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Traditional water puppetry looks to contemporary themes as it seeks young audiences

As courtly music played, a golden dragon emerged from the water, spurting flaming gas from its mouth. Two kylins, swimming frantically, vied to catch a colourful ball. Then, suddenly, a mischievous fox appeared and grabbed two farmers' ducks.

Preschool students at Era Angels Kindergarten School in HCM City welcome a water puppetry show recently before the new wave of COVID-19 spread through the country.

This lively scene was all part of the charming atmosphere of a Vietnamese water puppetry show, magically created by puppeteers standing waist-deep in water hidden behind a split bamboo screen, moving their creations to the music of traditional Vietnamese instruments like a bamboo flute. On the stage, which resembled a pagoda, were multi-coloured lanterns, spotlights and pink lotus flowers.

It was the first water puppetry show that I attended last month. I had always thought that such performances were just about a group of puppets dancing on water. But after the show ended, I realised I now had a much deeper understanding of the history of water puppetry. 

It taught me a lot about the special cultural value of this traditional Vietnamese art, which began in the 11th century in the villages of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. 

When the rice fields flooded, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play. They discovered that the water was an excellent medium for puppetry and that it could conceal the puppeteers’ rods and strings, as well as provide exciting effects like waves and splashes.

That’s why the original water puppet festivals were held in rice paddies, with a pagoda built on top to hide the puppeteers standing in the water.

Water puppetry later became popular in cities such as Hanoi and in other areas in northern Vietnam. Instead of a rice paddy, a two-square-metre pool of water was used as the stage "floor".  

Today, in HCM City, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Phuong Nam Theatre at the HCM City Museum of History, where I saw the show, is the only theatre offering water puppetry performances, beginning at 10am and 3pm every Saturday and Sunday at 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street in District 1.

However, due to the development of the pandemic in recent weeks, the theatre is temporarily closed, according to Thai Ngoc Hai, the head of the water puppetry team of Phuong Nam Theatre.

Hai said they only accept performances under contract but will strictly comply with the Ministry of Health’s guidance to wear masks, carry out frequent disinfection, maintain a safe distance, refrain from gatherings and make health declarations.

"When the pandemic situation is stable, we will reopen to operate according to schedule," Hai added.

The story about ‘‘driving away the fox to protect the ducks’’ intrigues preschool students watching a water puppetry show.

Declining popularity

Despite the positive contribution to the preservation of Vietnam’s intangible cultural values, water puppetry in HCM City is gradually disappearing.

Hai said the pandemic had affected the operation of theatres as the number of foreign visitors had fallen sharply and most local tourists were parents and their children. And very few students were going to the theatre to enjoy performances, even though tickets were only VND50,000 (US$2).

Ngoc Diep, a final-year student at the HCM City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said it was great to keep up with the times but traditional arts, especially water puppetry, should not be ignored.

At milk tea shops in the city, many young people queue for up to 20 minutes and are willing to spend VND40,000 (US$1.70) to VND80,000 (US$3.50 for a drink. Despite potential health problems, they love these drinks, no matter how much they cost.

Hoang Nhu, a junior at HCM City University of Education, said it was depressing that few young adults had interest in the traditional arts, and even view the cultural and artistic values of water puppetry lightly. 

Preserving the art form

Cá chép hoá rồng (Carps turn into dragons), the most must-see story at the Phuong Nam Theatre, is suitable for all ages. The theatre, however, usually chooses stories geared to different ages. 

With a child audience, for example, the puppeteers perform typical scenes featuring a water-spurting dragon, the dance of four sacred animals, two fans fighting over a ball, and a golden buffalo. Themes of love, friendship, self-respect, and honesty are typically highlighted.

Hai said that he hoped that young people could learn more about the country’s history, culture and lifestyle through the performances. 

A freshman at HCM City College of Economics, Truc Linh, noted that the country and people could be promoted through water puppetry, especially if performances were improved and discussions took place in social media. 

People's Artist Tran Ngoc Giau, president of the HCM City Theatre Association, said that besides offering fairytales, artists should research topically relevant news to create more positive interactions among audiences with the stories’ content.

Water puppetry should not just be entertaining but also reflect humanistic values, he said. Humorous stories should be full of meaningful thoughts to touch the hearts of young audiences.  

Struggle against hardship

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging all artists, traditional art theatres, particularly water puppet shows, have released unique and unprecedented creations to lure crowds back though their doors.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has launched a campaign to support theatres by allowing the best works to be staged at the Opera House.

Culture minister Nguyen Ngoc Thien said theatres must change and improve the quality of their performances.

"If you keep making and acting in the old way, please don't complain why audiences don't go to theatres. You (the theatres) under the culture ministry must be the leading art unit in changing thoughts about performances. It is necessary to invest and upgrade right from the steps of scripting, staging, and designing to make the show more beautiful, modern, and attractive," he said.

Following his advice, many theatres including traditional water puppet stages have held performances with quality and attractive works. Among them was the show Thân phận nàng Kiều (The Fate of Kieu) staged at the Vietnam Puppet Theatre last year that left a deep impression on the audience.

After the end of a show, the puppetry artists often say thank you and wave goodbye to the preschool audience. VNS Photos Phuong Pham

During the days of social distancing because of the pandemic, with performing arts activities in various forms suspended, the artists of the traditional water puppet stages still work hard to prepare for upcoming events.

They even bring water puppet shows to young audiences at schools. 

In the early days of last month before the new COVID-19 wave, students of Luong Dinh Cua Primary School in District 3, HCM City enjoyed an amazing show right on their schoolyard.

Nguyen Dat Su, vice-principal of the school, said the performance was an opportunity for the students to learn more about the arts imbued with the cultural identity of the nation.

Thanh Thao, deputy director of Youth Theatre which manages the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, the organiser of that performance told Tuổi Trẻ (Youth) newspaper that many years ago, the theatre conducted a programme to bring historical puppetry into schools.

"Especially for water puppetry, we often received invitations from international schools to perform on-site. Recently, along with the shows, these schools also invited us to organise workshops about traditional water puppetry to help students better understand the art," he said. 



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