DANCE, OPERA AND THEATER IN TIBET

TIBETAN DANCE

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Cham dancer

Dance has traditionally been something that monks performed at monasteries. There are two main types of monastic dance: gar and cham. Gar is an esoteric, meditative style of dance usually performed by individuals or small groups privately at a monastery as an act of initiation. It often involves using stylized hand movements and gestures. Cham is style of dance usually performed at festivals or large public ceremony with many dancers performing one or more dances.

Zhuoxie (drum dance) is mainly popular in Shannan, Lhasa and Rikeze and is generally performed by male dancers. Dancers wears colored clothes and cloak hats made of white cloth. They wear aprons around their waist and attach a string of small bells around the leg. They also pass two silk girdles through the two iron rings on a flat leather drum, and tie one around the left thigh and another around the waist. The dancer waves a pair of feather hammers with both hands to beat the drums while flitting to and fro. The drums rumbles, the bells jingle, the rhythm is cheerful, and it is full of power. At first the dancers beat their drums while singing. When things pick up, the dancers stop singing and begin to perform some acrobatic movements, such as "flinging the waist while beating the drum", "flinging the braid to beat the drum" and "beating drum while moving bended knees". [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Bullboat dancing is a kind of folk art that has passed down generation by generation in Junpa, a small Tibetan hamlet, 50 kilometers away from Lhasa. With its time-honored history, the village is known for being the only fishing village left in Tibet. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

The Ghost Dance is a religious ritual popular in the northern part of Aba Prefecture used to pray for happiness and peace. On the last day of the year by the Tibetan calendar, monasteries hold a meeting of dharma. Some lamas wear ancient costumes and masks, disguising themselves as ghosts. In groups, they come out to the central square and dance to the accompaniment of drums, conches, and cymbals. While they dance, they cry out in hopes of driving ghosts away. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Tibetan Ritual Dances

Ritual dances have been performed in Tibet for sometime. In ancient times when a Tibetan king was crowned a ritual dance was held that was intended to generate supernatural power in the ruler and maintain the cosmic and social order. Dance was also an element of tantric Buddhist rituals. Some of these were like the masked dances performed at festivals and often had theatrical aspects.

Elaborate bon religion rituals often incorporated dance. According to the Encyclopedia of Dance: “Tibetan dance rituals are presented with the objective of attaining a special goal: for example to eradicate negative forces and engender positive circumstances---long life, wealth, or inner transformation. All forms of Tibetan ritual dance are considered to be vehicles of instantaneous enlightenment, since any spectator might spontaneously comprehend the otherwise secret meaning of the ritual. The dances are aural and visual offerings to a deity, enticing him or her to attend the dance and bless all present, as the dancers offer the movements of their bodies, their melodic speech (mantras or songs) and the devotional thought of their minds.”

“Tibetan ritual dance is mandalic in form. The dancers whirl in a pattern that circles the deity, who is at the center of the dance ground, until they become united as the deity-and-his-retinue in their pure land....Ritual dancers move in a clockwise manner, creating a boundary around the sacred space, protecting it from harmful influence, and thereby allowing the ritual of transformation to take place. The mandala space is sanctified by the circling of all the dancers, who empower both themselves and the space they enclose by revolving around the center---in the same direction as they perceive the planets revolving around the sun.”

Qamo Dance: Tibetan Religious Dance

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Lamas in a dance drama
Qamo, a religious dance linked toTibetan Buddhism, is a well-established performance art form combining scripture-chanting in perfect unison with music and dance. Qamo dance is usually performed in temples by monks to subdue evil spirits in monasteries. According to legend, Qamo came into being during the conflict between Buddhism and the aboriginal Bon religion. In the process of localizing Buddhism, Padmasambhava from Kashmir created a kind of religious dance to subdue the "evil spirits" in monasteries by giving the local Tibetan dances Buddhist interpretations. This religious dance gradually became popular as Qamo, a sorcerer's dance. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org] According to Chronicles of Tibetan Kings, various kinds of animal-mime dances, divine-instrument dances, drum dances and flower-offering ceremonial dances appeared during the reign of Songzan Gambo in the seventh century. Instead of absorbing the local Tibetan dances completely, Padmasambhava selected only some animal-mime dances and divine instrument dances that suited Buddhism and combined them with the ceremonial mask dance of the Bon-po religion. These dances and Ox Dance, Deer God Dance and Dharma Protector Dance, preserved to this day, trace back to the same origin.

