Vietnamese puppeteers have taken their artistry worldwide.


Vietnam's unique water
puppets flow in for isle shows

'Saigon' puppet show postponed

The Saigon Water Puppet Show scheduled to take place this weekend and written up in today's Weekend magazine has been postponed due to a delay in the puppeteers' arrival from Vietnam.

The new show times at the Waikiki Shell are 7 p.m. Thursday, next Friday and June 7. Tickets are $12, or $8 for students, seniors and members of the Friends of East-West Center.

Current ticket holders may use their tickets at any of the shows next week or may obtain refunds at the Blaisdell box office from Monday.

Call 944-7177 for more information.

SETTLED along coastline and steeped in rice patties, Vietnam is a country imbued by water. When common folk a thousand years ago told stories of community and folklore as a means of passing on culture, water was ever present. Seen as a source of good luck, water not only flowed symbolically in and out of stories, it literally became the landscape upon which these stories were told. And water puppetry, a storytelling art form unique to Vietnam, was born.

For the first time for this weekend only, Honolulu audiences will enjoy this cultural tradition as the Saigon Water Puppet Theatre performs at the Waikiki Shell Amphitheatre.

Multicolored phoenixes, copper turtles, plumed peacocks, jumping fish and pirouetting dragons that breathe real fire and spout water will tell stories of daily fishing and farming life in Vietnam, as well as mythological tales, all on a pond of water. The vignettes unfold against a backdrop of music performed with traditional Vietnamese orchestral instruments such as gongs, drums, bells, flutes and stringed instruments.

VIETNAM'S PUPPET theaters started as grassroots activities held during harvest festivals, eventually becoming formalized with people training to become performers.

"There are two streams of training: those of the musicians and those of the puppeteers," says Avril Helbig of Vertical Management Group, a Canadian company that has taken the Saigon company outside Vietnam every summer since 1998. "The musicians are highly accomplished and well known in Vietnam. They receive their training in conservatories and university systems similar to those in the West. But they usually train exclusively with one teacher.

"The puppeteers get apprenticeships when they're around 15 years old," she continues. "They have a generalized arts education for one year and then study puppetry and apprentice for five years. They learn about various styles of puppetry -- bunraku, marionette and water puppetry, where the puppets are attached to bamboo rods."

Vietnamese puppeteers have taken their artistry worldwide.

Each water puppet is hand-carved, and because color is vital in water puppetry, each piece is coated with five layers of paint. Next, to protect the puppets from the water, they're given five layers of lacquer, which also adds depth and luster to the colors.

Yet the most unique aspect of training to become a water puppeteer, Helbig says, is in learning how to make the puppets look as if they're truly walking on water.

"It takes a lot of strength and dexterity to move the puppets about," she says. "The show takes place against the backdrop of a pagoda, and from inside the pagoda, the puppeteers can't see the puppets. So they do it all by feel.

"It's truly an art to learn how to work with 12 other people in a small space. The choreography backstage is amazing. Even learning how to move a puppet from one end of the stage to the other is hard work."

THE SHOW ITSELF is stunning, with the vibrant puppets dancing on the surface of a pond.

"The magic of the show is that the puppets look like they're moving on their own," Helbig says. "It's not like marionettes where you can see the strings.

"One of my favorite (memories) is of this little girl, who came to me after a performance, and said, 'How do they hold their breath for the whole show?'"

Vietnamese puppeteers have taken their artistry worldwide.

The musicians are also dramatically dressed in the traditional ao dai, a long, colorful silk garment with slits on the side and flowing pants.

In Vietnam, performances are held in the rice patties, where pagodas are erected with relative ease. The Saigon company performs more than 500 shows a year in their homeland. Abroad, however, with no such natural venue, the tour staff "literally creates a pond everywhere we go," Helbig says.

And every detail is well thought out, adding to the sumptuous visual effect. The pond water, for instance, is made deep blue and murky, to better reflect the lighting.

"The ripples in the water are reflected on the top of the pagoda, which adds a beautiful touch," she says.

SETTING UP the pond, the lighting and everything else in the show -- comprising three tons of equipment and a staff of 20 -- is a major undertaking. Now that it's established, the annual summer tour still takes a year to put together. But the first time, "it was like moving mountains," Helbig says.

"A colleague of mine working in Vietnam told me about water puppet theater, and I went there to see it. I thought it was fabulous and I wanted to (take it outside Vietnam). Vietnam is a communist country, so (bringing the tour out of the country) was a highly complicated venture."

Not only did Helbig have to contend with bureaucratic red tape and the logistics of moving the show across the ocean, but she also had to learn how to prepare the performers for travel through foreign climates.

"We began in Winnipeg (Canada) in April of 1998. Now, Winnipeg is north of North Dakota -- and the performers arrived wearing plastic flip-flops!" she recalls.

Since then, the Saigon Water Puppet Theatre has traveled to Toronto, New York, Seattle, Chicago and Salt Lake City. Later this year, they'll be touring Ireland for a month.

"All the work is worth it," Helbig says. "Nobody anywhere we toured had any idea of what Vietnam is like as a culture. It's wonderful to bring this to them."

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