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Set designer makes mark in traditional theatre

Update: July, 03/2012 - 22:40


Devil's in the detail: Nguyen Dan Quoc works on costume designs. He has spent 50 years working as a stage designer at the Viet Nam Cheo Theatre. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh
by Viet Khue

A source of great happiness for decor designer Nguyen Dan Quoc's is his devotion to cheo (popular theatre) and to work with the country's most famous cheo artists.

At the age of 70, and after 50 years dedication, Quoc is among three cheo artists who were awarded the title People's Artist in May.

Holding the certificate of merit presented to him by State President Truong Tan Sang at a ceremony in the Ha Noi Opera House, he can't hide his smile. It was a cherished moment.

Quoc recalls he began work at the Viet Nam Cheo Theatre as a stage designer and costume designer in 1963, after he stopped working for the Viet Nam Animated Cartoons Studio.

"I was seduced by the pictures and paintings of the famous characters of the cheo show, along with the clowns, one of whom was a close friend of my father. I decided to study more about the cheo art," he says.

The job helped him to work with the country's most famous cheo artists, including People's Artists Nam Ngu, Diu Huong and Tran Bang, professor Hoang Van Cau and researcher Pham Dinh Trong. He could also work with several stage masters, such as Truc Duong, Hoc Phi and Tao Mat.

"I was grateful to learn from them," he says.

Quoc has designed the stages for 120 cheo shows, ranging from traditional to modern themes, and 4,000 costumes of artists. But Quoc says the numbers are not important. Making a contribution to improving the quality of the art is most important.

"Each cheo show is a lesson for me," confides Quoc. "What I learn is skill and creativity. I try to find a unique design for the stage of each show."

"What is important in cheo art is the theme and the content," he says.

The choice of colour is also very important in traditional costumes but he favours simplicity and elegance.

Quoc has written several books on cheo art, including My Thuat Cheo Truyen Thong (Traditional Cheo's Aesthetic) and 50 nam Trang Tri Cheo-Mot chang Duong Phat Trien (50 Years Devoted to the Design of Cheo Stage).

In particular, in 2009, he published his six-volume book with paintings of the stage and costumes he designed over the years. The book Dan Quoc voi Bo Tac Pham My Thuat Cheo (Decor Designer Dan Quoc with Cheo Fine Artworks) has been highly acclaimed.

Cheo researcher Tran Bang says: "It's the first time a decor designer has been able to write a book. I admire the passion in his heart and his belief in the immortality of cheo art."

"I hope the book will be widely read. It reflects the history of cheo over the last 40 years through paintings. The book would not be so well written in words," Bang adds.

Quoc is also known as a teacher at the Ha Noi Cinema and Theatre College where he trained many young stage designers over 10 years.

"What makes me most worried is that the generation of stage artists don't know much about the traditional art," Quoc says.

Some of his students have designed stages for State-level festivals but they don't know much about the traditional culture.

"People who take part in the festival find the stages monumental but I am not impressed. Traditional art is simple but very profound. It requires a stage designer to spend a lot of time researching and have original flare. We shouldn't imitate others cultures or borrow cultures from other countries."

Quoc's big hope is that cheo art will live forever.

"If we let cheo be forgotten, we will be found guilty by our ancestors and within our traditional culture," Quoc says. — VNS

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