It’s just past dusk in Mandalay, and Myanmar’s second biggest city is in full swing. Motorbikes swerve past one another, kicking up dust as they screech through traffic lights. Brightly-lit stores proffer Western-style clothes, while racks on the pavement are stacked with faux-fur jackets from China. The teashops and beer stations are filling up.
In a small gated compound on the edge of the city, bare but for a stage shrouded by a shiny green curtain, the Mintha Theater hums with a steady drum-beat. In a backroom filled with props – glittering emerald-green masks, golden crowns – I’m talking to long-time traditional dance performer Daw Htike Than. Over a steaming glass of green tea, the 70-something laments the swift change overtaking her country. “My culture, for example Myanmar dance, is very delicate, but the new culture, the Western culture, is very fast and very easy to pick up,” she says, her lips pursed. Suddenly the hum outside turns to a clatter and the conversation is over. The show, or pwe, has started.
Part-ballet, part-vaudeville, Myanmar’s brand of performing arts is as elegant as Cambodian apsara or Thai khon, featuring ornate costumes and intricate hand movements, but with the slapstick silliness of a Charlie Chaplin skit. Exuberant dancers enact tales from Buddhist scripture and folklore, sometimes singing or chanting high-pitched melodies.
In a vivid passage in Burmese Days, the novel based on his life as a colonial policeman in Myanmar, George Orwell describes a pwe dance as a “rhythmic nodding, posturing and twisting of the elbows, like the movements of one of those jointed wooden figures on an old-fashioned roundabout.”
Typically, shows are held on the streets and last all night. Troupes numbering dozens of musicians, dancers and comedians stage numerous performances – from solos to group ensembles. During Myanmar’s dry season – which lasts from roughly November through April – there can be several pwes over a single night in Mandalay.
The nightly showcase at the Mintha Theater, named for the lead male performer known as a mintha, lasts just an hour but cycles through a handful of different dances. For the puppet dance, two boys stand behind a maroon piece of fabric, wiggling their fingers as yellow-clad girls kneeling in front jiggle their heads as if on strings, staring blankly forward. The glittering masks come to life for the demon dance, in which a male performer dons the headgear as he swirls his arms above his head and stomps his feet in time with the drum beat, jumping frenetically as the music comes to a climax.
Myanmar’s traditional dances, held typically during festivals or to mark other important occasions, date back centuries. Kings in the royal capital of Mandalay kept their own court troupes of many hundreds of musicians and dancers. Today, they can be roughly divided into the male-led zat and female-led anyeint types. When the British disbanded the courts in the 18th and 19th centuries – exiling the last king to India – the popularity of the arts surged further as performers took to the streets.
Now however, according to practitioners, the traditional pwe is under threat of extinction, as the country emerges from decades of isolation to meet a future of rapid modernisation. “When I was young, like my son’s age – my son is 13 years old – there was no TV in my area,” says Ko Tun, the theatre’s jovial general manager. “One family had a TV. We went to see the performances instead of that. Nowadays, even though I invite him to performances, my son doesn’t want to go.”
Tun spent several decades as a guitarist in various dance troupes, travelling all over the country, before joining the Mintha Theater earlier this year. This new enterprise for training young dancers opened in June, operated by the Inwa School, and now the theatre is a vehicle for keeping the traditional art alive.
The theatre is a vehicle for keeping the traditional art alive
“The art is going into this critical decade when there isn’t yet a philanthropy system in place within the country to support it,” Daniel Ehrlich, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who founded the school after cultivating an interest in Myanmar dance, says a few days after the show.
He landed on the idea for the school, whose donors include the Suu Foundation – the charitable enterprise created by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi – after noting the decline of the art form over three decades of visiting Myanmar. “I’m totally enchanted with Mandalay, and dance is a huge part of the city’s identity – actually, Burmese identity. It’s very little-known,” he says.
Ehrlich first saw a pwe by chance on his first night in the city in 1987, after meeting a trishaw driver who had trained in dance at the government arts school. At the time, Mandalay alone had about 35 anyeint troupes and 40 zat troupes, he says. Over the years, he watched as the anyeint troupes – which feature a lead female performer and several satirists who poke fun at the government – slowly disappeared. Now, just two or three remain.
Part of that was down to the military junta. The generals didn’t look kindly on mockery and imprisoned many prominent satirical comedians, including the Mandalay-based Moustache Brothers.
Also, while their zat counterparts began to westernise the performances – including foreign instruments and pop elements – the anyeint resisted the trend. “It’s easier to be successful if you just have good looks, and go up and do a Western act,” says Ehrlich. “They’re what you’d call Western cover songs, very pop. They do a fantastic job with Michael Jackson, for example.”
The Westernisation of the art particularly irks people like the school’s teachers, Than and U Kyaw Win, who were schooled in traditional performance from the age of 11. “During the olden times there was a saying: ‘If the performers come to a place, they leave something to learn,’” says Win, also in his mid-seventies. “Now, the people… just go to kill time. They are not interested in the performing of the arts.”
At the Inwa school, students – who come from various corners of the country – live with their teachers in an attempt to recreate the old system, where pupils would spend years at the house of one of the masters, fetching water and cooking in return for tutelage.
These students – totalling 14 in the first year’s group – don’t look like they are fetching anybody water. But they do sit attentively in groups, about five to a teacher, practicing scales and collapsing into giggles as they try, and fail, to hit the highest notes. Most are in their mid- to late teens but some are barely out of primary school.
An 11-year-old girl named Mol Pyae Pyae Aung, her cheeks painted with thanaka – a cosmetic paste made from ground bark – bounces between exuberance and extreme shyness. Sitting just offstage, Zin Wei, a willowy 18-year-old, tells me that, growing up, all her friends loved to sing and dance. “This is my hobby,” she says, giggling. After the curtain at the theatre goes up, it’s hard to reconcile this shy group of teenagers with the dolled-up dancers on stage.
Before an audience sitting in blue plastic chairs, and with the scent of cheroot smoke drifting through the room, the opening act commences: four girls dressed in puffy red and pink costumes twirl their palms to the beat of drums and tinkling xylophones. A reed-like instrument shrieks at a shrill pitch. Wei leads the troupe. Hands on hips, she shimmies back and forth, trailing a sparkling white mermaid-like train behind her. At first, Aung hovers at the back, keeping an eye on the older girls. She then glides to the front, and keeps dancing.
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This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine