Water Puppet Performance

by Lisa Spivey, Oct 1, 1999 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Many readers and travelers may have already seen a performance or heard about it. We have chosen over 150 photographs to give you an idea of how fluid the live performance is: the puppets seem to come alive on stage as they portray various stories and customs that are part of the nation's history.

Puppets have always been used to act out stories and fables. In Vietnam, the omnipresence of paddy fields, rivers, canals, lakes and ponds of the northern delta makes water a logical backdrop and inspiration for this way to express themselves. It is an art that originates directly from the environment and stays in complete harmony with nature while retelling myths of history.

The water puppet theatre, whether permanent or temporary, is made up of three essential parts: a manipulation room, a stage and the space for the audience. Traditionally, the theatre takes place in a lake or pond with the spectators close by on shore. For a traveling show, the manipulation room is filled with water at the same level as the "stage" on which the puppets will perform.

You could picture the show as if you were poolside at a swim meet. The pool is divided into two parts by a screen. Behind the screen, the puppeteers stand in water. Marionettes are controlled from above and most other puppets are operated by hand, but it takes great strength and dexterity to operate the mechanisms that make water puppets move. Built of fig wood (which is lightweight and easy to carve), the puppets are ingeniously shaped to portray a host of characters, stand nearly three feet tall and weigh up to 35 pounds. In a simple rod-and-string mechanism, the puppet is fixed to a float at one end of a bamboo pole 12-15 feet long and turned by using a rudder. While the rod makes the figure advance and withdraw, the puppeteer's fingers manipulate strings to create gestures. One puppet's movements often require the skillful coordination of several people.

The other half of the pool is the stage for the puppets. The water is in constant motion, absorbing and reflecting each successive, rippling movement of the puppets, artists and natural breezes. The water becomes a character in the drama and can change from a shimmering silent reflection of a pagoda into a pleasant gliding surface for boaters, swimmers and pastoral moments but can also shift suddenly into a raging sea battle accompanied by fireworks.

In the pictures here, you will see the story of the Scholar's Triumphant Return to his Village. Traditionally, the country has always valued a rigorous educational system that involves many tests. It is a rite of passage and for those who finally complete all parts of the examination, they are accorded many honors, given a banquet and sent home to their villages in a celebratory procession. Upon returning to the village, the scholar puts on a lavish feast for all his neighbors to show gratitude for such good fortune.

The Legend of the Returned Sword depicts the historical uprising in the 1400s to regain independence from China. Just when it was most needed, a giant turtle appeared and gave the king a magical sword. After he triumphantly defeated the Chinese, King Le Loi went on a boat trip in the lake in Hanoi. Suddenly, the turtle surfaced and asked for the return of the sword. To this day, the lake is known by the name of Hoam Kiem and all Hanoians know the legend of the returned sword.

The Dance of the Fairies represents the mythical story of the creation of the country and, in fact, fairies are still revered as protectors of the people. In 2800 BC, King Lac Long Quan married Au Co and together, they had 100 sons. After a time, he told her, "I came from the dragon and your ancestors were the fairies; it is not possible for us to last forever together. Why don't you take fifty of our sons up to the mountains while I take the other fifty down to the sea." Lac Long Quan established his eldest son as the king of the new realm, Van Lang, and the new king named himself Hung Vuong and that was the beginning of the first Vietnamese dynasty.

All of these images are from a touring performance of the Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe of Hanoi. We also took photographs of the performers and their instruments to give you a peek "behind the scenes."

See accompanying photo essays:
Water Puppet Performance: The Program
Water Puppet Performance: The Music
Water Puppet Performance: The Cast
Water Puppet Performance: The Stage