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 fourth part: The end 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.
Time passed but I was not tired, just having to stand upright holding my handheld camera made me feel the weight of fatigue, my eyes were still open and my mind was fully alert, sometimes lost on an object or a movement; my body, however, was in a fight to stay in place amid a crowd that pressed around, moving continuously.
There was clearly a dramatic evolution of the dance, now we were at a key point: a monk whose mouth was covered with black gauze stood on the centre platform (that with the painting depicting a man cut open by a knife) and, in front of him, different objects in a rectangular box; around, all the demons dancing in a large circle, and one, the chief demon, heading directly to him. The steps to reach the monk on the platform had been taken and now the devil was facing him.
Several encounters took place between them (maybe 5 or 6) and each time the monk and the demon exchanged objects; the approach to the platform was drawn out, with swords as if cutting something in the air, always rhythmically dancing, jumping, spinning, moving their garments in a fascinating way, and once there in front of the monk the devil knelt, the music entered in a kind of preparation to a climax, with some suspense and tension, certainly a high point (several high points because there would be several exchanges). Once the devil received the object from the monk, everything exploded in a great climax: there was a special sound of horns and cymbals that continues to resound in my memory for its strength and its effect on the scene. At that climax the devil would turn taking a big leap in one of the best moves that I could technically distinguish, and with full power would join the dancing part of the general choreography around the temple; every time this repeated itself it caused a kind of euphoria in the dance because "something" had been achieved.
In the last of the meetings between the monk and the leading demon (of course we didn't know it was the last), while the demon was standing on the platform we saw some changes: the group of demons started dancing around and a sort of flying blue-beaked bird character (one who had previously fought in different parts of the dance) appeared flying through all over the performance space, after a few turns around the platform, took the place of the monk, who had already taken a few steps back. The demon showed the bird-character the objects and the bird raised its head and pointed strongly to the side, as in disdain or as if seeking to expand what the demon leader had shown him. Then he took flight and, accompanied by the speed of the sound of the cymbals, flew all around as if to embrace all at one, then began to fly around the demon that had been wrapped in gauze while the other characters watched still. It seemed like a liberating flight, a flight carrying news to the others and charging with "it" the one who had been bound up in gauze. The blue-beaked bird flew back into place and returned to the dancing rotation with the chief demon jumping from the platform. All the characters began to perform their choreography to exit.
I had a very special moment near the end of the presentation. People, in their desire to be sitting with friends and family, pushed with greater force until at some point I could not stand anymore in my place, so I left and looked for another angle to watch from, virtually at the entrance of the temple, where the characters came and went. The images I saw there were more than fascinating (it is the most repeated word of this blog, I know): not only could I see the exit of the demons but I was beside the other spectators, children and young monks, who watched the representation with more than curiosity. The photos I took recreate the good experience from the point where I was (you must click on the photo to see it clearly).
The characters with skull masks (those comic harlequin-type) came back and repeated several choreographic steps, with the same short rods they had used at the beginning of the dance, but when arrived to the platform this time they picked up the small triangle that was on it, all the while doing jumps and games that did not were really comic but could be called "light"; then came a few scenes in which the performance change style, it was somewhat different from what I had seen in it, scenes that seemed curious to my eyes, I would even dare say there were two small 'realistic scenes' only interrupted by a another choreographic performance around the platform: in the first one, one of the skeleton-characters showed a somewhat female attitude, childish perhaps, he suffered and wept, while the other tried to comfort him to the point of angering the sufferer, but eventually was convincing him to return to perform the dance on the platform; in the second scene, they took the rods to one of the corners of the space and placed there, one of them sat while the other began "to act", arguing, repeating the gestures of that famous Tibetan ritual where a monk hits his palm while repeating phrases to discuss with a seating group of monks; this realistic scene continued with that seated character denying with his hands the other's arguments and becoming stubborn when facing by his partner's exasperation (1).
And while the discussion continued between the skeleton characters, from the temple a "deer" entered; an actor-monk dressed in the skin of this animal which symbolizes liberation, peace and harmony for Tibetans; he ran towards and near the spectators, not exactly in a dance but with a specific choreographed movement, jumping, pacing to and fro, accompanied only by the sound of cymbals. After a while of ignoring the deer, the two skeleton-characters joined him and began to collect, in simple plastic bags, fruits and money from the spectators. It was a curious contact where the townspeople offered their gifts but never crossed the circle marking the scene. It was clear this was the end point of the performance.
The characters' final scene repeated the already familiar exit from the temple but, once all the characters reached the circular space, including the deer and the skeletons, they danced together for a few moments and then started walk out the main door of the square. The crowd had already split in two lines, marking a way out to let each character walk through it and get out from the temple. Everyone wanted to see them exit, admiring their figures, costumes and masks, and the younger ones trying to touch them or even play with them.
As in all previous events in this new year celebration, participants disappeared by going to the back of the temple; once turning around no one followed them, the magic was gone once outside the sacred space.
Video: Fourth part of Cham dance performance at Rongwu Monastery. February 9, 2009.
(1) It is clear that use of the word "realistic" is from my perspective and I never say that they consciously worked towards that. The funny thing here is the need to lighten symbolisms and present a scene so close to reality to be understood in its entirety in the middle of an entirely symbolic-religious piece.
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