Before the modern Sorcerer's Dance begins formally, a traditional livestock sacrificial ceremony is held. However, livestock is no longer killed since it goes against the doctrines of Buddhism. Mostly drawings are substituted. When the ceremony begins, suona horns are blown and drums and cymbals beaten, a group of performers playing demons walk slowly round as a prelude to the dance. This is followed by the Demons' Dance, Skeleton Dance, Ox God Dance, Deer Dance, Guardian Dance and Dharma Protector Dance.

Between dances Lamas put on wrestling and acrobatic bouts to entertain the spectators. Sometimes, they perform stories from Buddhist scripture that bear messages to do good things in other people's interest, such as "Sacrifice Life to Save the Tiger" and "Dance of the Man of Longevity," who is believed to be generous in bestowing longevity and good fortune. The last act is for the divine soldiers to drive away the evil spirits. With guns on their shoulders, the performers send Duoma (the leading demon, made of butter and tsampa) to the wilderness and burn him to drive away evil for the year and pray for good fortune in the coming year.

Ximoqenpo Holy Dance Festival at Tashilunpo

In August on the Tibetan calendar each year, lamas in the Tashilhungpo Monastery hold the Ximoqenpo Holy Dance Festival. Originally a religious ritual to drive away evil spirits, it gradually evolved into a traditional festival in Xigaze. According to historical documents, the festival was first sponsored by Dainbai Nyima, the seventh Panchen Lama, about 200 years ago. On August 3 on the Tibetan calendar each year, a dance contest is held among lamas in the monastery, and the festival formally commences on August 4 and lasts three days till August 6, when it is open to the public. The monastery now boasts 39 lamas who can dance 61 different kinds of dances. A huge tent is set up on a platform. On its left are seats for distinguished guests; on its right is the orchestra of the monastery; and in front of the platform is the audience who have traveled far to attend. The whole activity is imbued with a strong religious fervor and follows a strict protocol. The dance is simple in rhythm and slow in execution. To enliven the atmosphere, some short, light pieces are performed between the dances, which always make the audience rock with laughter. During the three-day festival, dozens of holy dances will be performed, such as Buddha's Warrior Attendant Dance, Skeleton Dance, Deer and Cow Dance, Bhiksu Dance and Six Longevity Dance. [Source: China Tibet Information Center, zt.tibet.cn]

On the first day of the festival, the first to take the stage are people wearing deity masks, who dance while circling the stage before retreating backstage. Several minutes later, four ghosts jump onto the stage; they have long fingers and toes like skeletons. They dance and then retreat, too. The third group, wearing iron hats, dance while circling the stage. The fourth group of 20 enter the stage with hats and different silk ribbons hanging on their bodies. The fifth come to the stage imitating the animals. The sixth group are clothed in yellow, red, indigo-blue and purple masks, baggy pattern clothes and hats with tassels. Among the seventh group, four lamas dress up like ghosts, carrying a body molded of butter and zanba; they are followed by deities. After chanting sutras, the dancers stab the body with a knife, pour oil on dry firewood, light it and throw the body (representing ghost) into the fire.

The second day starts with a lama wearing a large Buddha mask and sitting straight on a lotus seat, motionless like a wood or clay sculpture, with two boys waiting on him on both sides. On the stage are two lamas wearing masks and colorful clothes, and dancing according to the rhythm. They soon retreat. Then a pair of lamas dressing up like guards of Dharma come onto the stage, followed by more than ten pairs. The last four wear skeleton masks and strange costumes. Two small ghosts carry a bag of zanba and let the four in skeleton masks take zanba out to spread in all directions.

