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Water puppetry greets Hans Anderson

Update: May, 18/2014 - 21:29
Birds of a feather: A scene from The Ugly Ducklings.

Ngo Quynh Dao has officially retired from his profession, but he continues to pursue his art and take it to new places with a passion that borders on religious devotion, Huyen Vu finds.

Stories by Danish author Hans Andersen – The Nightingale, The Brave Tin Soldier, The Ugly Ducklings and The Mermaid, have been very familiar to everyone's childhood. For the first time, these fairy tales were told in the language of water puppetry, which was performed on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Viet Nam and France last December.

Replacing the scenes of daily activities of rice civilization such as cultivating or tending ducks, which are typical of Vietnamese water puppetry, are the scenes of dancing girls, lakes with swans or falling snow. Especially, the performances have been enthusiastically welcomed by both Vietnamese and French audience.

Such unique combination between famous Western stories and Viet Nam's traditional form of art is the brainchild of artist Ngo Quynh Dao, former director of Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre.

Dao has spent over 55 years of his life on puppetry career. While talking passionately about puppets, this 72-year-old artist could not hide his enthusiasm with his clear strong voice. It seems that puppetry has become part of his flesh, so even after retirement Dao is concerned about Viet Nam's puppetry.

A leg to stand on: The Tin Soldier wades into adventurous waters.

Born in 1942, Dao is the son of renowned artist Ngo Manh Quynh, who dedicated his whole life to painting and depicting puppets. At the age of 5, he was introduced to materials for creating puppets such as oil-paint and other toxic paints, which might cause allergy, ulceration or oedema to users but can be very effective in preserving colours and preventing mould or woodworm. After being exposed to these toxic chemicals for a long time, Dao seems to have gradually become addicted to their strong smell.

He honestly admits that as a youth his ambition was to become a soldier and directly join the resistance war to protect the country with an ardent determination. But then all of his youthful eagerness and hopes turned to dust and ashes, when he was declared unsuitable to join the army on grounds of health. Dao was then reluctant to follow the career that he had taken up at a very young age. With the support of his family, he packed and headed to Czechoslovia to study puppetry.

The greatest obsession of this young student who was living half way across the world from home during his days of studying hard was selective examinations. "If I had failed for the first time, I will have to repeat the course. If I had failed the test for the second time, I will have been expelled." Because of his great efforts and passion, Dao ultimately graduated with flying colours before returning home.

Back in Viet Nam, he was assigned a position in Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre. His office was located in the precinct of the theatre; but in that dilapidated, musty, moss-grown room, Dao was completely absorbed in creating nearly 4,000 puppets using manual method.

A master at work: Artist Ngo Quynh Dao took up with excitement the challenge of telling famous Western stories with Vietnamese puppets. Photos courtersy of Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre

The toughest periods were the rainy seasons when water overflowed into his office. The old artist hastily had to remove his puppets to dry places while he had to stand still with his feet soaking in cold water, totally absorbed in creating and carving to finish his work on time.

Then, one day, the idea of renovating water puppetry came to his mind when he met Jean-Luc Larguier, the director of Interarts Riviera SA Organisation (France). Larguier suggested using water puppetry to tell other kinds of stories instead of traditional stories.

After that meeting, Dao spent many sleepless nights thinking on how to combine both Vietnamese form of art and Andersen's famous fairy tales.

"However, the shows of Andersen's stories were performed in just several days, and then the puppets were kept in store for nearly ten years," Giao says.

The eyes of the old artist twinkled with happiness when recalling that in 2010, the theatre had the puppets repaired and had invited the Andersen puppet show to participate in the 2nd International Water Puppetry Festival in Ha Noi. Through the skilled hands of the artists, the lifeless puppets truly became lively actors who could express their own feelings.

The performance received the gold medal for not only the play itself but also its director and actors.

"My happiness was only complete when I was invited to take part in the project of restoring the performances of Andersen's fairy tales so that it could be introduced to the French audience in 2013. To me, no matter how many awards I have received, the performance is considered dead if it cannot be brought to the audience," Giao says.

Filled with such happiness, the old artist kept working industriously on depicting the tin soldiers, the ugly ducklings or dancing girls from 8am until 7pm during the hot summer days of June. Each puppet was no longer a lifeless piece of wood to him, but had become characters with its own life and emotions the details of which were meticulously engraved by Dao.

Unfortunately, he suffered many serious illnesses during those days; however, the passion for puppetry was stuck so deep in his blood that he could not come over it. Dao did not follow doctors' advice about putting his work aside to take rest for a while. He could not bear the thought of not being able to touch his chisel, his brushes or his tin soldier puppets for a few days.

"I was staying in hospital during the days the performances of Andersen's fairy tales were shown in France. I seemed to get much better on hearing they were warmly welcomed at Claude Levi-Strauss Theatre. Recently, they have planned to go on tours this July and December, which has made me recover from my illness completely," he says with a smile.

Each puppet that was created has taken a part of his strength, just like a silkworm industriously spews out thread.

"To me, puppetry is as sacred as religion, which, however, is worshipped by good hearts only," Dao says. "I have an advise for the next generation: If one chooses puppetry in search of fame or high income but does so without passion and love for puppets, one had better stop. Art cannot be concealed with deception. We are artists who control puppets, so do not let the puppets counter-control us and turn us into inanimate humans." — VNS

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