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Art & craft of pulling the right strings

Update: March, 24/2015 - 17:18
Balancing act: Artist Nguyen Xuan Long from Thang Long (middle) shows studens how water puppets are manipulated. — Courtesy Photo of Ha Noi Culture Fund

A project wherein students study, perform and research traditional arts has the potential to be a cultural breakthrough. Le Huong reports.

The puppet was not behaving.

"When I want it to turn this way, it does the opposite," said exasperated puppeteer Do Thi Hien.

However, the third-year student of the Ha Noi Foreign Trade University was not complaining. She was having fun and learning a lot of things

"Every move is so hard under the water," Hien said.

"After I put on these water-proof overalls and stepped into the water tank, I found that it sticks to the body and is quite heavy. The puppet is extremely hard to control."

Hien and several of her peers from other universities and colleges are livening up usually quiet Sunday mornings at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre in downtown Ha Noi.

Excited squeals and laughter resounded in the empty theatre on a cool Sunday morning last week as the students from different universities and colleges in the capital city received training that would enable them to put on a water puppetry show on their own.

Hats off: A young artisan makes a bamboo conical hat in Chuong Village, where a group of students will carry out research and learn the skill under a newproject. — VNA/VNS Photo Trong Dat

The project, initiated by the Ha Noi Culture Fund, is breaking new ground in efforts to preserve the nation's unique traditions and arts.

Do Van Binh, another third-year student of the Ha Noi Foreign Trade College, bent his back and focused on moving a stick submerged in the water, trying to control his puppet, a fox, which had a key role to play in a short drama called Danh Cao Bat Vit (Chasing a Fox, who Catches Ducks).

He was struggling, like Hien and others, and, like them, enjoying himself thoroughly.

"This is the first time I have played the role of a puppeteer. I used to be entranced by water puppetry shows in my village in HF6ng YeE2n Province when I was small. I never realised that controlling puppets is such a challenging task."

BECnh and his friends were first told of the history of the art and then made to practise basic water puppetry skills under the guidance of two artists of the theatre.

HieE0n said it was an eye-opener for her that the art required so many skills, including acting, keeping time with music, singing and co-ordinating one's action with that of others.

"Now I understand why it's a unique folk art and why Vietnamese puppetry has become famous all over the world," she said.

'Reality project'

The students are participating in the first activity of a "reality project" called Ve Nguon (Returning to Origins). It offers young students in HaF8 NoE4i a chance to learn and practise eight intangible national heritages between March and May this year.

"This is a series of activities following the Exploring World Heritage Sites in HaF8 NoE4i contest that we launched last December," said Nguyen Viet Chinh, an official with the fund.

"The contest gathered hundreds of competitors from Ha Noi, HCM City and other provinces throughout the country, 80 per cent of whom were young people. This shows us that today's youth are very interested in traditional culture and heritage."

Chinh said the organisers selected a small group of up to 15 students for each art and research activity. These include water puppetry, ca tru (ceremonial singing), xam (songs by blind buskers) singing, cheo (traditional opera), making to he (toy figurine from glutinous rice dough) and some other handicrafts.

"We want to keep each group small though we received more than 100 applications for two first activities from individuals and collectives around the city. We want every participant to experience the art in a deep way.

"Each art requires different skills and we select participants for each group accordingly, assessing their suitability.

"For example, for water puppetry, we give priority to students with good health, demonstrate good control over puppets and can act and sing well."

Encouraging results

So far, the students have not disappointed, and have risen to the occasion.

"Their capabilities are far beyond my expectations," exclaimed puppeteer Le Thu Huyen of the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre, who guided the group, "They are so naive and act rather well despite some starting clumsiness. If they have more time to practise, they will act well soon."

"I think such activities should have been organised long before," said Nguyen Hoang Tuan, director of the theatre.

"We should introduce folk arts widely among the youth so that they first understand, then love and then join hands in protecting our heritage."

Tuan said he was very happy to see a complete play performed by the students at the end of the training session.

"We should be proud of our students, who are so active, intelligent and creative. They can practise basic skills of the art after just one hour of training," he said,

"I strongly believe that they will spread their passion in the art soon to other friends then we'll have more young people watching us."

For the next activity in the project, another group of 15 students will join artists of the Thang Long Ca Tru Club in a meeting at the Quan De Temple on Hang Buom Street.

They will learn how to sing, play traditional instruments and then perform a song. Some students may write an essay to propose solutions to make the genre of ca tru more interesting for contemporary youth. They will also be encouraged to record their performance in a video clip.

The farthest destination in the series currently planned is Chuong Village on the western outskirts of Ha Noi, 30km from the city centre, where students will learn how to make traditional conical hats with bamboo.

The two festivals chosen in the series are held at the Voi Phuc and West Lake temples.

The first event is organised annually on the 9th-10th of the second lunar month at Voi Phuc Temple in today's Ngoc Khanh Ward.

The temple is believed to worship St Linh Lang who protected the western part of the ancient Thang Long citadel.

The second festival is held during the third lunar month at Tay Ho Temple, which is dedicated to Goddess Lieu Hanh, considered "Mother of all people".

The students will be introduced to historical and other facts about the sites and the festivals, including the rituals. Then they will join the preparations.

They will note down the customs followed at the festivals and conduct studies on changes that the events have undergone over time, highlighting attitudes, feelings and roles of people involved.

Having students directly learn and engage with the eight intangible cultural arts is a trial project, Chinh said.

"If it's effective, we'll organise the project every year. We may also design some programmes aimed at children, which would be even more challenging."

Challenging it might be, but the task would be well worth the effort, experts say.

Composer Thao Giang, director of Viet Nam Music Art Development Centre, a project partner, said: "Passing on to the youth our cultural treasures that need to be promoted in modern life is better than us preserving them in books, CDs and VCDs." — VNS

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