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Vietnam traditional performing art, Stage presence

Despite being one of Vietnam's most precious traditional performing arts, tuong is suffering due to a lack of funding and public interest. Thanh Thu reports

Dinh Thi Hoa is eager to get the Vietnam National Tuong Theatre's on time. She is the middle of preparing for her debut performance. Ever since she graduated from university she has been waiting for this moment and she is determined to give it her all.

"Rehearsals have been going for months but I am not even sure how long the play will run for," says Hoa.

Another performer Nguyen Hoai Anh is also working hard. She gets. up early every morning and comes to the theatre to practice her singing and dancing.

"I don't have a part in the upcoming play," says the 21year old. "I am part of another troupe and we're not actually practicing for a play right now."

Yet she comes here and trains for 10 hours a day — as if opening night was a couple of days away. The dedication is admirable, considering that other forms of entertainment offer far greater riches in the modern era.

Tuong is considered to be one of Vietnam's great traditional performing arts, along with cheo and water puppetry. According to historians it already existed in an "embryonic form" in 1285 when Ly Nguyen Cat, a Chinese opera singer, was captured and brought to the Dai Viet court at Thang Long, now Hanoi.

While Ly Nguyen Cat applied some of the Chinese techniques and musical style to the stage performances at the Dai Viet court, there were also musical influences from the Hindu kingdom of Champa incorporated into the early tuong repertoire later in the 14th century. Like so much of Vietnamese culture, tuong is a combination of the indigenous blending with foreign influences.

Ever since, there have been highs and lows, ebbs and flows. The Tran kings were keen patrons of the art form, but King Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497) prohibited performances and banned public officials from marrying into theatrical families. Thespians were also banned from taking civil examinations to serve in the royal court.

In the 17th century the Nguyen lords were open to the concept of reviving tuong and a talented member of a northern tuong family known as Dao Duy Tu (1572-1634) moved to Phu Xuan (Hue) to perform for the lords. The art form flourished in central and southern Vietnam. Interestingly the man who would be king, Nguyen Hue (later to be renamed King Quang Trung after leading a peasant rebellion) and several of his generals were said to be avid tuong performers.

The art form is said to have reached its peak in the 19th century when King Tu Duc (1847-1883) established a generous system of patronage for performers and ordered the construction of two royal theatres. The creative development of tuong during this period owed much to the work of a provincial mandarin Dao Tan (18451907), often referred to as the 'Founding Father' of the art of tuong, who is known to have written or revised over 40 tuong plays.

During the later years of the. French colonial period tuong was seldom performed for the king. At the same time, audiences started to shift towards the more modern performing art cai luong.

Although tuong's popularity had started to flag, the National Tuong Theatre (now the Vietnam Tuong Theatre) was established in 1959 with the government's blessing. Research and training would be conducted at the newly established (Vietnam School of Stage Arts now the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema). Numerous older texts were revised and performance techniques modified in order to correspond more closely with the times. The new plays that were written focused on the struggle for national independence and reunification. An elitist form of royal entertainment had been reinvented for the masses.

Hoang Van Khiem, the director of Vietnam National Tuong Theatre, remembers during the wars against French and the US and even after liberation in 1975, tuong shows were performed night after night.

"We were highly enthusiastic about each and every performance," he says. "We performed to packed halls."

But in recent years active performers as well as audiences have dwindled in numbers. Only seven tuong troupes are now operating nationwide with about 300 artists, including musicians, in total.

More worryingly in Khiem's eyes is the lack of expertise both in terms of acting and directing.

"Finding a young talent is like looking for a needle in a haystack," he says.

According to the scriptwriter Le Duy Hanh there is an immense gap between the veteran performers and their young counterparts, who fail to express the profound spirit of the plays.

Ta Van Xop, the vice director of the Vietnam National Tuong Theatre, points out that tuong attracts no students.

"We need to jbin forces with Hanoi's College of Theatre and Film Studies and travel to the provinces to scout local talent and organise performances that will draw young people to the art," he says.

On his last recruitment drive he found 23 students but he is quick to add, "we will need much more than that." The students have decent incentives.

There are no fees and they receive living allowances and accommodation. They also have the guarantee of a job.

"I love it though I have yet to be paid a salary," says Dinh Thi Hoa after her rehearsal. "But I am embarrassed to tell some old friends that I am a tuong artist. They don't understand why I want to do this. Nowadays very few people understand or enjoy tuong."

Hoai Anh says her boyfriend doesn't want her to pursue tuong as a career as in future it will not provide enough money for a family. "The only people who enjoy tuong are usually elderly people. Sometimes there will only be 30 people in the audience," she says.

Even the successful tuong performers, who have been lauded by their peers and won a string of awards, struggle to get by on a limited salary. Rising rates of inflation are not helping. After hours of rehearsals some performers sing or host talent shows in cafés or bars to supplement their meagre salaries.

Young people have little or no interest in traditional performing arts. In the 21st century it is all about hip hop, rock or pop.

"I don't understand tuong," says Vuong Xuan Mai, a student from the Hanoi University of Law. "Why do artists scream so loudly when they perform? And the way they do their make-up disgusts me.

" Khiem says Mai's remarks are understandable as she, like millions of pupils and students across the country, learns nothing about Vietnam's traditional performing arts at school.

"This is a shortcoming of Vietnam's education system. Plus on TV all you usually see are foreign films, not tuong plays," he says.

The Vietnam National Tuong Theatre put on performances in the evenings every Saturday and Sunday in Hanoi's Hong Ha Theatre but audiences won't miraculous return overnight. A more dynamic approach is needed.

Miss Vietnam 2006 Mai Phuong Thuy recently did her bit to generate a buzz. She edited the book Phu Nu vo Tuong (Women and Tuong), an introduction to the stage performances as well as the costumesFind Article, masks and make up used in every performance. All proceeds from the book will go towards promoting tuong.

(Thetime)

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With plans to visit Vietnam this season. There are many exciting events that are worth taking part of during your stay in Vietnam, you can take a tour to Ha noi to enjoy Vietnam traditional performing art: tuong and more Vietnam  toursLaos Tours, Cambodia Tours at Asia King Travel (www.asiakingtravels.com).



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