Vietnamese puppetry in global spotlight

Nhip Dieu Que Huong (Homeland Melody), staged by the Viet Nam Puppetry Theatre, won the grand prize at the Harmony World Puppet Carnival in Bangkok last year – the highest international award that Vietnamese puppetry performers have ever received.

Winning show: A scene from Nhip Dieu Que Huong (Homeland Melody), which won the top prize at the largest international gathering of puppets and their owners.

The puppets have been packed off to Viet Nam, and their costumes are already in storage, but the Viet Nam Puppetry Theatre's artists are still unable to stop smiling.

Days after the Homeland Melody won the top prize in Thailand; the performance is still the only topic of conversation among the artists.

The team's success at the festival is a reminder that people from all over the world are stirred by the same fundamental emotions.

One would think that in the modern world, where films, stand-up comedy, live music shows and other cultural events are more sought after and are easily accessible on our smartphones, the sight of puppets on strings, and dancing dolls depicting age-old tales would be rendered passe, but every puppet show at the carnival in Bangkok was packed.

Mesmerising: Homeland Melody also won the audience's prize at the ASEAN and China puppetry festival held in China in 2013.

The heroes in the stories were cheered, villains booed at and the young and old alike were in awe of the puppets and the ingenuity of the puppeteers. Culture lovers and tourists awaited each act with anticipation and those who were seated were soon outnumbered by the audience crowding the wings, happy to be a part of this huge event.

The children loved it, even though they belong to a generation that has been raised on the Internet and is used to seeing greater special effects onscreen. They too thought that there was something magical about the moving dolls and mannequins, which seem eerily human.

The first few rows were filled with children from various nationalities, eager to volunteer or simply content with gazing in wonder at some of the characters depicted on stage.

Among them was a three-metre devil from Iran that required audience participation to be subdued; a 15-centimetre doll from New Zealand, who was able to draw a tiny portrait of the delighted audience members; and snakes, lizards, turtles and dragons from Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese troupe also took advantage of the evening dusk to stage a mesmerising celebration of daily rural life.

Figures clad in black and barely discernable to the audience, constantly changed the costumes of the puppets, and audience got to see scarecrows moving supernaturally across the stage, while chickens, with human hands used as feet danced and laid eggs.

"With scenes depicting the daily life of Vietnamese farmers in the northern villages, Homeland Melody features their joy of labour, whilst praising the love of family and spiritual life," said Nguyen Tien Dung, the play's director.

"The scenes are connected together harmoniously in combination with the puppeteers' performances of dance and singing folk songs, including cheo (traditional opera), quan ho (love duet) and chau van (ceremonial singing). This combination has created a flexible and consistent continuity among the puppets (which are made of rattan and bamboo) and the artists," Dung added.

The show, which was staged by theatre artists, including Thuy Trang, Tien Dung, Kim Thoa, Thu Hoan, The Long, The Hien, Ngoc Triu and Thu Huong, competed among more than 120 entries from more than 80 countries across five continents to become the winner and be awarded the grand prize of the festival.

During the carnival, Homeland Melody (which also won the audience's prize at the ASEAN and China puppetry festival held in China in 2013) was the only repertoire to be awarded.

According to the Executive Producer, head of the Organising Committee and also a member of the jury, Rod Petrovic, this was the most attractive and impressive performance among all entries.

"Homeland Melody is a true Vietnamese show, with animated puppets made from bamboo and rattan," said Petrovic.

"Using these materials to make puppets is a clever choice because bamboo and rattan are materials usually used in Viet Nam and which help people in reminiscing about the country. The show evoked strong and different feelings about the ordinary life of the Vietnamese people and the country's scenery. It was a harmonious combination of music, the movement of puppets, and their changes on stage," he remarked.

The show's director and puppeteer Dung shared his feelings on seeing the audience experience the different emotions of surprise, excitement and admiration.

"It was the first time we attended such a large gathering. We were quite nervous as we had brought to the festival, a play in puppetry, a long-standing and thriving art in many countries, instead of our country's hallmark water puppetry. But we got it (the top prize)," Dung said.

"That was the greatest and the most memorable period I have ever experienced in my life. When they called the name Viet Nam, I couldn't believe it, but the massive cheering from the audience made me burst with happiness and national pride," he added.

For the foreign audience, Homeland Melody gave them a lot of different emotions from daily life and human and rustic scenery. Overall, the play's aim is to connect the harmonious, attractive and lively music to the movement of the puppets and the change in their rhythmic pace on stage.

A Thai national, who saw the show said, "It was very surprising and interesting. The puppeteers seem to have golden hands. They manoeuver the puppets' movements so skilfully and harmoniously and in such great detail. That is how lifeless puppets become lively, reflecting emotions of love and anger, benevolence and righteousness."

Found in 2008, the Harmony World Puppet Carnival is a major playground for puppetry artists from all over the world that helps them showcase their skills. This year, the festival's five jurors joined the shows as members of the audience, instead of formally sitting in the juror's seats.

Rich puppetry history

Daily life: Scenes from Homeland Melody.

Viet Nam's traditional puppetry has a rich history that dates back to about 1,000 years. It vividly reflects the pure Vietnamese soul through music, costumes, customs and farming.

More than ten centuries ago, it was nurtured and created in an atmosphere of festivities, and water puppetry, with its lively depiction of labour and the daily life of Vietnamese farmers that has gradually evolved into a unique art form among Viet Nam's folk stage arts, which is closely associated with its lakes and rivers.

An old historical book record indicates that after moving the capital to Thang Long, King Ly Thai To (1009-1028) ordered that an annual swimming competition be held on the Cai River (or Red River). Every year, the king would arrive in his royal palanquin to watch the competition.

Up till now, the Sung Thien Dien Linh stone slab in Long Doi Son Pagoda in the Ha Nam Province, which was built in 1121 under the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong (1066-1127) is reliable evidence of the growing performance of water puppets under the Ly dynasty (1009-1225). It describes different water puppet shows depicting fairy dances, phoenix dances and golden dragons spitting water, imagery that is very familiar to us today.

It has been 31 years since the first foreign performance tour of the Viet Nam Puppetry Theatre in 1984.

From staging hundreds of performances in more than 40 countries worldwide to attending international stage art festivals, Vietnamese puppeteers have always gained recognition from foreign audiences. Many of them consider the art form as a cultural envoy, bearing love, happiness and peace to their country.

In 2004, water puppet shows staged by artists from the Viet Nam Puppetry Theatre won resounding applause at the international art festivals in Morocco and Croatia. They were also highly appreciated at the International Festival in Barcelona, Spain, and during the Ha Noi Culture Week in Geneva, Switzerland. The troupe also took part in a performance for children in Spain.

As the leading professional puppetry theatre in the country, the Viet Nam Puppetry Theatre was established under the aegis of President Ho Chi Minh nearly six decades ago, and caters to different puppet art forms.

It has encouraged the art of water puppets, stick puppets, hand puppets and string puppets, and a contingent of noted artists, directors, playwrights, fine arts and plastic arts, sound and lighting specialists, who have been awarded many Orders and Medals, and other high distinctions by the State.

Following the grand prize for Homeland Melody, the theatre can be confident about the future development of Vietnamese puppetry. Surely, the art form is worth preserving.


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