Nguyen Thi Loc Huyen is not just a shining star of Vietnam's Tuong Theatre. The young actress willingly carries on her slender shoulders the responsibility to preserve and popularize the art form, said to be one of the oldest theatre arts in the country.

She came to tuong by chance, but she is here to stay. She has said she is determined to devote her life to maintaining the national art which has been proposed for UNESCO recognition as an intangible culture heritage of humanity.

Huyen's acting, singing and dancing prowess can be seen as the Vietnam Tuong Theatre performs the full version of classical drama "Ho Nguyet Co hoa cao" (Ho Nguyet Co turns into a fox) to usher in the coming Lunar New Year. Rehearsals are on for the rare event, but a date has not been decided.

Huyen will play Ho Nguyet Co, a character successfully donned earlier by well-known People's Artists Dam Lien and Minh Gai.

Huyen is not fazed about filling such distinguished shoes. "I'm very happy and honoured to act as Ho Nguyet Co. It's a very good opportunity to improve my skills. To be able to portray the character's inner feelings while singing, dancing and performing some martial arts is not easy. It has been considered the most heavy and complicated tuong character to play.

"Many of my colleagues have warned me about fulfilling this task because predecessors have complained of severe fatigue and other difficulties while playing Ho Nguyet Co even in extracts."

Asked why she thought she could do justice to the full version when others have found even shorter versions difficult, Huyen said she loves the role and has spent a lot of time thinking about how to practice and how to improve its dialogues.

People's Artist Gia Khoan said he is very pleased with Huyen's preparations.

How she became a leading light of tuong is an interesting story. Huyen was born in Dan Phuong district in former Ha Tay province (now part of Hanoi). She loved singing since she was a little girl and won prizes at many contests. One day, artist Van Tho from the Vietnam Tuong Theatre (VNTT) arrived in Dan Phuong to perform. Hearing Huyen's voice, Tho told her that she had the potential to sing tuong.

"When the VNTT recruits actors and actresses, I will ask you to join the auditions," Tho told her. True to his word, Tho called Huyen a year later, but she was preparing to get herself enrolled in the Teachers Training College in Hanoi.

Huyen's father, knowing well his daughter's desire to pursue the classical art, travelled to Hanoi and asked his daughter to attend the auditions.

She was selected to work with the VNTT, and later, passed an exam to study at the College of Stage and Cinematography in Hanoi. During her four years at the school, Huyen was able to play several tuong characters including Dat Ky in "Dat Ky doi hon" (Dat Ky changed her soul) and Han To Mai in "Nu tuong Dao Tam Xuan" (Female General Dao Tam Xuan).

Huyen said she loved playing these roles very much, particularly under guidance of renowned tuong artists like Dam Lien, Man Thu and Minh Gai. She even won a gold medal for playing Ho Nguyet Co at a national competition for young theatrical talents ten years ago.

"We recognised then this young woman's talent and potential for making it big in tuong," said artist Gia Khoan.

Huyen said the feelings of that day remained fresh in her soul. "Such happy moments have always come along in my career, and they have encouraged and motivated me a lot to improve my skills and take on all roles no matter how difficult or how less appreciated… I say this because in these times, very few people in the north seem concerned about this art."

The actress reiterated that despite all the difficulties, her dedication and devotion to the art will remain because she wants to preserve it for younger generations to enjoy. She has signed contracts with several other art troupes to sing and dance to earn a living and to "feed" her tuong career.

She won a gold medal for playing Thi Hen in the play "Ngheu So Oc Hen", and a silver medal in the 2011 National Tuong Contest in the central coastal province of Binh Dinh for her portrayal of Phan Phuong Co in the old tuong play "Son Hau".

Earlier this year, in the same province, she won a gold medal for playing Princess Dong Xuan in the play, Nguyen Tri Phuong, at a national tuong competition.

"I'm very lucky and happy to have won such prestigious prizes on the national stage," she said.

Artist Gia Khoan said not all artists can win such honours, that Huyen's tuong talents are a God-given gift. But Huyen said she is not satisfied with just acting, she plans to become a tuong researcher and compiler. "If an artist from the younger generation like me does not act now, who will maintain this art. I would feel very guilty if I do not do my best to preserve our national cultural treasure."

Filled with symbolism

Tuong has its origins in the 12th century and was a popular art form in the 17th century. In 1950, it was recognised as Hat boi (classical drama). The tuong play combines dialogue, dances, songs and music that are highly stylized and imbued with symbolism. It invites spectators to use a great deal of imagination when watching the play, using very little stage props, allowing for a wider, diverse interpretation.

It has strict norms on speaking, singing and dancing styles, and is divided into three broad categories - plays that deal with royalty, social and modern themes.

Some of the most popular tuong plays are "Son Hau", "Dao Phi Phung", "Tam nu Do Vuong", "Trung Nu Vuong" and "Ngheu So Oc Hen".-VNA