On the third day, six images of longevity appear on the stage: crane, deer, human, mountain, water and village. The lama sitting on the lotus seat expounds Buddhist scriptures to the wolf and deer. Two white-haired old men then appear on the stage, holding bows and arrows and aiming at the wolf and deer upon seeing them. The lama stops them, telling them it is a sin to kill. Then he talks eloquently about the cycle of incarnation. Finally, the old men and the animals, led by the lama, ascend to the immortal world.

Tibetan Festival Dances

Dancers at festivals often wear masks made of wood or papier-mache. The papier mache masks have facial designs in black, red and white paint. A gilt crown worn with a mask, indicates a fierce guardian king. Time monks wear a brownish robe with a diamond-shaped collar of blue-and-gold brocade

One dance at a Bhutanese religious festival features outrageously costumed and masked performers dancing and acting out ancient Himalayan tales about the reincarnation of donkeys and the struggle between good and evil. Describing it, John Scofield wrote in National Geographic, "I found the performance very difficult to follow, and curiously disquieting...Half a dozen masked jesters made fun of every motion, every symbolic act in the drama. No one among actors or audience was safe from their openly disrespectful and often obscene parade...Bhutanese see nothing at all strange in poking fun at organized religion...jesters were saying in effect, “After all, even the most serious rituals are the inventions of men, not gods.”" [Source: National Geographic, November 1976]

Demon dances remind "the faithful of the needless oppression of humankind by the forces of evil.” The masked dancers represent divine, human and animal figures and often engage in martial arts techniques.

Monks who do the Lord of the Cemeteries dance wear a skull-shaped mask and pajamas with skeleton bones painted on them. The dance is performed to welcome the God of the Dead Lama and is characterized by slow movements, open body positions and circular whirls.

The skeleton dancers wear coats, trousers, gloves and shoes made from red flannel with a skeleton pattern appliqued in white satin over flannel. Velvet panels imitating tiger skin form the skirt. The paws are padded in white and pinkish red satin and bones from the devils claws. A bull mask made of papier mache is worn with this costume.

In the summer some Tibetans join in traditional Tibetan dances held in outdoor squares.

Cham Dance in Tibet

right Cham dance is a famous monastic dance performed at monasteries in Tibet and Tibetan areas. As a Tibetan Buddhist ritual dance, the Cham dance is usually performed by monks for lay people. There is great variety among Cham dances according to the sect of the hosting monastery, the religious occasion, the region of performance and the traditions of the particular monastery. Visitors to the Lhasa area can attend Cham festivals at Samye and Trandruk monasteries in June. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Cham is a traditional form of dance performed at festivals with many dancers doing one or more dances. Sometimes chams are held from sun up to sun down, over a seven day period. The dancers wear elaborate costumes and carry out movements that have specific meanings. Most movements are done with the feet. The dances themselves have their origin in the bon religion and often deal with battles with evil spirits. Originally the dances were performed secretly for initiations within a monastery.

Different chams are performed at different ceremonial occasions throughout the year. The subjects range from the life of the saints to the expulsion of negative influences. A cham that wards off evil is a highlight of the New Year festival. Many dances are exorcisms of spirits featuring the exorcism of a human effigy made of dough, wax, yak butter or paper.

The dancers---monks or highly trained laymen take on the aspects of wrathful and companionate deities, heroes, demons and animals. Believed to be the gods or characters they represent, they twirl around in skirts that open like parachutes and dance to music produced by long horns, drums and cymbals. Their dances are performed to bring blessings upon the people, to instruct them, to protect them and to abolish evil influences.

Cham Masks and Costumes

The main attraction of the Cham dance for many non-Tibetans is the multitude and diversity of the colorful masks. Masks are the embodiment of the Wrathful Deity. While they drive terror and great fear into the hearts of the forces of evil, the masks also provide tranquility and calm to the Buddhist practitioner who is seeking enlightenment through meditation and prayer. Masks that have survived for a long time are considered special and very powerful. They have become venerated in their own right: with pilgrims praying before them, particularly on special days or during religious festivals. One such item is the famous stone mask of Palden Lhamo located in the Jokhang in Lhasa. Cham dance masks are generally about two or three times the size of a normal human head and quite heavy. Because of their weight, awkward center of gravity, sharp-edge issues, and the possibility of chafing and cuts, dancers wear padded caps or folded towels covering the forehead, sides of the face, and even the neck. The favorite head covering is the toque.

