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Puppetry makes a splash in France

Update: February, 21/2012 - 10:57

A water puppetry show is being staged by Frenchman Dominique Pitoiset, director of the Theatre National de Bordeaux en Aquitaine, and members of the Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre in Paris this month. Vuong Bach Lien reports.


Water world: French audiences says the water puppetry show encapsulates the soul of the Vietnamese countryside.
Only joking: Chu Teu, the jester.
Misty moment: The puppetry show Master of Water Puppetry narrates the evolution of Vietnamese water puppetry and the country's history. Photo courtesy of the Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre.

Development of Vietnamese water puppetry

Water puppetry is said to date back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Hong (Red) River Delta area of northern Viet Nam. Today's water puppetry is a variation on the Asian puppet tradition, a distinctive Vietnamese art which has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.

This year-long tour of Viet Nam's puppeteers in France is not the first time the country's water puppetry theatre has co-operated with a foreign partner. In fact, this art form was introduced abroad more than 30 years ago at the Water Puppetry Festival in Warsaw (Poland) in 1979. In 1980, Viet Nam sent 12 puppets to an exhibition in France which was organised by the French newspaper L'Humanite. In 1984, artists from the Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre performed in France, Italy and the Netherlands to great success. The director of the Mulhouse municipal theatre in France said: "Viet Nam water puppetry amazed our audiences." Since then, French people have called the art of Vietnamese water puppetry: "The soul of the Vietnamese countryside."

From 1987 to date, artists from the theatre have staged hundreds of shows in almost 20 countries and territories including France, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Japan, India, Sweden, Britain, Colombia, Singapore, Egypt, Poland, Syria, Taiwan, Morocco, Croatia and Slovenia. — VNS

A waist-deep basin stretching eight metres wide by seven metres long sits on the stage while a large screen above the stage features video projections.

The show begins with the noisy sounds of Ha Noi streets, with thousands of motorbikes, the primary means of transport for the Vietnamese people, flashing across the projection screen. But the chaos and noise are rapidly replaced by the peaceful landscapes of lakes at the foot of grandiose mountains as the sounds of melodious bird songs ring out along with the murmurs of soft wind.

Amid the quiet ambience, a lucid singing voice suddenly resounds. Puppeteers dressed in waders appear in the basin wielding puppets supported by long bamboo sticks. The ballet of colourful lacquered wooden figurines "floating" on water begins. A shifty-eyed snake appears on the surface of the water, followed by glittery golden fish, dragons spitting fire, a tortoise taking a walk and gracefully dancing goddesses. The atmosphere of the Vietnamese countryside, with rice fields ploughed by farmers and old men fishing, is restored little by little.

With short scenes performed in the basin, which is filled with 25,000 litres of water, Vietnamese comedians and musicians restore the magic of their ancestral culture.

Hundreds of spectators at the Claude Levi-Strauss Theatre at the Paris-based Quai Branly museum watch the performance attentively and are carried along by the movement of the puppets in anticipation of what is still to come.

The puppet show entitled Le Maitre des Marionnettes (Master of Water Puppetry) is staged by French artist Dominique Pitoiset, director of the Theatre National de Bordeaux en Aquitaine (TNBA) (National Theatre of Bordeaux in Aquitaine) and performed by nine Vietnamese puppeteers from the Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre (VNWPT).

The show will be staged in Paris through February before moving on to other regions of France in June and December. It delighted thousands of spectators in southwestern France in November when it was performed at the TNBA

Twenty years ago, Pitoiset arrived in Viet Nam for the first time and was attracted by the country's traditional water puppetry after meeting with artists from the VNWPT. Fascinated by the strange fusion of the country's long-standing traditions and contemporary customs, he decided to spend time learning about the origins of this unique art form.

The co-operation between Pitoiset and the VNWPT began in October 2010 when Pitoiset and his team visited Viet Nam to discuss a potential project with Vietnamese artists. Last February, he returned to select the puppeteers and singers who would perform in the show, and to work on the puppet designs with local painters. In May, he made the final selections of Vietnamese artists who began rehearsing the play under Pitoiset's direction at the VNWPT. He returned in August for additional rehearsals. Pitoiset himself chose the songs and the poems that would be performed in the show by People's Artist Thanh Hoai.

"I am happy to have the chance to work with talented Vietnamese artists from a national theatre company. The play wouldn't be possible without their contributions and their creative minds," says Pitoiset at a press conference in Ha Noi before the show moved on to France.

The Vietnamese artists spent two weeks rehearsing at the TNBA before the premiere on November 15 to a full 1,000-seat house. The artists won tremendous applause and were called back for three stage bows by the delighted audience.

The show continued in Paris and won admiration from audiences.

"I had the opportunity to see water puppetry a few years ago," says audience member Elodie Rivaud, who works in Paris. "But this time, I was really impressed by the show."

Some of the performances are being dedicated to children.

According to Nguyen Tien Dung, deputy director of the VNWPT and the head of the delegation of Vietnamese artists, everyone in the troupe was worried about the childrens' show before it was staged, and wondered how the young audience would react. Before the show, the director reassured the artists: "If the children are noisy when you perform today, just remember that it's normal because they are children, and children are often noisy." But to his surprise, the children were very quiet and attentive to the performance.

"At the end of the show, the director says happily: "The children have never been so quiet, they were very interested."

After each performance, the troupe met with children to tell them about Viet Nam in general and water puppetry in particular.

"For us, this co-operation is a meeting with an amazing country, a new language, and the original puppets. I am glad of this co-operation, so that the Vietnamese traditional art will not totally disappear and risk being forgotten in modern life," says Pitoiset.

Promoting Viet Nam's image

Through several traditional stories of legendary dragons and farmer's lives in the countryside, the one and a half-hour contemporary play Le Maitre des Marionnettes introduces traditional Vietnamese culture to French audiences, with a focus on highlighting the evolution of the Vietnamese puppetry tradition, one of the oldest theatrical forms in the world, and discussions about Viet Nam's history.

Through his research, Pitoiset learned that Buddhist priest Van Hanh created this art form centuries ago after travelling and observing Viet Nam's countryside.


Golden moment: The traditional image of Viet Nam's golden tortoise is being recreated in France for the Master of Water Puppetry show, which is touring France. Photo courtesy of the Viet Nam National Water Puppetry Theatre
Craning their neck: A scene from the show Master of Puppetry featuring the image of a crane.
"The story that we tell is the 1,000-year-old story of Ha Noi, since the city has just celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. We tell about the evolution of the country through the story of this master of water puppetry, and through the characters. We can see what Viet Nam is today, the development of a city, and the change of the people's habits in this region," says Patrick Pernin, deputy director of TNBA.

The puppet show is performed with traditional Vietnamese music in the background, including cheo (traditional music), quan hoï (folk songs), as well as a poetry recitation by People's Artist Ngo Thi Thanh Hoai.

For the first time in a performance, the public can see the puppeteers as they control the puppets. They're not being hidden behind a screen as they generally are in Viet Nam.

"This can help the audience understand how the artists manipulate puppets, and how original the water puppetry art form is," says Dung. He says the show is still imbued with Vietnamese cultural identity even though it was being staged by a French director.

"What makes the show interesting is the fact that Viet Nam's water puppetry is being seen through the lens of the French director. He staged the show in order to help French people imagine Viet Nam as a peaceful country, a wet rice civilisation in Southeast Asia," says Dung.

"We are proud to have the opportunity to contribute to preserving and developing the country's precious traditional art form," says Dung. — VNS

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