When Vietnam comes up in conversation, it’s hard for Americans not to immediately think of the Vietnam War. Images of helicopters, the Tet Offensive, and LBJ immediately come to mind. But while the 20-year conflict is a huge part of modern history, it’s a blip in the grand scheme of Southeast Asian history. Archeologists have tracked human life in the area as far back as the Paleolithic age. Yet we can’t resist referencing the Viet Cong, the fall of Saigon, and — for the love of God, don’t — Forrest Gump any time we mention the nation. Thanks to Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, however, our historical myopia can be, if not repaired, at least expanded.
For six days in June, the College of Charleston’s Stern Student Center Garden will become a rice paddy pagoda filled with water buffalo, leopards, lions, and, of course, fire-breathing dragons.
“Water puppetry is one of the oldest traditions that Vietnam has,” says Golden Dragon producer Avril Helbig. According to the study guide Helbig provided — yep, that’s how ignorant they realize we are — the native Vietnamese tradition of water pupperty began in the country’s Northern Red River Delta in the 11th century. Much like the Lowcountry, the Red River and Ma River floodplains were the perfect area for rice cultivation. “Farmers spent two-thirds of their time in water working with rice,” explains Helbig. “When it came to harvest season, that’s where they were.” So it only makes sense that, looking to entertain themselves, farmers used the rice paddy surface as a stage and bamboo as the curtain to create elaborate plays using hand-carved wooden puppets. But unlike your traditional marionettes, Vietnamese water puppets are manipulated from under the water’s surface by puppeteers hoisting eight to 10 foot-long metal poles. “They need special air bladders under them to hold them up,” says Helbig. “It’s really complicated.” Helbig likens it to seeing an orca breaching on a whale watching tour. “It’s hard to describe how incredibly magical it is,” she adds.
That fairy-dust feeling isn’t diminished either by the fact that the entire performance is in Vietnamese.
For Spoleto, six musicians will sit on either side of a man-made pool — an 8,000-gallon tub built on site — and accompany the puppeteers using traditional Vietnamese instruments like the Co’ng steel drum, Nhi two-string violin, and Sao Truc bamboo flute. “It’s the same music that was performed 1,000 years ago and is very archaic,” says Helbig. But the ancient lyrical style isn’t impenetrable, especially for audiences of children. Helbig reassures that the choreography of the puppets is mesmerizing for viewers of any age.
“There’s a celebration of animals, dances, and uncle Teo is always in the show,” says Helbig. Uncle Teo is a poor, young farmer, who plays the narrator. He’s an honest man who is supported by Buddha and serves as the show’s moral compass. But the most awe-inducing scenes, Helbig says, take place during the end of the performance with “The Dance of the Four Holy Beasts.”
Phoenixes, unicorns, tortoises, and dragons — Vietnam’s symbol of power and justice — display an elaborate dance traditionally performed every year during a mid-Autumn festival in the country. “Right off the bat is the dragon dance signifying good luck,” says Helbig. During the piece, the dragons spew water as they shimmy around the pool. “The end of the performance there’s the dance of the fairies that’s considered to be extremely benevolent,” says Helbig. “Twelve fairies dance.” That might sound simple, but it means eight puppeteers are manipulating a dozen puppets, and these aren’t lightweight instruments. Each one is made from ficus wood and lacquered with five layers of resin. Some weigh up to 33 pounds. Maneuvering the creatures along the water is a constant battle of strength and resilience.
Come to think of it, that could be a metaphor for Vietnam itself. It’s a nation made up of people who, throughout more than a dozen dynasties, Chinese domination, French imperialism, and communism, have managed to hold on to their early traditions and look to their past to guide their future.