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Myanmar's Zat Pwe and American Parallels

Published on
April 24


As part of a series called Myanmar’s Moment, Asia Society hosted a performance of Zat Pwe performed by the historic Shwe Man Thabin troupe. Zat Pwe is a traditional Burmese performance form that mixes music, dance, and theater into an all-night variety show performed as part of village pagoda celebrations. This show was abridged to two hours but even in two hours a wide range of moods and variety of mediums was represented. From religious offerings to clown skits to acrobatic dancing, the 80 year old Shwe Man Thabin troupe reflected the ethos of innovation of its founder, Myanmar Performer Laureate Shwe Man Tin Maung. And, to my surprise, this art form from the other side of the world eerily resembled certain American cultural phenomenons.


Historically Zat Pwe began as marionette performances for the royal court and the aesthetic is retained in the choreography. The moves emphasize a start and stop movement quality geared toward poses reminiscent of the angular movement of the hands of marionettes or the pull of a leg to make a puppet sit down. This connection was made explicit through a charming act where a real live dancer imitated the moves of a similarly dressed marionette on stage.


Though I question the connection, the pose-centered foundation and angular quality of hand positions reminded me of Voguing, an American dance form invented in the 80s by queer black and latino youth in New York. The direct inspiration for Voguing is traced to the aesthetic of high fashion magazine spreads yet they use the leg drop (also known as a dip) identically. The coincidences are puzzling and I wonder if there was some unacknowledged cross-pollination at some point or they share a common source. To me, this dance style from Myanmar and Voguing seemed like variations of shared principles and movement vocabulary albeit interpreted through the aesthetics of different cultures.


A unique feature of the performance was the importance of the costume to the choreography. The costumes were colorful and elaborate, and sometimes an essential part of the dance itself.  The women’s dances were defined by their interaction with a trailing tail, a htamein, which they would flick behind them with precision as the music would accent the swish for dramatic effect. The men wore a cloth wrapped around them like a skirt or shorts. In one number, the men unwrapped the cloth and tangled it between them to make a sculpture that was maintained through counterbalance as they circled around each other.


The compression of an all-night performance into a two-hour show resulted in some jarring juxtapositions of reverent beauty embodied by graceful female dancers with the humor of naughty clowns.  The humor was a welcome stimulation after the hypnotic beauty of the skilled dances, and I bet even more so during the all-night performances. One particular humorous act stood out to me, and according to the program it was one of the renowned founder’s innovations. The act was originally a duet performed by a male and female dancer but in the Shwe Man Thabin rendition, both versions are played by a man who switches clothing behind a curtain as two young clowns comment on the scene and fight each other for glimpses of the woman. This role is challenging because the performer must sing and dance both male and female dance forms but any admiration for skill was overshadowed by the hilarity of the attempt. The humor of the interactions and the attitude of the cross-dressing performer were strangely reminiscent of American drag shows. Again, I had a moment of questioning the coincidence. I think similarities like these are worth researching. I wonder about the role of non-heteronormative aesthetics in Asian performance and culture and what that could teach Americans in deconstructing our own narratives and cultural norms.


Music and Dance from Myanmar: Shwe Man Thabin Zat Pwe was performed at Asia Society on April 10th and 11th of 2015. You can now watch it online here. If you are interested in learning more, check out the Buddhist Art of Myanmar exhibit at Asia Society on display until May 10th. Entrance is free with a CUID and semester validation sticker through the Arts Initiative’s Passport to Museums program. Asia Society consistently features excellent performances that would not be found in New York otherwise and they are a superb opportunity to learn more about cultures we hear little of in the United States.