Artistic director reflects on his life and career in ballet

Eric Vu-An embraces his otherness, a theme of the ballet he will stage here for Le France May, writes Fionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 5:49pm

One day, more than two decades ago, French-Vietnamese dancer Eric Vu-An received a phone call from Italian choreographer Luciano Cannito. Vu-An had recently enjoyed success in a ballet based on Marguerite Yourcenar's classic book Memoirs of Hadrian; he had danced the role of Antinous, the emperor's lover, in the spectacular surroundings of Tivoli, Hadrian's former villa on the outskirts of Rome. But Cannito had another book, and another emperor, on his mind.

"When he called," says Vu-An, amiably drinking tea in a Paris café on a recent afternoon, "he said he had an idea for me to dance Marco Polo in a ballet based on a book called Invisible Cities. He said it was about the relationship between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. He talked about it for five minutes." Silence then ensued, long enough for Cannito to grow alarmed. When Vu-An eventually spoke, it was to say the book - by Italo Calvino - was in his hand when Cannito called.

Human beings don't like to see something that's not easy to understand. They want to say, 'You are this and you are that'
Eric vu-an

The synchronicity struck both men as auspicious. Vu-An went on to create the role and, as his professional life progressed, he filed it in his head for future use. After he became artistic director of the Nice Méditerranée Opera Ballet in 2009, he asked Cannito if the company could include his work in its repertoire. The choreographer said Vu-An must dance it.

"I told him I had problems with my tendons," sighs Vu-An, who is now an exceptionally lithe, if rueful, 50. "And he said, 'Do the other character. Do Kublai Khan.'"

It's not only the advancing years that make this leap between roles seem appropriate. When Vu-An takes to the stage of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Marco Polo on May 16, as part of Le French May, he can also claim to be channelling his Asian roots: his father is Vietnamese.

However, as the child of a global marriage - his French mother had a Caribbean grandmother - he has learned to become any nationality he wants, at least artistically. He's the choreographer's chameleon. So how Asian does he feel? "It's hard to say. In me, you see mixed blood - not purely something. Bernardo Bertolucci saw that."

Those who remember the Italian director's 1990 film of Paul Bowles' book The Sheltering Sky can testify to Vu-An's geographic range: he was the Tuareg tribesman, Belqassim, who rescues Debra Winger from the desert. The film was a chaotic failure stuffed with wildly vivid moments of which (if you were a female viewer) Belqassim, layered in cloak and kohl, was a definite highlight.

Bertolucci's description of Belqassim - "a man without a country, a true nomad" - exactly matched the way that Vu-An saw himself; and being a distinct outsider has remained both an asset and a liability. "Human beings don't like to see something that's not easy to understand," he says. "They want to say, 'You are this and you are that'. Now it's a plus, but 30 years ago … To be the young prince in Sleeping Beauty was difficult if your colour was different."

It didn't help that his parents were appalled by his unexpected passion for ballet. They'd worked in the Vietnamese embassy in Paris until the end of France's colonial relationship with that country; then they sold vegetables. He was an only child. "Also! Also!" he adds, referring to his solitary upbringing. What does he mean by that? "To face the world alone and with mixed blood."

Dance began, at five, as an acceptable form of exercise prompted by a fascination with martial arts. It was only when he decided to audition for the Paris Opera's ballet school, aged nine, that his parents grew alarmed and started talking about finding a doctor to cure this sickness. However, wiser heads advised that as he was unlikely to get in because of his racial background, they should just let him fail.

He succeeded, of course. But he learned, as every dancer must in class, to watch himself - to work on the external. No profession is as brutally fixated on the mirror's reflection. "At the beginning, when I presented myself with this look, not like the others, you could see something in their eyes," he says.

He still sees an otherness, but now it's mostly between himself: between what he is and what he was. "When you get older, it's a nightmare. They say, 'Oh, he was so good'." He groans. "And YouTube! You see this monster on YouTube."

Does he really think of that beautiful younger man, held in glorious eternal partnership with Sylvie Guillem in cyberspace, as a monster? He laughs. "A rose can be a monster."

What about Rudolf Nureyev? "Talking of monsters," he says, lightly. "He was an incredible dancer. He gave me my first real role [as Basilio] in Don Quixote."

That was in 1983, for the Paris Opera Ballet, of which Nureyev was director. But in 1986, choreographer Maurice Béjart announced, onstage, that Vu-An and Manuel Legris were to be appointed étoiles - stars - of the company. (Legris later said that Béjart was "a little in love" with Vu-An and wanted to do something special for him.)

Nureyev denied he'd agreed to any such appointments and cancelled them. Béjart accused him of lying and, amid the storm, Vu-An ran for cover by dancing outside France. He went to the US for a while and, although he returned to the Paris Opera as a guest soloist, he was never again a full-time member of the company.

"Nureyev left Russia for freedom, but he had the position of a tsar," says Vu-An, shrewdly. "He became what he was escaping from. At that moment of the problem with Béjart I thought, 'I will never have this relationship with any dancer that I work with'."

Is a man who dances the role of Kublai Khan - possibly history's ultimate tsar - capable of being an harmonious artistic director? "Yes." Would his corps de ballet agree? "Yes. I like to make connections. I have a little company of 26 dancers. I'm a Kublai Khan on stage, but that means I become something else as a human being."

He doesn't socialise with his dancers, however. "No, I don't go to the restaurant with them. From the very beginning of my career, I was with comedians, singers, actors, not with the dancers of the Paris Opera. It helped to develop my heart."

He adds: "If you only dance, dance, dance - you quit."

Of being based in Nice, he says: "I love the sea, the light. I feel easily at home when my professional child is growing well."

Like Marco Polo, who holds a mirror before the emperor to show him the imagination's myriad cities, Vu-An can reel off his travels in the world's corners. Yet there's one city that's invisible to him, set in a land he has never visited: Saigon, as he calls it, where his father now lives. (His mother died in 2001.)

Why hasn't he been there? "It's hard to go somewhere where they'll say to me, 'Oh you're Vietnamese' and then look at me and say, 'Oh no, you're not'."

Asked if that unseen land suggests there's a gap in his life, Vu-An replies: "I'm very happy. I'm still dancing."

However, the uncertain boy who sought himself in the reflection of a studio's mirror is still present in the adult. Later in the week, at the Paris press conference to announce Le French May (held in a gilded salon of the Quai D'Orsay, and introduced by France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius), Vu-An found himself in the audience, not on the invited panel of key figures.

Afterwards, he speculated on this omission. "Maybe it was politics," he says, with a shrug. But some echo of an outsider's past makes him add: "It's always like this."

Marco Polo , by Nice Méditerranée Opera, May 16-17, 7.45pm, Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, HK$120-HK$480 Urbtix. Inquiries: 3752 9965