Culture, Lifestyle, Ludotheque, Multiculture, On Stage, Our People

The incomparable water puppets

Vietnamese company Thang Long (translation: Flying Dragon), better known as the Water Puppet Theatre, is still much loved by those who have been lucky enough to appreciate them.

 

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Armando Reyes

 

This ancient cultural institution’s main headquarters sit in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city.

The truth is that the Vietnamese Water Puppetry Theatre is a unique spectacle in a world which calls into question the skills, strengths and abilities of the puppeteers.

The secrets of puppet manipulation are passed only from generation to generation. The puppets themselves can span a height of 50 centimetres and weigh up to 15 kilograms and so require puppeteers at the peak of their physical fitness, with skills bordering on perfection. The puppets are carved out of water-resistant fig wood and have a lifespan of three to four months.

A pond of muddy water prevents curious eyes seeing the string mechanisms which control the puppets, whether they are characters acting out scenes of everyday life in rural Vietnam or  mythical creatures, such as dragons and unicorns, or even kings and other historical figures from the Indo-Chinese country.

Background changes are accompanied by a band of musicians, singers and instrumentalists, who embellish and compliment the stories, plays and performances, ranging from the imaginary to current, topical issues.

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The scenes performed by the puppet theatre also involve a number of rituals, such as the drumming festival, which acts as a prelude to Teu, a popular puppet embodying the typical qualities of the Vietnamese people, as well as the dance of the fairies and the dance of the ‘Four Sacred Creatures’ (dragon, lion, turtle and phoenix).

Although the puppeteers are standing behind a screen and audiences cannot really see the mechanisms hidden beneath the water surface, they perform incredible movements.

Dragons, for example, will expel fire from their mouths, butterflies will fly and young men will ride a water buffalo while playing the flute.

The Indo-Chinese water puppets started out in life as moving figures with magical powers, and were placed in rice crops to ward off wild animals and bad weather.

It is said that the first puppets emerged around one thousand years ago, in the Red River Delta in Vietnam. More specifically, they emerged from an area near Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, where, incidentally, the most prestigious theatre of this kind operates.

This art form has evolved over centuries to become one of the world’s most original, innovative and unique shows.

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Since its foundation in 1969, the art form has adhered faithfully to Hanoi’s Thang Long Company (Hanoi Flying Dragon), when it was introduced in Havana with a group of 19 highly skilled artists.

The Vietnamese call this particular style of theatre “puppets that dance on water”, and it has become a part of this Asian country’s cultural heritage, a fact that has been included as part of Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

The artists and their puppets have travelled to more than 40 different countries on five continents. They have a record of testimonies relating to performances which took place during the Tran dynasty (1225-1400), an age of splendour, when culture flourished. The following comments about this genre of theatre are attributed to the founder of this dynasty, King Tran Thái Tông (1218-1277): “The world can clearly see that these wooden puppets depend on string mechanisms to create movement.

They can move and dance like humans, although they will stop when the strings are loosened.”

(Translated by Marie-Thérèse Slorach – Email: marietherese.slorach@gmail.com)

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