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Music, firecrackers and smoke bring these dramas to life on a shimmering stage of water. Once performed on a village pond they now travel the world.
Water provides the magic and hides the mechanism of the puppet. In Vietnam today schools teach this art, once jealously guarded and passed down only from father to son.
Introducing Vietnamese waterpuppet performance
Performed on a village pond, the lake of a temple, or indoors in a purpose-built theatre, this ancient art is thriving in Vietnam. The stage is the water’s surface – puppets dive underwater and then appear to emerge from nowhere. Puppeteers work within the manipulation room behind the water stage. They stand up to their waists in water, up to ten metres from the puppet action, screened from the view of the audience by a bamboo or linen screen. They hold their puppets on long bamboo poles submerged beneath the water, manipulating the arms and heads with hidden strings. Larger puppets are supported on the surface of the water by large floats of lightweight wood; rudders aid in turning the puppets in the water. Other ingenious mechanisms exist for animating the more complex scenes involving the movement in formation of a number of puppets. These tend to be closely guarded secrets.
Vietnamese water puppetry has many characters, historical, legendary and mythical, such as the phoenix and the water spirits or fairies, but most abundant are those embodying ordinary peasants – fishermen, and duck tenders.
The skills that the puppeteer needs were once closely guarded. The tradition was passed from father to son; daughters were usually not taught because they might marry outside the village.
The puppets are carved from fig, a light, soft durable wood. Each puppet is between 30 and 100 cm tall, and weighs up to 5 kg. The body and lower limbs are usually made in one piece; the upper limbs have joints for movement. The submerged bases of the puppets are fitted with floats, the correct size and shape to control the level of submersion.
Traditional water puppetry used percussion instruments to maintain the rhythm of a performance. The main instruments are drums, bells, gongs, horns and shells. Firecrackers are widely used as sound effects. Although there are songs in some water puppetry scenes, rhythm plays the main role, rather than allowing the development of distinctive music of its own.
The scenes in waterpuppet theatre
Among the scenes that are standard in contemporary water puppet performances, there is a potential repertoire of 200 items. Usually 15 or 16 vignettes are shown in one performance.
- Teu, the jester and master of ceremonies
- Firecrackers, flag raising and fanfare
- An invitation to the spectators to take betel leaves and refreshment
- Dance of the fairies
- The dance of the four sacred creatures: dragon, unicorn, phoenix and giant tortoise
- The four rural occupations (farmers, frog catchers, duck catchers, weavers)
- The four castes
- Wrestling between two athletes
- Fight of the buffalo, horse race, boat race, seesaw game
- March of the troops, funeral march
- Dance of the immortals
- Rainmaking dragons
- Lions quarrelling over a ball
- Heroes from history the Truing sisters founding the nation AD40, Tran Hung Dao, 13th century, Ming soldiers, 15th century.
Particular scenes grew in popularity – they suited the range of movement possible by the puppets and the nature of performance taking place on the water. It is common to present scenes of simple emotive domestic activity followed by scenes of fast-moving action, for example:
- Weaving silk – a woman working at her loom stops to feed a baby brought in by her mother. The baby, having drunk her fill, is handed back to her mother and she resumes her work.
- Duck catchers – an old couple carry a basket of eggs on stage, these hatch into a flock of ducklings and the two old people try to tend the lively little creatures. A fox appears and watches the ducklings, is pursued and hides in a tree. It pounces on one duckling and carries it off in his mouth. The old couple chase the fox, capture and beat him.