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Fairy tales inspire water puppet show

Update: February, 05/2014 - 08:20

Round of applause: Puppeteers receive flowers and non-stop clapping from the audience after each Andersen fairy tale puppet show. — VNS Photos courtesy of Viet Nam National Puppetry Theatre

by Nguyen Khanh Chi

Non-stop applause fills the Claude Levi-Strauss theatre at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, as the plot from The Steadfast Tin Soldier comes to an end.

The tin soldier and pretty dancer disappear from the water surface. Immediately at the very spot, two red hearts emerge, seemingly representing their eternal love.

Almost a world away from what Danish author Hans Christian Andersen may have envisaged, his fairy tales have inspired Vietnamese artists to retell them using an unlikely medium - water puppetry.

His works have already inspired countless musicals, live-action and animated films but this is the first time the Viet Nam National Puppetry Theatre adapted three of Andersen's world renowned stories, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Ugly Duckling, and The Little Mermaid, for puppetry.

The theatre's ten performances in Paris on the final days of last year marked its debut in France and Europe. As many as 4,000 people flocked to see the shows which officially opened this year's Viet Nam Year in France.

Swan song: The swans get together near the end of The Ugly Duckling. The puppets are carved out of fig wood and painted with lacquer before having operating mechanisms placed inside.

Tales of adventure

"This is the first time that Viet Nam's water puppets have been used to adapt Western fairy tales and revive the traditional art. It requires each artist to be creative and breathe a new life and humanity into these works," said the theatre's deputy director, Nguyen Tien Dung.

"It's a very daring experiment," he said.

"The challenge is working out how to retell stories that Western audiences are so familiar with, whilst preserving the essence, language and characteristics of the Vietnamese unique art genre," he adds.

"Traditional art needs to be preserved, but it also needs to develop. No matter what form of art, its destination is the audience," said Dung, who is also a master puppetee.

Former director of the puppet theatre, Ngo Quynh Dao, is the brains behind the adaptation, which began in 2005. Two years later, his vision was brought to life, on stage.

However, it wasn't until the second international puppetry festival in Ha Noi in 2010 that the adaptation was catapulted into the spotlight. The show claimed three top prizes for best director, best puppet show and best graphic design.

"When I embarked on the project, many told me that it was too adventurous and it would struggle to succeed," says Dao.

"They did not believe in it, but I did."

Love story: The tin soldier and pretty dancer in The Steadfast Tin Soldier express their eternal love with hugs like human beings.

Dao says this is the reason why he had to assume the roles of director, scriptwriter and puppet designer.

"I chose tales that have water factors. With The Steadfast Tin Soldier, I even added water scenes and more theatrical elements. The written version has its own attraction which is different from what appears on stage," he said, adding "It's boring to see the doll and the soldier just stand and talk to each other."

Dao also believes his adaptations of Andersen's stories play on the various theatric elements of Vietnamese water puppetry.

"That's why I turned the paper doll into a ballet dancer and the little black bogey into a malicious character. A dancer will surely have plenty of moves, which also helps show off water puppetry art."

"Also, in the art of puppetry, the more puppets, the more entertaining the plot."

Although a bold move made by the senior puppeteer, audiences have responded overwhelming to the changes.

"The demon is jealous because the soldier and the ballet dancer love each other. In any love affairs, fights of jealousy make things dramatic and interesting," Dao says.

Fairy tail: A scene in The Little Mermaid, one of the three Andersen stories adapted in the show.

Ahead of the tour of France, Dao spent six months recreating 130 puppets used in the show because the old ones were worn out.

The puppets are carved out of fig wood and painted with lacquer before being completed with separate operating mechanisms placed inside.

"Fig wood is light but strong. Ideal for making puppets," says Dao.

Dao admits it was not easy when he first sat down to sketch Andersen's characters.

"It's hard for a Vietnamese to draw Western looks. Then I thought I would draw the puppets the way I imagined the characters. That's how I made it," he says.

"Many European artists have drawn Andersen's characters. I knew if I copied them, I would fail," he adds.

Tales of effort

Nine puppeteers operate and bring the puppets to life, using traditional techniques and a combination of powerful visual effects using fire, water and wide-ranging movements.

In one scene, stormy waves ravage the stage while the Tin Soldier battles fire-breathing dragons, only to be swallowed and escape through a fish's stomach. By contrast, the surface becomes calm as a princess and mermaids sing and dance.

Deputy director Dung believes the Parisian stage is an ideal place to depict these scenes.

"The Quai Branly Museum is a best place in Paris for this kind of performance," says Dung.

"It's a great honour to perform at the Quai Branly Museum. It will also give us the opportunity to perform in other locations around France, as well as in Europe," he says.

No effort has been spared to make the show appeal to European audiences. Under an agreement between the theatre and its French partner, the show has been altered to meet the taste of Western audiences. All puppets have been replaced, background music is Western-themed and the surface of the water has been lowered.

"We normally perform in a one-metre-deep stage, here the water is only 50cm. The most difficult task for the whole troupe is to perform under a new stage," said artist Quy Quoc.

"We had to kneel down to control puppets."

"Furthermore, we have to make do with half number of performers, which means nine of us are in charge of the whole work load, normally designed for 18," Quoc added.

"Thus, we have to make sure we move harmoniously to manouvre the puppets during the show."

Slow success: The puppet show amused local audiences from the start. However, it wasn't until the second international puppetry festival in Ha Noi in 2010 that the adaptation was catapulted into the spotlight.

Cultural exchange

Andersen's fairy tales have now secured a place in Viet Nam's water puppetry, an art closely connected to the nation's rural tradition and wet-rice farming.

Those familiar with the art will not see the familiar images of Uncle Teu, rice farmers, duck rearing and fishing backed by folk music. Instead, they will witness ballet dancing, swans, snowfall and many classic icons embedded in Western fairytale culture.

Acts are presented using a contemporary style with harmonious musical pieces composed by French musician Henry Torgue that breathe fresh life into the traditional art form.

The show's popularity among Parisian audiences has helped revive interest in the art back home.

"It's been a good example of cross-cultural collaboration between Vietnamese culture (water puppets) and European culture (Andersen)," said Jean Luc Larguier, director of the France Interarts Riviera SA.

"Water puppetry that incorporates tales and characters from around the world will help accelerate dialogue between cultures about culture," says Larguier.

"That's the philosophy we embrace," he says.

Larguier, who first took Vietnamese water puppetry abroad in 1980, was in Ha Noi at the time the international puppet festival took place. He had come to see Andersen's tales. Impressed with the adaptation, Lacguier immediately contacted the theatre.

The French art expert described the show was being performed at an international level with a sophisticated use of lights, music and sound.

"Andersen's co-operation opens new directions and promotes 'contemporary creations' in this traditional art. This is a necessary innovation to expand the appeal of Viet Nam's water puppets," says Larguier.

With the show already a standout success in Paris, more audiences and collaborators are eagerly awaiting performances, with Interart hoping to organise annual tours of three-week performances for the next three years.

Lacguier pursuing a project with Viet Nam's Water Puppetry Theatre on an adaptation of child favourite, The Adventures of Pinocchio by the Italian writer Carlo Collodi.

"We have proved Viet Nam's water puppetry can tell all kinds of stories. Now we have to do more and show it to people all over the world, he said." — VNS

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