Monday, June 25, 2007

Vesak celebration in Singapore. Asian dances and some surprises.

The death of Buddha is the moment of his enlightenment. Actually, Buddha didn’t die, but left the mortal world (at least as I understand from what many say about it)

Singapore is a mixture of three cultures: Malays, Indians and Chinese. At the same time the island is a meeting point of three religions: Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (as well as some Taoists). All three cultures are so strong that together and individually they create the national identity of Singapore, so religious celebrations are also national celebrations: the anniversary of the enlightenment of Buddha is a national day.

Singapore, as a financial and commercial Asian center, is also a gathering center for populations coming from many different Asian Buddhist areas, which is why this national-religious celebration is a continental festivity that several regions of Buddhist Asia attending.

Independently of the religious events taking place in every temple of the city, there was a parade all around the center of the popular Chinatown. This year, the Singaporeans also added another reason to celebrate: the opening of the Temple of the Buddha Tooth Relic; it is a temple, it is a museum, it is a depository for sacred manuscripts inside a 250kg gold “stupa”. This Buddhist Chinese style building has 5 floors, it occupies a surface as big as a big block.

On May 30th 2007, at 8:30 pm, the prime minister arrived and with him the parade began. We arrived two hours before the beginning because we wanted to find a good place (actually it was not as good as we wished) and see how the different groups prepared their performance. Those preparations were a real delight to watch because of the number of cultural groups, regions and customs from all over Asia; I was about to take a whole lesson, practical, visual and aural, on Asian culture.

Even though the celebration was planned as a parade through 4 avenues around the center of Chinatown, the presence of the prime minister and other special guests turned the parade into an open air theatre: each group had to start their performance in front of the special spectators, spending there between 2 and 5 minutes and then continuing the route. That allowed me to videotape each group’s whole performance without missing anything, even though my position was a little bit far from them. A group would consist of a big float several teenagers (around 20) spectacularly dressed and some musicians.

Every video shows a little of every performance I considered interesting for the purpose of this Blog, but I edited several parts to make it more enjoyable.

China and Tibet (video)

After two years living in China I can’t enjoy its traditional dances anymore: too much fantasy and nice movements. But it is important to show them, of course. As for Tibet, you will see the omnipresence of Buddhist monks and one rare youthful dance.

India (video)

Among several dances, a special one, whose name I have no way of knowing, called my attention. It was impressive because of its energy and theatricality: spectacular dance, static ritual, theatrical choreography, narrative, live music, comedy (some wore masks and had a farcical character, though the video can’t show this detail because of my position) and acrobatics (as spectacular as Chinese Opera acrobatics). It was the first time I saw a real different Indian dance and not that beautiful, but performed a bit too often, “goddess dance”, yet nothing as elaborate as Katakali theatre could be; it was an intermediate performative act, chaotic, deep, I can only think of a Dionysian dance.

Indochina: Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand (video)

Thailand and Cambodia are sister cultures (sometimes enemies, sometimes friends), they share the same artistic style, their dances only vary in details but the structure is the same (stories, movements, customs, and performance). One can easily get confused trying to discover which dance is from which of both these both regions.

The surprise for me came with one “elephant” dance from Myanmar; using the same style Chinese perform their dragon dance, Myanmar people did it with an elephant costume; a very enjoyable moment, even funny.

The Dragon dance and the temple opening. (Video)

The temperature was too high and with too many people in the crowd trying to get a peek at the event I got overwhelmed and squeezed out to take some fresh air; walking along the parade route I got closer to the temple and, all of a sudden, the opening ceremony started: fireworks, and dozens of colorful Chinese dragons dancing all along street long (between 10 and 20 young men handling each dragon in this “fortune” dance).

This festival-ceremony, this parade in Singapore, with all its exoticism and good organization, was a first class performance for my Latin-American theatrical experience.

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