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Art troupe preserves traditional theatre

Update: December, 20/2015 - 04:17
Making a scene: Artists in Luoi Kiem Oan Nghiet, a play which won top prizes at the Du Ke Festival hosted by the Viet Nam Theatre Artists Association and Soc Trang Province in 2013. — VNA/VNS Photos Nguyen Luan

Veterans and youngsters from the Aùnh Binh Minh Traditional Art Troupe in Tra Vinh Province tour the Mekong River Delta region to introduce du ke, a unique style Khmer musical theatre from southern Viet Nam. Thu Mai reports.

Young artists believe that the higher quality of art, the bigger the audience and fancier the venue. Performers of the Anh Binh Minh troupe think quite differently.

"We're not looking to make a profit or gain glory from our art, but we hope to encourage people, particularly youth, to care about their culture much more than they do now," says Meritorious Artist Thach Sung, deputy head of the Anh Binh Minh (Dawn) troupe, the region's first art troupe offering Khmer singing drama.

Sung and his staff perform the theatre art called du ke, which was created by the ethnic Khmer in the early 1920s. It spread widely in the region and in Cambodia under the name L'khon Ba Sac.

Their outdoor shows, which are either free or charge low prices, feature the culture of the Khmer. The performers often travel by boat to meet their fans in remote areas in the provinces of Tra Vinh, Soc Trang and Ca Mau.

In unison: Aùnh Binh Minh artists are not looking for profit or glory. They perform to encourage people, particularly young people, to care about their culture and its theatre arts.

In traditional clothes, they sing, dance and stage plays based on the religions, traditional customs and culture of the Khmer.

"Through our shows, we hope young people can improve their knowledge of traditional art. They can discover how rich their culture is as well as learn useful lessons about love, life and people," said Sung, who has worked for more than 30 years for the troupe.

As in previous years, Sung and his actors are preparing to entertain several thousand people, including children, during the New Year and coming Tet (Lunar New Year).

After Tet in early February, they will work on new shows to entertain visitors to the Khmer festival, Chol Chnam Thmay (similar to Viet Nam's Tet), which begins in the third month of the lunar calendar.

Begun in Tra Vinh in 1960, the Aùnh Binh Minh troupe has attracted more than 50 performers, including singers, musicians and stage workers.

Its actors, mostly from farmer families, have inherited du ke from their older generations to preserve their art.

According to Sung, du ke originated in Tra Vinh in 1920 by Kru Co - a farmer who loves drama singing - owner of the troupe called Nhat Nguyet Quan which offers performances and training in the art.

Some elderly villagers believe a novice called Ke living in the Hieu Tu Temple of Tieu Can District created du ke.

"But in general, the art is the product of the creativity of our Khmer," he said.

Sung said his troupe participated and won top prizes at seven national professional theatre festivals.

"We have offered more than 40 plays, including prize-winning productions like Moi Tinh Bopha-Rang Xay (Love Story of Bopha - Rang Xay) and Luoi Kiem Oan Nghiet (Fued Sword)," he said.

Moi Tinh Bopha-Rang Xay was first staged at the Professional Theatre Festival in Qui Nhon City in Binh Dinh Province in 1985.

The play's scriptwriter is Thach Chan, former deputy director of Tra Vinh Province's Department of Culture and Sports. He wrote a story using modern representations based on traditional elements.

The 90-minute play of modern life highlights the relationship between Viet Nam and Cambodia. It focuses on the victories of Vietnamese volunteer soldiers and Cambodian people and armed forces over the Pol Pot genocidal regime.

The work won a golden prize for the best play.

Du ke plays were often shorter, around 60 to 90 minutes, instead of about two or three hours long, and used modern language to attract young audiences.

First steps: Young artists from the Aùnh Binh Minh Troupe.

In 2013, Luoi Kiem Oan Nghiet won four top prizes for best play, best actor and actress, and best music at the Du Ke Festival hosted by the Viet Nam Theatre Artists Association, in co-operation with Soc Trang Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Both plays have been restaged many times, attracting hundreds of thousands Khmer and other communities in the region and in Laos and Cambodia.

The plays have also aired on channels of the Viet Nam Television, HCM City Television, and provincial radio and television stations of Tra Vinh, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Kien Giang and An Giang.

"We love to see Anh Binh Minh artists because their shows are of good quality and diversity, and give us a taste of our Khmer culture," said farmer Phan Thi Be of Tran Van Thoi District's Loi An Commune.

Be and her friends love watching du ke on holidays and festivals of the Khmer, including Chol Chnam Thmay and Ok Om Bok.

"Artists come to remote districts that lack good entertainment for free. Their performances provide us with basic knowledge about du ke and the musical instruments," the 19-year-old said.

To introduce du ke to future generations, Sung said, the troupe is holding performances and offering free training to youth.

"Du ke uses poetry based on great Vietnamese folk tales and Indian epics, and Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is not easy to learn because it requires actors to have aptitude and singing, dancing and acting skills," said actress Thach Thi Ha of the Aùnh Binh Minh troupe.

Ha and her peers have impressed their audiences, both young and old, with strong voice and dance skills and their playing of traditional instruments, all of which reflect the hopes and dreams of the Khmer people.

"We hope that our art will give youth the opportunity to understand and appreciate the traditional theatre," she said.

According to Sang Set, a cultural researcher of Tra Vinh Province, the Aùnh Binh Minh troupe is one of the region's few professional theatres, which helps keep du ke original and unique on stage.

"But they and other art troupes are facing a shortage of human resources and professional management. They also have difficulties finding funds to develop their business," he said.

Set has written 15 books on du ke and the festivals of the Khmer. He has met and interviewed many Khmer people, and has seen the love for the folk art among them.

"We have learned that the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is preparing du ke, one of the country's 12 intangible cultural heritages, for submission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2016," Set said.

"This is good news. However, there is still work to do. I think theatre leaders and local authorities should work together to find ways to preserve and develop the Khmer folk art," he said. — VNS

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