Vietnam Circus Adjusts to Life Without Its Mentor in Moscow

EVER since Soviet communism collapsed, life has not been the same under the Hanoi Big Top.

For years, the Vietnam Circus basked in the light of world communism. Under the umbrella of the famous Moscow Circus, Vietnam belonged to the fraternity of acrobats, animal trainers, and clowns created to build socialist solidarity.

But now that light is dim, says circus director Nguyen Tam Chinh. Sitting in her office chilled by Hanoi's damp winter and filled with the trumpeting of elephants housed nearby, the onetime acrobat ticks off a list of new problems:

* Thirty Vietnamese performers are stranded in Moscow where their subsidies and training have stopped.

* Trapezes, ropes, props, and other crucial equipment, for years supplied by the Soviet circus, are scarce.

* A tour to Yugoslavia last November was canceled after civil war erupted.

Still, like any good performer, Mrs. Chinh says the show must go on. Battered by shrinking subsidies, the Vietnam Circus struggles to adjust.

Chinh hopes Vietnam's renewed friendship with its rival, China, will supplant old Soviet and European ties, open up new training opportunities, and reinvigorate the old socialist brotherhood. Cuba also provides support.

At the same time, the country's free-market reforms, growing international trade links, and the anticipated lifting of the United States-led economic embargo later this year are transforming the acrobat into an impresario.

The director plans to book foreign circuses, rock-music groups, boxing matches, and other events into a newly completed $1 million, 1,600-seat coliseum.

Taking over the circus five years ago, she convinced the government to build a Soviet-designed structure to replace cramped tents where the circus performed for years. She also plans to construct a hotel nearby and is wooing tourism by sending circus teams to perform in Hanoi's expanding embassy row.

"Our slogan is to rely on our own strength and to develop our national identity," says Chinh.

Like Vietnam itself, the circus hovers between old and new. Despite free-market ambitions, Chinh still credits socialism for building up the circus, underwriting the coliseum, and subsidizing 50 percent of her expenses.

The director also sees exchange programs with China as promising, but tenuous.

"Vietnam is poor and facing difficulties and is cutting off subsidies to many enterprises. But the [government] still places much emphasis on the circus," Chinh says, showing visitors a conference room with a bust of the late leader Ho Chi Minh. "Vietnam Circus has international prospects, and so they continue to pay attention to it."

Ho, the founder of communist Vietnam, established the circus in 1956, two years after he defeated French colonial troops, to entertain Vietnamese and build cultural links with allies.

Sitting under a photo of Ho presenting flowers to a young Chinh and other acrobats, the director recalled herself as a 15-year-old girl who answered a newspaper ad and auditioned in 1961. Chinh impressed organizers with her strength which enabled her to support a three-woman pyramid. But first, she had to convince her parents.

"At first, they prevented me from joining because they said it wasn't for nice women and all the jumping would prevent a woman from having children," says the mother of two. "But then I told them it was Ho Chi Minh's circus, and they were persuaded."

Chinh's husband is a ringmaster; her 11-year-old daughter is an acrobat-in-training.

During the war against the US, the circus was forced out of Hanoi and often went to the front lines, Chinh says. While comedian Bob Hope was entertaining US soldiers in the south, the circus troupe tramped miles along jungle paths to perform for Vietnamese guerrillas.

"Sometimes, we were performing and the American planes would attack. So we would stop and help the soldiers by carrying ammunition," she says.

Today, circus concerns are more mundane but, for the performers, no less compelling. The break with the former Soviet Union has been painful for many of the 200 Vietnam Circus performers who trained in Moscow. For many, communism's collapse means the end of travel privileges. Most performers earn $2 each performance along with a $7 monthly salary.

"The situation in the Soviet Union is worse than when I studied there. When I was in Moscow, the Russian people were kind-hearted, and I have good memories," says trapeze artist and comedian Tran Manh Cuong as he readies for a performance. "Now we hear that, since perestroika, the Russians have changed and sometimes Vietnamese are mistreated in Moscow."

"We want to tour, but we have no chance to do it now," acrobat Do Hai Thanh complains, pulling a Western-style ski jacket over her skimpy, sequined costume as she waits for the curtain to go up.

Putting the best face on their difficulties, performers say less Soviet influence has given Hanoi's circus a more prominent Vietnamese flavor.

Vietnamese music, folklore, village games, and acrobatics increasingly are added to balance Russian-inspired acts. Western slapstick comedy often has been greeted with a puzzled, embarrassed silence.

Amid Vietnam's economic woes, crowds flock to pay 30 cents to $1 per ticket for a few hours of glitter and glamor.

Some Western observers wonder how long the novelty of the new circus quarters will continue to draw audiences in this metropolitan city of 3 million people.

Still, Chinh maintains the circus already has set aside 40 percent of its earnings since December. "We are pursuing a policy of relying on our own capabilities," she says.

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