performance consisted of six contemporary dances from young Vietnamese, including Huy Tran, a Vietnamese choreographer living in Germany, Xuan Le, a Vietnamese-French choreographer, and James Sutherland, a Scottish choreographer. It created a stage for these young and talented choreographers, promoting new ideas and diverse multidisciplinary collaborations between local and international choreographers and artists working in different cultural contexts. It was also a chance for Vietnamese audiences to explore and discover the aesthetic values and impressions introduced by contemporary dance. An image of Vietnam was expressed both traditionally and modernly in the creative combination of the dancers’ graceful body movements and different stage props, with traditional art, folk instruments, and objects reflecting local culture and festivals.

These great works from the VNOB confirmed not only the talent of Vietnamese artists and their deep passion for the art in general and ballet and opera in particular but also their strong will and dedication to bring these to a local audience, in the context of little public knowledge about the art form and limited budgets to stage performances. VNOB also opened short training courses on music, singing, ballet, and opera and intensified its cooperative efforts with other art and culture organizations to create clubs of academic art lovers. All contribute to inspiring people to learn more about academic art and promise more productions in the future from the current generation as well as the next.

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