water puppets

Old Jan 13th, 2004, 04:55 AM
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water puppets

I just saw the Vietnam exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, in New York, and now I can't wait to see the real thing. While the whole display was intriging, I was particularly taken with the subject of water puppetry, which I'd never heard of. Does anyone know the best places to see this artform?
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Old Jan 13th, 2004, 05:41 AM
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Hanoi, at the water puppet theatre at the edge of the lake.
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Old Jan 13th, 2004, 07:51 AM
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We saw the Water Puppets in Boston last year. They were quite amusing. If they're on tour in the US this year, I imagine they will be in NY at a small venue.
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Old Jan 16th, 2004, 02:42 PM
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My sister and I saw the water puppet show in Hanoi November 2003 - It was great - very entertaining. Same theatre as Kathie mentions. There are about 3 shows every day.
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Old Jan 16th, 2004, 04:28 PM
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The best place to see water puppetry is at the Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre. Here's why, along with some other notes from my two visits:

Peasants wade thigh-deep through flooded rice paddies, methodically and rhythmically pulling the crop then threshing it and grinding it. Others thrash around with baskets attempting to trap lively fish, and sometimes comically catch each other by mistake.

For the visitor, who merely observes and doesn't have to labour, this is rural Vietnam at its most appealing. However, these idyllic scenes are taking place not in the quiet of the countryside but in a theatre set amid the manic bustle of Hanoi's two-wheeled traffic, each block a two-dimensional version of Top Gun, with hundreds of combatants.

To say the actors are wooden is not unkind, but merely truthful-they are puppets lacquered in irridescent colours. Their stage is not wood, however, but a pool of soupy, algae-rich water, itself a rather pretty green, through which they wade apparently independent of any operator. At the Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre a medieval tradition unique to the country turns the day-to-day doings of ordinary peasants into entertainment, much as television soap operas dramatise the doings of ordinary people today.

Outside, the constant buzzing of two-stroke engines is occasionally drowned by the yelp of horns whose power is out of all proportion to the size of the vehicle-an 80cc motorbike may use Jericho-like blasts to drive a way through the throngs ahead. Even cyclos, overgrown tricycles with a two-seat bench slung low at the front, have loud chimes like trams, all too frequently employed by wiry drivers reluctant to lose momentum gained by straining at the single-gear mechanism at the rear.

But Hanoi's traffic is well worth braving for sight of the jetsam left washed up by tides of invaders, now long receded. The Chinese left behind colourful and elaborate temples; the French left elegant European residences, decent coffee, and freshly-baked baguettes sold from the backs of bicycles; the Americans left cola, and their military operations left unexpected changes of style in the middle of French colonial architecture.

True Vietnam invades this international urban landscape in the form of loose-pyjamaed conical-hatted peasants who trot softly through the streets, sometimes barefoot, a bamboo cane across their shoulders counterbalanced with piles of colourful fruit on swaying dishes at either end. Their wooden counterparts bring them to life again at twice nightly shows in the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre on the rim of Hoan Kiem, one of Hanoi's central lakes, or away from the constant chatter of tour groups and the glare of flashbulbs at the National Puppetry Theatre, just west of the city centre.

The origins of the form are obscure, but are performances are thought originally to have begun as a form of religious worship of the spirit of the village. But there are also elements of ancestor worship, of celebration of the changing of the seasons, and the veneration of traditional heroes. Water puppetry reflects life in Vietnam in the middle ages, but it might equally be said to represent life in largely agrarian and unmechanised Vietnam today.

The traditional performance space was a 'water communal house', a hollow two-storey curly-eaved building set in a lake, the shore acting as today's tiered seating. Inside were wooden platforms for the band, while the hidden puppeteers stood hip-deep in the water. Outside the Hanoi's National Puppetry Theatre there's a copy of one of the last standing originals, where performances occasionally take place as they originally did, in daylight.

But inside the main building evening performances resemble modern Western theatricals, except that the thrust stage is replaced by the green pool in front of the proscenium, which is a recreates the front view of a 'water communal house' draped with gaudy hangings covered in dragon images. The puppeteers are hidden behind slatted bamboo curtains, and the musicians are on a platform to one side of the pool with amplified wooden flutes, a bowed three-string instrument similar to the Chinese erhu, a variety of percussion, and two singers. Sometimes they act as narrators, sometimes provide background music and sometimes special effects including heavy drumming and cymbals for fighting dragons and gambolling lions; duck calls and other animal noises.

