Magical water dance

Vietnam’s Golden Water Puppet Theatre performs an art form that dates back to 975 AD and was used by rice farmers to entertain themselves during the off-season, when the fields were harvested and flooded.

What began in the rice paddies of 11th-century Vietnam has evolved into an intricate dance of puppets on water. Spoleto Festival audiences will have a chance to experience this 1,000-year-old art form, one that is practiced only in the land of its origin, in over a dozen performances by Vietnam’s Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre at the College of Charleston Stern Student Center Garden.

Eight to 10 puppeteers stand waist deep in water hidden behind a bamboo screen that is made to resemble a village temple. It is from here that they manipulate their puppets, which dance and glide through a four-square-meter pool of water. Nigel Redden, the festival’s general director, said the performance would take place in “a natural setting outdoors that closely resembles their native rural setting.”

The puppets enter the stage from the east, or the “door of life,” and exit toward the west, or the “door of death.” They are carved from fig trees that grow in Vietnam, and vary from 12 to 40 inches in size. Strings are attached to the head and arms, the only parts that are allowed to move. The smaller puppets are maneuvered with bamboo poles, while a floating circular disc is used to manipulate the larger ones.

The art of Vietnamese water puppetry dates back to 975 AD and is richly steeped in the tradition of rice cultivation. During the off-season, when the rice fields were flooded and the rice had been harvested, farmers created water puppets to entertain themselves. The water puppets tell stories, or vignettes, often pertaining to mythology shared among Vietnam, China and neighboring countries.

One popular vignette featured in the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre show is the tale of a boy, a water buffalo and a flute.

“The boy comes out and travels all along the water playing a country melody on his flute,” the theater’s producer Avril Helbig said. “As he and the buffalo are walking and swishing through the water, this butterfly comes out and plays with them, and sits down on the buffalo and then on the hat of the little boy. The flute takes on the characteristics of this butterfly and then also this folk melody.”

The water puppet theater’s orchestra consists of percussion, string and wind instruments. Often, an instrument represents a specific character in the story. One of the musicians will play a flute unique to Asian culture, the sao truc, to represent the boy. The sao truc is made of a single stick of bamboo with carved holes and is close in range to the modern piccolo with a bright and crystal-clear tone.

Another instrument audiences will hear is a one-stringed zither called the dan bau. Unlike many Vietnamese instruments, which have a Chinese or other Asian counterpart, the dan bau is unique to Vietnamese culture. The dan bau is made of a long wooden bar with mother of pearl inset. A curved stick at one end is moved back and forth to manipulate the pitch of the instrument, and on another end a small, bell-shaped box made of water buffalo horn amplifies the sound.

“The dan bau produces a spacey kind of tone or timbre,” said Daniel Ferguson, an ethnomusicologist from Hunter College. “(It produces) a floating, not really precise tone, but an ethereal feeling, which is one of its charms. Then, when the player uses the left hand on that stick, he causes certain types of vibrato or pitch bending that add a slightly spookier sound.”

Natalie Piontek and Varuni Sinha are Goldring Arts Journalists from Syracuse University.