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A Saigonese performer hits the big time as one of the world's top jugglers


Tuan Le juggles four hats at Cirque du Soleil. He received the International Jugglers' Association's Award of Excellence for his creative juggling.

Tuan Le has made juggling history.

In January he became the first Asian to win the Award of Excellence from the International Jugglers' Association (IJA).

Some consider the award juggling's highest honor. Only 13 performers have received the title since the IJAs inception in 1947.

Le received the award for his work juggling hats in the Banana Shpeel, a vaudevillian Cirque du Soleil production that just finished a run at New York's Beacon Theater last month.

In the show, Le wowed audiences by dancing to an eclectic medley of hip-hop and jazz while juggling a total of six hats using his hands, head and feet.

Le is also the first Vietnamese performer to join the world famous French-Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil.

"The (IJA) award was a surprise," said Le Ngoc Anh Dung, his brother and mentor. "But he deserved it. He's devoted more than 20 years of his life to juggling and performance arts."

Le was born as Le Ngoc Tuan Anh in Ho Chi Minh City 33 years to a family of performers. His father was a trumpet player; his mother (who died of heart disease when he was two) was a theater actress and television producer. His oldest brother became a violinist; his other older brother, Dung, joined the circus.

Dung began his career in the HCMC youth juggling club where he was discovered by a visiting coach who took him to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. After graduating from the Moscow Circus School, he returned to work with the Vietnam Circus, HCMC.

In an email to Thanh Nien Weekly, Le said he was "inspired" by Dung. By the age of seven, his brother began teaching him how to juggle tennis balls.

"I practiced in the family living room, became fascinated, and wanted to learn more and more," Le said. His father was making a living playing trumpet for Saigon's famous Bong Sen Dance Theater Troupe and Le grew up surrounded by artists in housing provided by the company.

Around the world

At age eight, Le began studying under a dancer and choreographer named Thai Ly who lived next door. At the same time, he maintained his fascination with juggling. "I got familiar with tennis balls and three black hats," Le recalled. He also befriended a pantomime artist turned musical director named Tat My Loan. "These people helped me complete a juggling act inspired by the image of Charlie Chaplin in a black suit, bowler hat and a cane in his hand," Le said.

To Le, Charlie Chaplin was the most inspired performer of all time. The aspiring artist was taken with Chaplin's pantomime, clownish mugging and acrobatic pratfalls all of which were inspired by the circus.

Le first performed his act on a HCMC stage with the local circus at eight-and-a-half-years-old. For years, he performed at small HCMC venues and even studied trumpet at the HCMC Conservatory of Music for a time when he was 13.

In 1991, the Vietnamese government granted Le a visa to go to Russia to study at circus school. But they did not give him the same scholarship they'd granted Dung.

Le arrived in Moscow in the midst of a major political transformation that accompanied the break up of the Soviet Union. Circus training was no longer as important as it had been. So he relocated to Berlin, where his violinist brother was working.

"Besides his talent, creativity and drive, Tuan Anh (Le) has a passion for the arts," Dung told Thanh Nien Weekly. That passion would carry him through a rough time.

After three years of studying German and working odd jobs to help out the family, Le looked for ways to break back into juggling. He searched for books and materials about the art and attended shows at the Chamaeleon Variete and Vaudeville Cabaret Theater in Berlin.

At 18, Le had given his life totally to performance. At night, he performed on a small stage in Berlin. During the day, he studied dance, music and circus at the international culture center, Ufa Fabrik.

In 1996, Le signed a contract to work with Chamaeleon Variete Theater. By 2000, he began travelling to countries like Canada, France, the US, Sweden and Austria to perform.

Direction

Le began directing shows at Vaudeville Cabaret Theater in 2001, all the while developing a show that would be principally Vietnamese.

In 2005, he premiered the first version of his labor of love, the impressionistic neo-circus Lang toi (My village), in Hanoi. The show featured 80 circus performers from Vietnam.

Le continued to pitch the show to a variety of European producers and developed the cast of 14 artists for Lang toi, eight male and six female, over a number of years.

In 2006, Parisian producer Jean Juc Larguier offered to take Le's Lang toi on a world tour. The tour began in June 2009 at Quai Branly museum's theater in downtown Paris.

In the meantime, Le had signed a contract with Cirque du Soleil in 2006 and took part in the world premiere of Banana Shpeel at the Chicago Theater also in 2009. He followed the company to New York and is currently touring the US and Canada.

As for Lang toi, the 80-minute show has been performed more than 100 times in large theatres in France, Belgium, Hong Kong and Spain. Le has never translated the show's title - he wants to keep everything as Vietnamese as possible.

Lang toi was partially inspired by Le's desire to save circus performance in Vietnam, which he says has become "much weaker than the rest of the world in terms of technique, art perception and thinking."

Le feels the country could benefit from stronger circus schools and training facilities.

"After the last Russian-trained circus performers graduated in 1985, there's been no breakthroughs in Vietnamese circus," Le said in an email to Thanh Nien Weekly.

He said other concerns have distracted performers because Vietnamese society no longer offers venues for the art, and the kind of support needed to make a living practicing the craft has all but vanished.

There's no longer a great passion for the circus, he wrote. "Young performers do not really love the career and are not willing to "˜die' for it."

And Le said the odds were certainly stacked against Lang toi in Vietnam.

According to Le, "the reactions of the audiences were mixed."

He said most people were "surprised" by the avant-garde style of the show.

"Some didn't know how to think about it, some people thought it was not "˜a circus,'" Le told Thanh Nien Weekly.

He also said the affair was incorrectly billed as a family event.

"Many parents came with the kids to see the show and expected a regular circus show with monkeys and bears."

They were disappointed.

But Le said others reacted positively, saying they didn't believe that such a complex show would have been possible in Vietnam.

Despite the difficulties, the show has been received well by other artists and audiences worldwide.

Le hopes this is just the beginning of a new era in Vietnamese circus performance.

"I don't dare to say that Lang toi is a change for Vietnamese circus," he said. "But we created the show because we dream of such a change."

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