Puppets dancing on water

Puppets dancing on water

A Vietnamese troupe keeps an old and unique art form alive

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Each Vietnamese water puppet is carefully made by hand for the reenactment of rural scenes.
Each Vietnamese water puppet is carefully made by hand for the reenactment of rural scenes.
In many cultures, puppets have been used to tell stories and folktales. Most forms of puppetry involve dolls controlled by puppeteers performing on a stage. In Vietnam, that stage is a pool of water.

The 1,000-year-old art of water puppetry began when farmers put on shows to entertain villagers during the rainy season when their fields were flooded.

These days shows are performed indoors with puppeteers standing waist-deep in water. The Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe in Hanoi is one of Vietnam's best theatre groups in water puppetry. The troupe won first prize at the Hanoi International Puppetry Festival in 2010. It has also travelled around the world staging shows and now it is in Hong Kong.

Their shows are a mix of folktales and modern stories from the lives of farmers in rural Vietnam.

Gliding on the surface of the pool, the puppets act out such daily activities as farming, catching fish and frolicking in the river.

A group of musicians provides traditional live music.

Since the stage is a pool of water, the puppets can't be controlled by strings from above.

Instead, puppeteers move their puppets with poles and strings from behind a bamboo screen underneath a red pagoda set at one end of the pool. The puppeteers cannot be seen by the audience so the puppets seem to move on their own.

It's no easy task. It takes years of practice to learn to control the puppets. Puppeteers also have to endure standing in cold water for long periods. They stand in special clothing to keep dry.

The troupe's show employs more than 100 puppets: farmers, dancers, dragons, boats and animals. They range from 40cm to 80cm in length and can weigh up to 15kg. Each puppet was carved by hand from Vietnamese sung wood. They are covered with layers of waterproof lacquer.

Most spectators react with both amusement and wonder at the sight of the puppets as they come alive in the water.

"People can get very excited because they don't understand how the puppets can move so fast and in such a lifelike manner," said producer Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoc.

Yet the show does do more than just entertain. The troupe hopes to familiarise the audience with traditional Vietnamese lifestyles, customs and folklore.

Director Nguyen Hoang Tuan has been with the troupe since 1981. He saw his first water puppet show as a child.

A big part of his job is to keep the ancient art form authentic. "As director of a traditional arts theatre, my job is to preserve the art of water puppetry," he says.

"Water puppetry has been through many ups and downs, but it has managed to preserve its uniqueness without being mixed with other art forms or being too modernised," he adds.

"Although the stage for water puppet performances can be a man-made lake or a swimming pool these days, Vietnamese water puppetry is still imbued with the beauty of rural life and local farmers' honesty and optimism," he explains.

The Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe will stage shows in Hong Kong as part of the World Cultures Festival starting on Wednesday, November 2. A special pool will be built in front of the Cultural Centre Piazza for their performance.

Expect the folk songs and tales to transport you deep inside the Vietnamese countryside - against the glimmering backdrop of our city's towering skyline.

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