Are Vietnamese puppetry troupes going overboard with innovation?

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  Khong gian trang
(White space), a puppetry act by the Vietnam Puppetry Theater, wins a silver medal at the 3rd International Puppet Festival held in Hanoi last week. Photo courtesy of Angellittlefire

Vietnamese representatives won five of seven prizes given at the 3rd International Puppet Festival that wrapped up in Hanoi on September 10.

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater and Hai Phong Puppetry Art Troupe were awarded gold medals for Linh thieng hai tieng dong bao (The holy word of the compatriot) and Giai dieu ky uc (Memorial melody).

The third gold medal was won by Wayang Golex Ajen Theater from Indonesia for "Rahwana's death."

Vietnam also won four of five awards for best director, author and musician at the festival, which kicked off on September 4, featuring puppetry troupes from 11 countries and territories.

The festival was held jointly by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and the Vietnam Puppetry Theater.

Nguyen Thanh Nhan, chairman of the festival's jury, said that though Vietnam's puppetry attracts sizeable foreign audiences and wins international and local prizes, it is not highly appreciated by the locals.

"All foreign troupes presented acts which are simple, compact and followed closely the basic performing principles of traditional puppetry," said Nhan.

 "However, the performances of the host theaters purposely highlighted creativity and experimental factors, and some were even presented in a loose, uncontrolled way, particularly in stage arrangement," he added.

Linh thieng hai tieng dong bao, for instance, was a mix of puppetry, gong music from the Central Highlands and royal court music from Hue, while silver-medal winner Khong gian trang (white space) used dolphins and polar bears to raise issues of environmental pollution and Cau chuyen lang que (Story of a countryside) was about urbanization.

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In contrast, most of the performances by foreign puppeteers at this year's festival were based on folk tales and fairy tales, the traditional forte of the art of puppetry.

"Any experiment has two aspects, and though they (performances of local theaters) were unique and different, I'm afraid that they might have gone beyond the boundaries of the art," said Nhan.

One jury member from Spain said: "Some of your performances are unnecessarily sumptuous."

A puppetry researcher himself, Nhan said the trend of combining all genres of puppetry as well as of the art itself with other genres of performing arts had begun in 1980s.

But due to ceaseless experimentation, a troupe from Hanoi had to disband because they no longer had an audience, he said.

"The more experiments are applied, the lesser puppetry elements remain. Audiences might be attracted by these new elements, but in the long run, they will not accept such drama-mixed puppetry, in which the role of the puppets is reduced," Nhan said.

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