Besides the masks, Cham dancers also often wear brightly colored robes and sometimes aprons and other ornamentation traditionally made of bone. Old costumes are a rarity; almost all were confiscated and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Those that were hidden were severely degraded by insects and rodents and were virtually without use. Luckily, brocades and silks along with a wider selection of more modern haberdashery were now available and soon more colorful and flowing dance costumes started to appear. Previous decorations made of human or animal bone could now be fashioned from a wide variety of plastics - easier to acquire, easier to work with, and much less contentious to the outside world.

Costumes are worn over the usual dress of the monk. The normal dance costume consists of a gown with long broad sleeves over which can be worn a short triangular cape, sometimes called a tippet. This poncho-like mantle may be embroidered or decorated; its color may also import further iconographic information. Sometimes the dancer wears a breast ornament or a circular breastplate also known as a mirror. There are several stages to a Cham performance and in its full form, it lasts for several days. It is quite a social gathering for the people who attend.

Tibetan New Year Dances

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Dance at Taer Monastery

In the traditional New Year cham dance, monks dress as sorcerers in black hats and fancy robes and dance and make offerings to get rid of negative forces like greed, aggression and ignorance. The dance climaxes with an exorcism---the stabbing of a dough effigy of a demon, representing the dispelling of negativity from the last year. Between the dances dramatic skits are performed, often by lay people.

The performances are held in the courtyard of temples and the temple itself serves as a dressing room. Musicians and monks chant and play horns, drums, cymbals and conch shells as the dancers circle the courtyard and perform stamps, steps and hops known as “half-thunderbolt” movements that are expected to be performed smoothly and gracefully. The dancers prepare for the dance by spiritually identifying with the deity they portray. As they dance they must execute the correct movements, recite mantras and focus their thoughts on the deity.

Describing a New Year dance, Ian Baker wrote in National Geographic, "black-hatted monks spun on the soles of their yak-hide boots...As cymbals clashed and horns droned, the masked dancers danced to dispel the accumulated negativity of the past 12 months. Pressed against the walls of the courtyard pilgrims in fur-lined robes and richly-colored brocades witnessed this turbulent drama...As the sun disappeared behind a rock ridge, the ceremony concluded with a burning of a menacing effigy, freeing the days ahead from bondage to the past."

Zhuoxie Dance

Zhuoxie is a kind of public dance employing a long-handle oval drum tied to one's waist, popular in Lhasa and rural Shannan areas. While dancing, the drummer beats the drum with two curved drumsticks. Zhuoxie dance has always been performed at ceremonies of blessing and for entertaining guests. The villages of Nedong, Zalang, Qonggya and Sagya in Shannan region all have waist drum teams of their own. Most of them perform the drum dance. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Zhuoxie means song and dance in Tibetan language. Zhuoxie consists mainly of three parts. The first part is entirely dance. Its slow tempo gradually quickens. The people dance to the drumbeat in changing patterns to express their feelings. Sometimes a special display of skill in beating the drums is given. The drum teams in Nedong County are known for their vigorous beating while shaking their heads. The second part is singing. Holding tall feathers, the troupe, in a semicircle facing the audience, sing songs to express their wishes for a happy occasion. In the third part the performers beat the drums while singing. They conclude the performance with a bow to the audience.

Even numbers of people participate in the dance for the convenience of changing patterns. The leader of the dance, zhuoben, wearing sheepskin and a mask, appears first. Holding tata (coloured arrows), he stands in the centre to conduct the dance and drumbeat. Sometimes he shouts out the drumbeat, "One beat, three beats, five beats, seven beats, nine beats," to coordinate the drumming and dancing.

