Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Moving Forward, the Role of the Artist: Myanmar Update 5

A semi-final update from Michael and Joanna in Yangon.

We're in the final days here in Yangon, and it's been pretty packed with excitement --  if you consider immersing yourself in Myanmar performing arts culture to be exciting (which I do).  This will likely be my last missive from these parts, as we’ll be swamped with preparing a "work-in-progress" performance of the work on Sunday before heading Stateside on Monday. 

The work with Thukhuma Khayeethe has good days and great days; there is still much work to be done if this show is to hit the stage, but we are off to a good start and look forward to continuing over the next year or so.

Last Friday Feb 3 was the opening of the 3rd International Festival of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the French Institute.  When we made our plans to be here we actually didn't know until later that the festival was taking place, but we attended the Friday and Saturday panels, lectures and videos, and Joanna was invited to talk about our work along with Thila Min, the director of Thukhuma Khayeethe.   We've been making new friends and contacts, and joining in some spirited discussions.

Of the many topics (not just at the festival but also with our collaborators): 
¨      Now that there may be a new openness and permissiveness for contemporary productions, what will become of the traditional performing arts? (Since the military has been in charge there have been no new plays written and many of the old were banned, even burned.)  
¨      What will be preserved, or should be preserved, or not? 
¨      Should the public be given what it wants, or what the artist thinks it needs?  
¨      How much effort should be put into contemporary arts:  what if the current "freedom” doesn't last-- not only might censorship fall into place again, but might artists be exposing themselves to new harassment and imprisonment?  
¨      And who will support new work?   Many of the young people attending stated that the biggest obstacle to a life in the theater is the family: parents want their kids to get "real jobs"; an old story most keenly felt in struggling economies.

One of the local artists who asked many traditional vs. modern questions is Moore Minn, the impresario, director, and star of one of the few remaining large Zat Pwe performance troupes.  The Zat Pwe is a traditional form of performing arts that manifests at the larger festivals around the country.  It's a nine-hour marathon, beginning at around 9 pm and ending at 6 am. Depending on the company, the production may (or may not) start with dances and rituals to Buddha as well as the local deities called "Nat.”  This is generally followed with the singers in the troupe coming out individually and covering local pop songs.  Next, a stylized dance-theatre piece from the life of Buddha; a pop concert covering western hits; traditional high energy dancing by the male Minthar(s) and/or female Minthamee(s) possibly combined with the antics of the Lu-Byet comedians ("Mr. Not-at-all Serious"). There may also be short dramatic or comic scenes, depending on the aesthetics of the company director.

Joanna and I were invited to see Moore Minn's show that Saturday evening.  A strikingly handsome and serious looking man of about 40, he was introduced as one of Myanmar's preeminent traditional singers and dancers.  Thus, we had a certain expectation of a "traditional" performance, and indeed much of the standard menu as outlined above was there.  What we did NOT expect was his intense, spot-on, full hour Michael Jackson impersonation, complete with Thriller production value (break-dancing zombies), moonwalks, mime and crazy limbs akimbo. Especially fantastic from a you-gotta-be-kidding-me perspective was Michael Jackson singing The Macarena.

You could have lit the city of Yangon with Moore Minn's energy, which was most remarkable because he attended the conference all day Friday and Saturday, AND did all night shows Friday night and Saturday night (which he also drove to and from, about an hour outside of Yangon). When and where he got sleep I don't know.

Another big surprise was the total lack of applause from the 1000 or so spectators.   Not that they didn't like it, they know this guy and his work and they paid their not inconsiderable admission of $3 or so, they just don't express it.   And many stayed, as we did, for all 9 hours; though many of the younger set left after the pop stuff and the older crowd arrived for the comediennes and the dancing Minthars.

Okay, that's it for now.  Thanks for listening.  We'll post the pix and videos as soon as possible and send you the links when available.  Until then, stay warm, healthy and safe wherever you are.

Much love from Yangon,
Michael and Joanna