Legend has it that in the 13th century a Chinese actor, Lý Nguyên Cát, was captured during an invasion into Northern Vietnam. His punishment? To teach acting and theater to Vietnamese children and their influential families. Not such a bad sentence, and his teachings and theater productions actually formed into a performance art called Hát Tuồng, which lives on to this day.
Defined by falsetto singing, stock characters, dramatic make-up and costumes and traditional musical accompaniment, the classical court theater rooted in Chinese opera is slowly losing its place as society adjusts its values and cultural expression in a modernizing Vietnam.
Yet nearly a thousand years in the making, it serves as a window into the country’s layered and rich history. The survival of Tuồng Theater reveals the deep influences of China but its stories and themes also reflect transformation and promote virtues of faithfulness, sacrifice, valor and dedication as Vietnam conquered many invaders and embraced independence.
In an effort to present Tuồng Theater at its finest before it fades away, photographer Boris Zuliani along with NOI Pictures took to the stage of Hồng Hà National Theater in Hà Nội to shed some new light (literally) upon the production through the photographic technique of lightpainting.
Using darkness as a canvas, little by little light is added to the posed actors through the precise movements of a hand-held light source over a long exposure. This gives Boris complete control over the presentation as he illuminates the characters who in turn reveal their traits/emotions through codified stances and facial expressions, ornate costumes, facial hair and color-coded make-up; a face painted in white, for instance, signifies brutality, deceit and aggression while a red face communicates courage, honesty and loyalty.
This symbolism that saturates Hát Tuồng’s storytelling style allows an elaborate narrative to unfold within a still image making lightpainting an ideal technique, and as the subjects are wrapped in light, an alluring and even mysterious effect emerges, further complementing and reinvigorating this ancient art form. For Tuồng Theater to hold its place amidst a growing pop culture, such creative efforts are necessary to spark interest, inspire imagination and draw viewers into the immense beauty, value and energy within Tuồng traditions.
Just as Hát Tuồng actors require extensive training and rehearsal to perform the exact movements and vocals of each respective character, spectators also need extended exposure to and education in the art in order to fully understand and appreciate it.
Tuồng troupes see an opportunity here to infuse elementary arts education with traditional theater to teach youngsters how to enjoy it, watch it and ultimately find a passion for it since young artists and viewers will determine Hát Tuồng’s fate. Those with passion though have little opportunity to pursue training, as programs are few and far between and work after schooling is also dwindling.
As a state funded art, Hát Tuồng relies on the investment of local authority not just monetarily but also through true concern for its development. It’s a difficult cycle to break since with few audience members the State is not moved to boost participation in Hát Tuồng, but in order to collect and keep viewers, funding is needed to create new memorable shows, promote them and insert that educational factor into school curriculums.
Documentation can help extend the lifetime of Hát Tuồng Traditional Theater. This body of photographic work then will add to the process of keeping the art form alive, as the fascinating glimpse it provides fosters curiosity, which is a powerful tool for pushing people to investigate and learn.