While many traditional performing arts are facing extinction, water puppetry, which dates nearly a millennium, has become increasingly well supported both domestically and abroad as uniquely Vietnamese art form. The art of puppetry can only be found in Vietnam. Darting back to the the Ly Dynasty, around the end of 2nd century, the art is a product of the wet rice culture of the Red River Delta, Rach Village in Hanoi and Nguyen Xa Village in Nam Dinh Province, Thach That and Dao Thue Villages in Hanoi and Nguyen Xa Village in Thai Binh Province are some of the earliest known centers of this art. The surface of a pool of water is the performing area, which serves not only to hide the puppeteers and the puppet’s strings but also to create a reflective stage providing natural amplification for the singing puppeteers accompanied by percussion music and fire crackers. The stage, constructed of bamboo, resembles a traditional village communal house, where villagers gather for important events. Because of its special stage, this art also needs unique "actors". The 28-45 centimeter puppets are made from the woods of the fig tree, which is said to be light and tough. The figures as then painted with seven layers of waterproof paint. As with many other performing arts, puppet characters are colorfully made up. The plays generally use a selection of some 30 traditional repertoires , which include Teu Dancing, Buffalo Fighting, Ploughing, Duck Tending and Fox Hunt, Boat Racing, Dragon Dancing, and Chess Playing, all of which portray either daily agricultural life or the wars of such national heroes the Trung Sisters and Tran Hung Dao against foreign invaders. When the curtain is raised, the stock character Teu, the village buffoon with a plump body and a humorous smile, enters onto the stage in an unfastened shirt showing his round abdomen and introduces the play with a song. After that, he sets off a string of firecrackers. Then the main play begins: an old fisherman is sitting in a boat dropping his line into the water and a fish rises to the bait and squirms: or a little boy sits atop his buffalo and plays the flute. Such scenes need flexibility and skill to portray” I’ve gone through many rural areas of Vietnam and seen rural life reflected in the shows. It’s given me a better understanding of the cultural relationship between the people and waterways here” says Naomi Liner, an Australian visitor in Hanoi. “Traditionally, puppeteers go through an initiation and swear not to reveal their professional secrets. Therefore they don’t share experiences and new repertoires, which would help the tradition develop.” “ What I like most is the way Vietnamese artists are able to control their puppets under the water, it’s a clever art” says Stefan Goedhart from Holland. Behind the stage, puppeteers, both male and female, stand waist-deep in the water, manipulating the puppets on the water’s surface through a system of strings and poles below the waterline. Puppeteer Do Thuy Duong, from the Thang Long Water Puppets Theatre, admits that she often has to resort to drinking hot water and applying mashed ginger to her half- submerged body when the outside temperature dips below 12 C . Besides the puppeteers, who hide themselves behind the curtains, other performers in the troupe sing cheo ( traditional Vietnamese opera) and play music with eymblas, flutes, drums and wooden bells.” I like the Vietnamese folk music played in puppet shows. It’s so sweet” Liner says. However the swelling melodies and cacophonous sounds attention to the stage, as traditionally performances would take place in a large open area outside. Today, besides many traditional repertoires, people have created hundreds of modern sketches which reflect everyday life day, or narrate foreign dairy tales to add some variety. The traditional art has proved popular with tourists. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi proudly boasts that its 250-seat theatre has been full every day for all three daily performances for a decade. However, maintaining the tradition is not necessarily that easy.” Each complete puppet cost 100,000 VND ($6) to make. Each sketch requires between five and seven puppets. It soon adds up, particularly in rural areas” says Nguyen Van Trai, head of Dong Ngu puppet have to repeat the old repertoires again-to reuse the existing puppets.” Meanwhile, Nguyen Van Nghi, head of Dao Thuc Puppet Group, says that the isolation of local groups is what has led to a lack of innovation.” Traditionally, puppeteers go through an initiation and swear not to reveal their professional secrets. Therefore they don’t share experiences and new repertoires, which would help the tradition develop” Nghi say. Thang Long Theatre, the most developed professional puppet group, also went through difficulties around 1987-1988 when electronic media such as video and TV began to become common and puppetry and many other traditional performing arts faced a hard time. Tickets would not sell, most of artists of the theatre left their jobs and the nine people who decided to stay had to work on the side to make ends meet. The appreciation of the audience is what motivates puppetry artists and now there are six professional puppet groups and about 30 amateur groups throughout the Red River Delta.” We are usually invited to traditional festivals for performances. In spite of the many difficulties, Hong Phong’s puppeteers try to maintain this art, the pride of our village” says Pham Van Phong, the oldest of the troupe in Hong Phong Village. “We’re very excited when the theatre is packed with people. However, foreigners seem keener on this art than Vietnamese. The number of foreigners is huge for each performance” says Nguyen Dang Tien, a 32-years-old puppeteer at Thang Long Theatre.
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