Tuesday, October 20, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 4: Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monastery. Part 3 Middle of the dance.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Monlam Festival in Tongren, China on the March 20th, 2009 post: "4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 1: Procession of the Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery".

Day 4Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monstery.

Narration of the third part: The middle of the Dance.

Read the introduction to this 4th day, see a video and read the preliminary story of the Cham dance at my July 3rd 2009 post.

This dance was not more a Buddhist ritual, something I never remarked at all in previous events in Amdo, now (after two or more hours since the beginning of the dance) I was witnessing a theatrical performance that happened to have Buddhist monks and Buddhist symbols as a characters and subject. I was being a spectator of something more primitive than the structured rituals of the religion of the lamas, but also a much more elaborate theatrical structure.

I was aware that such tibetan dance-rituals had much of the animistic religions professed in all the so-called "Tibetan plateau" before the arrival of Buddhism, religions where witches and shamans fixed the world and the universe in spectacular and powerful performances; Buddhists as in any other world religion had nothing but absorb and adapt those events at their convenience. However, the development of a theatrical structure as such was giving over time and what I saw that afternoon as Cham dance was much more than a witch looking for the balance of the world: they were telling a story, with characters and personalities differentiated by masks and costumes externally but attitudes and attributes internally; there were an elaborated play of symbols, scenes and dramatic development; there was drama and codified movements. Beyond compare it with classical Greek drama (which we can not have live experience), I prefer to link this to the theater of religious origin in India or to the Balinese dance-drama. The codified technique exists inside Cham dance-theater, but we don’t have here yet the evolution and separation from the temple to be an independent art, as its Indian and Balinese counterparts already got, it would also wait for the arrival of an artistic figure (like Mei Lanfang in Beijing Opera or Zeami Motoshiro in Noh) detailing to perfection those codes.

After more than an hour or so from the start, the performance was taking shape, now we were seeing in the middle of the temple’s square between 17 and 18 character-demons dancing in circles and making a small shift from one side to another, rotating while jumping in the air and falling down to almost be squatting and to continue moving in a endless repetitive motion. Everything was still fascinating to my eyes: their masks, their headdresses, hair or those faces of animals and fantastic creatures, their costumes and objects in their hands. One of this demons, with a black mask and several skulls as headdress, began to be wrapped in scarps or gauzes by many leading members of the community. We had seen how this group of ethnic Tibetan had been directed to the first circle drawn on the square (the one where the other group of monks who had participated in the previous scene had already been installed) and they were seated to observe; now they were participating with the help of some other monks wrapping the black mask demon with gauzes, they did it surrounding him like blocking something coming from his body. Meanwhile, the other demons were dancing in the same way I described before.

Two demons separated from the dancing group, one with a white mask, between wolf and horse (I can not define it clearly), and the other, a beaked black blue Bird (a raven?), a character which would have a decisive participation in the future story they were performing. In front of the stairs they began to fight among themselves. The fight kept the same rhythm and tempo as the dance was went on around him, but their choreography was a continuous crossing expressing a ferocious battle, as if their weapons collided in the air when they cross, then arrive to the extreme side and returned to the attack to crash again, the same movement dozens of times. There was clearly a physical encoding to show a battle as in many other theaters and traditions. I was corroborating the use of a martial arts play in creating this theatrical convention and the need of a codification for the fiction of a battle, a war or a simple fight between two characters.

There was no winner in this battle (at least it seemed like that), the characters (the raven black and the white horse) continued fighting and began to climb the stairs in their repetitive movements and went out to the door of the temple and entered to it disappearing from the scene. That door of the temple had become those legendary doors which represented the in and out of religious theatres, where the stage was the courtyard at the entrance to the temple and the temple entrance itself was the point of entry and exit of characters (which were originally priests).

Once the two demons left fighting the scene, the others followed them keeping his choreography, now in continuous movement toward the exit.

A new scene began with a second entrance of demons, led by one whom fought and won the monks; a better dancer than the others, he was leading the way to the square, stronger, energetic, with an undeniable presence. The choreography settled again the whole group at the square in the circle already known. During this process, two monks entered: their mouth covered with black masks, one carrying a bottle (perhaps alcohol) and the other a kind of scepter. The dance and the music stopped for a moment, the mouth-covered monks came to the chief demon and filled his cup with the contents of the bottle, then the dance and music was revived but with a slower pace, primarily using the drums, and the movements were to the center in a kind of attraction to the pyramid with the skull. This lasted about an hour, and was repeated between 5 and 7 times ( I got lost in one moment), and once again the group went towards the temple.

In the next and final scene of this middle part of the dance, 4 demons with similar characteristics (black masks -only one with a red mask- almost human, with a headdress of skulls and several weapons in his hands -mostly swords-), were accompanied by those two characters from the introduction, the cheerful skeletons. The choreography of this part seemed to be the same we already know, moving in turns and jumps and keeping their character’s attitudes ( energetic the devils, and soft and light the skeletons), this time heading towards the main square, surrounded it and eventually came under the stairs, opposite to the main entrance of the temple. At various times, one of the demons stepped forward toward the center and in front of the others and with his sword realized a sort of cuts in the air,; Thanks to that action all the other characters seemed free to move forward to the pyramid situated on the other side of the square but for some reason they never touched the wooden shrine, even though he came very close to it. This unsuccessful attempt was to have some sort of reward though at the scene to come, but for now they went to the temple without touching the pyramid and appeared defeated once more.

It was a constant battle to get to the place where death was lit, to the place where objects before stored in a temple were at open air, at the eyes of anyone who was capable to reach them, on a small stage drawn with the image of a man cut with a knife ... It looked like a struggle to come to take possession or control of the powers of death itself, a struggle between the demons and monks ... Or at least, preparing to get those demons pure or prepared to cope or what would give them death. I do not know anything for sure, all are guesses of my mind, but I like playing with it, at the end I was a simple spectator of a religious drama in a foreign culture.

Video: Cham Dance Performance (The Middle of the Dance)

(All this post have been written in Spanish and English by the author, and revised and corrected by Tadeo Berjon.)

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