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An ‘avant-garde' take on religious performance

Update: November, 08/2015 - 02:17
Little help from my friends: The medium is flanked by her two assistants, who help her to change costume throughout the performance.

Outside the usual scope of performances tourists attend - mostly water puppetry - exists the Viet Theatre's artistic interpretation of len dong, a traditional ritual in which a medium is posessed by several deities. Peter Cowan reports.

When I was first asked to watch a performance of a 'traditional Vietnamese religious ceremony', my reaction was confused and sceptical. Coming from the United Kingdom, where anything to do with religion is about as entertaining as having teeth pulled, made me wonder what was in store.

However len dong (translated as 'going into a trance') is unlike anything a Westerner is likely to have experienced in a church or cathedral.

The ceremony centres around a medium becoming possessed by several of 36 deities. The ritual itself involves music, singing, dancing and costumes that put the medium into a trance, where he or she can be possessed by the deities. The ceremony can last up to seven hours and is performed to bring good fortune to practitioners and those who attend the ceremony. The practice was banned in Viet Nam up until 1987 [one year after the country introduced a renewal policy] as it was seen as superstitious, but since then restrictions have been relaxed.

The performance of Tu Phu or Four Palaces I attended on October 20 at Cong Nhan Theatre in Ha Noi is the brainchild of director Viet Tu and produced by Viet Theatre. It refers to the four palaces of the deities of indigenous Vietnamese religion.

Tu said he had been disappointed with the cultural experiences available to visitors in Ha Noi.

"Tourists had nothing to see, only water puppets. I wanted to do something different."

Entranced: Elaborate costumes, singing and dancing all serve to send the medium into a state of trance.

The performance began with a crisply shot video playing on the screen with slow, bass heavy and mesmerising music. The medium, her two assistants and a band that included drums, a bamboo flute, a 16 string zither and two singers were on stage with two crane statues on either side.

Phan Hai Linh, the production manager, designed the set with the aim of giving it the feel of a traditional temple or pagoda, an impressive feat given it was all made by hand.

The medium began the performance as one deity and changed her flamboyant costumes as she switched between three deities. These changes were accompanied by a change in tempo to the music, with the versatile band ranging from a frenetic beat to a more serene sound at will.

As well as being an auditory experience the performance was visually striking, with the medium's costumes dazzling and her dancing majestic.

The performance ended with the medium coming out into the audience and throwing sweets to wish good luck for all those in attendance.

In a word the 45 minute performance was mesmerising. The combination of music and visual stimulus made for a beautiful performance and was certainly unlike anything I could have expected.

Tu studied Len dong for three years and spent one year preparing Four Palaces. He hopes to continue showcasing interesting and traditional culture to foreign visitors to Viet Nam.

"Art is about bringing back feelings," Tu said.

Lucky sweets: At the end of each perofrmance, the medium throws sweets out for good luck. — Photos viettheatre.com

He hopes that tourists who see the show are moved and take home positive memories of Viet Nam.

He calls the style of the show "traditional avant-garde" in an effort to portray something of traditional Viet Nam while also providing an experience that foreign tourists can relate to.

Tu seems to have achieved this as the audience seemed engaged, with both the French Ambassador to Viet Nam Jean-Noel Poirier and Japanese designer Kenzo Takada leaving glowing comments on the performance.

Tu relies on his audience's to spread the word about Four Palaces as he purposefully hasn't marketed the show extensively. He hopes people will come to see the performance and judge it on its merits.

"Others can talk about it, not me. I'm not the audience."

Four Palaces was striking from a visual and auditory standpoint, with the live band a particular highlight. Packed into 45 minutes it can fit any tourists' schedule, and with 36 deities to get through, the show has longevity. — VNS

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