"Dragon and Fairy' project

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 The legend "Dragon and Fairy" will be conveyed to audiences by a combination of dance, acrobatics and kung fu demons.

When Laura Burke arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000, she was shocked by the city's lack of places for tourists to engage with the country's cultural heritage.

"It was so crazy because lots of tourists come here every day," Burke said. "I thought "˜they must have something to see apart from the sightseeing tours,' but there was nowhere to go."

She soon found that many young artists practicing traditional modes of performance and art couldn't make a living.

After talking with friends, she hatched a plan to put on a large cultural extravaganza.

The former television producer spent the last year developing Xin chao (Hello), a musical, dance and martial arts performance that will open on December 3 on the site of HCMC's ailing circus.

Burke says she started her career in show business by working on Hollywood films at the age of 17. She produced mostly documentary films, she says, for Disney and CBS. Burke quit her thirty-year career as a TV producer and screenwriter and began exporting furnishing décor to stores in Italy.

"I first came to Vietnam in 2000 with my daughter to meet my father. He told me: "˜Oh, you should come to Vietnam. It is a great place,'" Burke said. "And he was right, I love it."

She travelled back and forth for a time, but sold her business and settled in Vietnam in 2003. She began to mingle with the city's dance groups and martial artists and found that many of them were struggling to make a living.

After determining to stay, Burke says she took classes in Binh Dinh (Vietnam's traditional martial art) and collaborated with cai luong script-writer Linh Huyen on her play Ba Chua Tho Nom (Queen of Nom poet).

She found that the children practicing kung fu and cai luong never made any money. The circus was no better. Located in Pham Ngu Lao (the city's backpacker district) the Soviet-era facility employed some 70 performers who made between US$50-100 per month.


Burke is working with a costume designer

Audiences were shrinking under the big top. Last year, a Thanh Nien reporter counted only about 150 people among the weekend audiences - the performers' bread and butter. Admissions cost between $1.50 (for children) and $3 for adults.

Last year, Burke developed a business plan and began raising money from wealthy friends to create a show that would help revive traditional performance in HCMC. She and her producer Augustus Greaves scoured the city for the best and the brightest performers.

They won't discuss the performers' salaries they've described them as "sufficient."

Greaves says he was sold on the idea from the outset and had found the perfect place to put it on. Greaves told Thanh Nien Weekly that the circus' location offered an ideal location to attract tourist audiences.

The cast, comprised of dancers, circus performers and martial artists, has grown to a total of 50 performers, including back-ups and stand-ins. The youngest members of the troupe are a pair of ten year old girls.

Burke and her team developed the script for the cultural extravaganza by working closely with a number of local historians. Burke added that everything from the show's dance moves to the performers' costumes have been vetted through the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

On a recent afternoon, enthusiastic young trapeze artists swung through the air, jugglers tossed and exchanged rings and hats and a bicycle stacked with acrobats criss-crossed the stage.

The show will open with a depiction of the mythical romance between the Dragon Lac Long Quan and Fairy Au Co who supposedly produced hundred eggs that spawned the Kinh race.

The legend will be conveyed to audiences by a combination of dance, acrobatics and kung fu demons.

The second act, however has provided Burke and her counterparts with their greatest inspiration.

The artists have turned the story of Hai Ba Trung (The Trung sisters) into a Fellini-like performance. According to the legend, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi raised a largely female army and expelled a Chinese occupation force in the first century.

The sisters' reign lasted just three years before the Chinese returned and began to sack the rebellion. Trac and Nhi are said to have drowned themselves in the Hat River to avoid capture.

"I just want to revive the nation's pride, especially in children," she said. "They seem to be familiar with Hai Ba Trung Street in HCMC, but hardly any of them are familiar with these heroes in any detail. Watching the show is an interesting way of learning history."

Members of the cast said they have finished rehearsing the final act which focuses on the playful aspects of Vietnamese culture. The finale^ depicts a vibrant, modern street festival on Dong Khoi featuring dance, acrobatics and martial arts.

At the end of the show, characters from Acts One and Two will emerge and interact with the audience.

The aim of the show is to convey how Vietnam's history continues to influence its modern culture.

Greaves says the show's organizers hope it will run for five years. When the show opens, next month, it will be performed at 6:30 p.m. every day. The producers are still trying to settle on an appropriate admission price for foreign tourists and locals.

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