Zhuoxie does not use any special musical instruments for accompaniment except for small bells fastened to the performers' knees. One version of Zhuoxie depicts the construction of Sagya Monastery: clearing the ground, driving piles, transporting bricks and building with rocks, praying to god for protection, a lion playing with a tiger, setting the pillars and roof beams in place, fixing doors and windows, clearing the dust, welcoming the king to ascend the throne, imitating a walking crow, weaving carpets, and inauguration of the structure to express best wishes to the people.

Zhuoxie became popular in Yalong and the rest parts of Tibet in the 17th century, not only was it performed in the inauguration ceremony for the Sangye temple and recorded but also performed again on the magnificent and glorious wedding ceremony when the Tibet king Songtsen gampo married the princess Wencheng from the Tang empire according to some legends. For more than one thousand years, the dance Zhuoxie has been showing its lasting vitality.

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Tibetan sleeve dance

Guozhuang Dance

Guozhuang (Guixie, circle dance) is a kind of song and dance popular in countryside of Tibet. When dancing, people hold one another's hand into a circle, and they are divided into different teams with one team singing a song and the other teams joining in the chorus. The songs rise one after another, and people stamp on the ground as rhythm singing while dancing. It is often seen at the edge of villages, open ground or wheat-beating ground in farming areas. On festive occasions, people dance from morning till night, and return home after thoroughly enjoying themselves. Because words of "Guoxie" is easy to understand, the sounds are harmonious, and the words can be created extemporaneously, Tibetan people often exchange their true feelings and pour out their cherished desire for nice and happy life through the song and dance style. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

“Guozhuang” means singing and dancing in a circle in the Tibetan language. Originating from the form of dance performed by Tibetans around a campfire, it features agile and vigorous movements. The loose, wide trousers of the male dancers look like the feathered legs of eagles, and the men's movements are imitative of an eagle spreading its wings, hopping, and soaring. Women expose their right arms during dancing, with the right sleeve waggling behind. Moving around a circle, they sway their joined hands frontward and backward, keeping beats of their steps. The emphasis is on the postures and expression of emotion. The verses for one song read: "Oh snow-capped mountains, make way for us. We fly with wings spread. Oh rivers, make way for us. We stride with broad steps." These old verses display Tibetans' brave and bold character. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

There are four kinds of Guozhuang: Temple Guozhuang, Pastoral Guozhuang, Farm Guozhuang, and Forest Guozhuang. The Temple Guozhuang event is organized for religious purposes in temples or monasteries, or for greeting and sending-off the Living Buddha. It is solemn with strong religious implications, through which believers dance in honor of the Living Buddha, grateful for their expected bliss in their afterlife.

The Farm Guozhuang is popular in Qamdo in eastern Tibet, while the Pastoral Guozhuang is popular in the vast pasture land of Damxung, Heihe and Sog Xian. The Farm Guozhuang consists of two parts: singing, and quick singing and dancing. The tempo is subdivided into slow, medium and quick. At the beginning of a performance men and women stand in two separate circles and sing in rotation while swaying and stamping their feet. They conclude their singing by shouting "Ya!" Then their steps quicken and come to a stop at an exuberant allegro. The allegro music is often a condensed version of the slow music.

The form of pastoral Guozhuang is largely the same as farm Guozhuang, but there is a big difference in movement. In pastoral Guozhuang, for instance, the dancers jump while waving their hands in front of their chests and step forward, and then turn left or right, and their hands and feet move in the same direction. The sonorous singing produces a magnificent effect.