The show, a selection of short scenes, is invariably introduced by a white-skinned puppet joker called Chu Teu, a master of ceremonies with tufty black hair, in nothing more than a loin cloth and waistcoat, yet obviously a tricky character. He swings his arms energetically, and purveys gossip about the villagers for whom he's performing, and makes jokes at their expense. He's the stand-up comedian and warm-up act for whatever happens next.

This may be a dignified procession with a central figure on horseback surrounded by attendants, the layers of green, white, red, and gold lacquer gleaming under the modern spotlights, recreating some historical event. Or it might be a thunderous dance by dragons with fireworks in their mouths, springing unexpectedly from the murky depths.

The water, which is a green nearly as glossy as the lacquer of the puppets themselves, is itself a character in the drama, and not ignored by the puppets, who often appear to wade through it or float on it in boat racing or naval battle scenes. Its soupiness helps hide the simple magic used to bring the puppets to life, their minimal articulation, controlled by submerged strings and swivels, still enough to give them considerable personality

For human figures the upper portion is all of one piece except for the arms, which can swing, and sometimes the head, which can swivel. The lower part is a submerged drum-shaped float which supports the figure above the water and a 3.5-4.5 metre pole below it, used by the operator to control the puppet. Sometimes groups of puppet figures are connected by a more complex chassis with swivel mounts controlled by a system of cables, all remaining hidden and submerged.

Some of the puppetry is political, and a current of anti-Chinese feeling still runs through much modern commentary on the art. It's claimed that during the China's 1000-year occupation of Vietnam, and particularly during the Tang (618-907) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, there were campaigns to suppress all forms of traditional Vietnamese culture down to the last piece of paper with Vietnamese writing on it. Water puppeteers were amongst many masters of different arts forcibly removed to China, but who supposedly refused, even under torture, to teach their skills to the occupiers.

But the piece known as 'Welcoming Doctorate First Laureate' is an obvious reference to Confucian matters, and in a sense very Chinese. In 1071 Vietnam opened its first university, the Imperial College, and in 1075 held its first examinations, eventually introducing a three-tier examination system copying China's, and equally based on the understanding, interpretion and application to contemporary legal and political situations of the maxims of Confucius and subsequent interpreters. Success in the examinations brought reflected glory to the graduate's home village, hence the scenes of the village turning out to welcome the highest graduate home. In the real world the village people would likely have preyed to the village spirit for the candidate's success, and used water puppetry as a medium to do so.

This is one of several cases in which the scaled-down world of the puppets reminds audiences of the full scale real-world Hanoi outside. The most beautiful temple in the city is the refined Van Mieu or Confucius Temple. The simple and elegant style of its construction, with long low roofs supported by a few large timber brackets is reminiscent of Tang dynasty China, but now very rare there. It's enlivened by golden dragons which writhe across its eaves and wrap themselves round red interior pillars.

The temple honours not only the ancient Chinese patriarch himself, but the same individual graduates as the water puppets do. Around one courtyard rows of forbidding stelae set in the backs of stone turtle-like dragons are carved with the names of successful graduates.

Some water puppet scenes however, celebrate military successes against the Chinese. One legend in Arthurian style tells of a hero called Le Loi who received a magic sword from a giant turtle in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem, and went on to lead a successful insurrection against Ming dynasty forces. Watch a puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and the lake is the first thing you see when you emerge.

Visiting further temples around the city contain statuary which seem oddly familiar, having been used as stylistic resources in the revival of puppet making.

You can see them being brought to life at workshops around the National Theatre. One family makes smaller versions for sale as souvenirs, but the body parts of full-scale puppets also stand around up a rickety wooden staircase in gaudy colours. A hair dryer is used to help with drying, there's a strong smell of lacquer, and it's a little alarming to see the maker smoking in such an explosive atmosphere.

Puppets on several scales are on sale at the Van Mieu and in the shops of the Old Quarter where used ones can be found, mechanisms on show, and perhaps with the stump of an arm blackened from holding a firework.

Perhaps the most enjoyable scenes of puppet theatre are the most bucolic, celebrating the every day lives of the peasants who originally both operated the puppets and watched the show. Gaudy lotuses spring up from the water and attract equally colourful butterflies, boys play flutes while seated on the backs of ambling water buffalo, the beasts' heads swinging on leather joints. A duck herd takes one drink too many and fails to prevent a fox from dashing up a tree, duck in mouth, in what in the context of the simplicity of most of the puppets is a coup de thèâtre on the scale of Miss Saigon's helicopter.

It's soap opera from several hundred years before the television was invented.

Peter N-H
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