Village’s mysterious mask dances intrigue

Published: 11/10/2009 05:00



Artisan Bui Van Hung practises his dance routine.

Performers of Xuan Pha Dance wear painted masks and don strange costumes. They sing and dance, and sometimes howl, causing viewers to feel as if they are in some kind of wonderland.

Xuan Pha dance is held on the 10th and 12th days of the second month of the lunar calendar in Xuan Pha Village, Tho Xuan District, in the central province of Thanh Hoa.

Xuan Pha is a traditional dance with many mysterious elements, which has been handed down through many generations. One part of the dance consists of rituals worshipping the village god, Dai Hai Long Vuong, a meritorious official of the Dinh and Tien Le dynasties in the 10th century.

In the past, the Xuan Pha dance called for the participation of residents from five villages, each in charge of one of the dances.

Artisan Bui Van Hung says that after they apply the make-up, viewers cannot recognised who is who.

“Even my family members cannot recognise me among the other dancers,” says Hung.

“In my village, one person did not dare to watch the dance, because they were afraid of nightmares.

“And sometimes, as I have entered a room with my mask still on, at twighlight, I have also been frightened.”

There are five dances: Chiem Thanh, Hoa Lang and Tu Huan (where the dancers wear mask), along with the Ai Lao and Ngo Quoc dances.

All of the masks are very strange. Local children say “they look like ghost faces”. The masks are made of wood or cowhide.

And the dancers wear hats made of bamboo or cowhide as well.

As for the Ai Lao dance, the dancers perform as elephants, tigers, lords, servers and soldiers.

The Ngo Quoc dance has two fairies, a lord and ten soldiers, and it is performed with fans and oars.

Some folklorists say that the Xuan Pha dances, especially with its costumes, masks, dances and howls, express the spirit of Van Lang (the ancient name of Viet Nam), to show the solidarity of the 15 tribes of the country around the king.

Others say that the dances, which are also called “the dances of the five countries”, talk about the five neighbouring countries who sent messengers to congratulate King Le Thai To after he liberated the country from Chinese Ming invaders in the 15th century.

These dances are part of the heroic aftermath of the Vietnamese feudal dynasties, celebrating the victories over foreign invasions. These dances are based on the ceremonial music of the dynasty, which has been simplified into communal and village ritual music.

These dances mix royal and folk elements, which are symbolic and mysterious, and manifest the farmers’ aesthetic view points.

According to music researcher Professor Pham Minh Khang, the Xuan Pha dancers were invited to Hue city to serve the king and mandarins several times.

“Each performance had about one hundred dancers. Even in 1935, the French regime intended to organise a trip for the dancers to perform in Paris.

“At the end of 1936, King Bao Dai invited the dancers to perform at a trade fair in Hue.”

According to local village elders, the Xuan Pha dances were devoted by the king and all the villagers to the village god, Dai Hai Long Vuong.

The festival is held on the 10th day of the second lunar month. On the evening prior, the villagers organise the rituals, and on the morning of the day, they perform the five dances.

In the past, the dances were performed in front of the temple dedicated to the village god, but the temple has since been destroyed.

Masks worn to perform Xuan Pha dances.

Since the art form was restored in 1990, due to a lack of sacred space, they can only perform some parts of the perfomance. They can only perform the dances on the stage of the communal cultural centre, or in the yard of the Tau Pagoda, 150m north of the former temple.

Artisan Bui Van Hung says that for the dances to be as sacred as they were, they must be performed in front of the temple.

“Not even all the efforts of the Xuan Pha Village artisans can create a symbolic enough atmosphere for our village festival, because we cannot serve the village god.”

Hung says that expenses to organise a dancing festival are around VND50 million (US$2,700).

“The dances can be standardised only when we have 80 official dancers (excluding the reserve dancers).

“Because the commune’s budget is limited, we have to call for people to contribute their time and energy to organise the annual festival.”

Currently, the site where the temple used to be located now has more than 20 households. They have promised the communal People’s Committee that they will move to new places to give back more than 1,000sq.m for the Xuan Truong Commune People’s Committee to build the temple again (the project has been approved by Thanh Hoa Province’s People’s Committee).

However, so far the communal authorities still do not have enough money to compensate these households if they were to move.

“A nation with a thousand years of history, its past is never lost. It looms in many cultural forms. Perhaps the legend and the content of the five dances are not as important as the spirit of the nation. The Xuan Pha people and their dances contain some of the most mysterious information from Vietnamese people’s past,” says folklorist Phan Cam Thuong.


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