Duixie Dance - Tibetan Tap Dance

Duixie (tap dance) is a kind of song and dance in countryside from Lazi to Dingri that started in the middle of the 17th century at a "Xuedun Opera Festival", it is said, when the Jongba Tibetan opera group began doing a kind of dance accompanied by six-stringed instrument and stamping as rhythm. Later it became a cheerful and enthusiastic folk dance and was improved by actors and dancers, who transformed it into an urbanized Tibetan tap dance. It is most popular in Lhasa and Rikeze, and is often done in fields, streets, courtyards and "Linka" (parks). [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Duixie is a popular folk dance in rural areas of western Tibet. In Tibetan language, Dui means "upper" or "highland", referring to the round dance popular in rural areas of Ngamring, Dingri, Lhatse, and Sagya counties on the upper reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River, while Xie means "songs." Therefore, Duixie actually means a performance by dancing and singing. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Duixie also refers to the tap dance performed by urban people after the folk dances was introduced into Lhasa. It becomes a cheerful and enthusiastic folk dance popular throughout Tibet, and later, after improvement by actors and dancers, evolved into a kind of urbanized Tibetan tap dance. Most popular on the streets and in the open squares and Lingkas (parks) in Lhasa, this dance is also known as the Lhasa Tap Dance. The popular tap dance that has evolved from the rural Duixie Dance is a complex combination of a change of movement after every three steps -- five, seven, and nine quick mark-time steps with turns. The taps are rhythmic.

In Duixie Dance, the dancers tap vigorously to music played on flutes, Chinese plucked stringed instruments, plucked six-stringed instruments, dulcimers and clusters of small bells. The music for accompaniment of Duixie has been formalized into a slow opening, short interlude, allegro and finale. This Duixie has gradually been transformed from a recreational dance to stage exhibition.

Tibetan Opera

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King Gesar drama

Tibetan Opera is called "Lhamo" or "Ace Lhamo" in the Tibetan language, meaning "Sister Fairy". A kind of public square opera, it employs songs, dances, chants and drama to tell stories, with most of its repertoire deriving from Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history. There is vocal music, separate roles, accompanying band and special masks and clothes.

More secular than other art forms, lhamo often deals with historical events, heroes and kings as well as the lives of the Buddha and well-known Bodhisattvas. Invented in the 14th century, it is often performed by traveling troupes in all day performances. A show usually begins with a ritual purification and a summary of the plot by a narrator. The actors wear costumes and display movements that are specific to their characters.

The main forms of expression are is song and dance. The performance is divided into three parts: Wenkedun (rite of coming on the stage), Xiong (main part), and Zhaxi (rite of wishes at the end of the performance). The time duration is different for different plays: short ones last several hours while long ones are performed for 2 to 3 days. Folk opera is very popular in Tibet, especially in Lhasa, Lhokha, Shigatse and Chamdo, and also widespread in the nearby provinces like Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan Provinces.[Sources: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn; Chinaculture.org chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China.Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

In the past, Tibetan Opera was only held outdoors, and each player only had one costume throughout the performance. Since the 1960s, Tibetan Opera has been performed indoors with lighting, backdrop, set, orchestral obbligato and a number of modern themes added. Today, changes have taken place in the structure, singing, dancing, masks and stage format of Tibetan opera, and an orchestra, backdrop, lighting and make-up have been added. Besides being performed in the open air, Tibetan operas are also performed on indoor stages. The stage format can be either traditional or modern. In the traditional format, a narrator explains the plot of the opera section by section as the opera is being performed episode.

Drum and cymbals are the only accompanying instruments for traditional Tibetan opera, and actors wear masks when they perform. Dark red mask stands for king, light red mask stands for ministers, yellow stands for Living Buddha, blue stands for hunter, green stands for female, white stands for ordinary male, black stands for negative character, and mask with half white and half black stands for double-dealer. Since the 17th century, twelve famous opera troupes gather in Lhasa in July every year, and perform for lamas, officials, monks and ordinary people.

Tibetan Opera is performed during important Tibetan Festivals, such as Tibetan New Year, Shoton Festival. The biggest Tibetan opera performances are held in Norbulingka Summer Palace in Lhasa during Shoton Festival in August. The opera part of the festival is called the Xuedun Festival or the "Tibetan Opera Festival".

Tibetan Opera nearly went extinct. In Qomolang Village, "hometown of Tibetan Opera", elderly Cangjue was once the only female master artist of the former Qomolang Village Tibetan Opera Troupe, popular throughout the Tibetan region. She said: "As a toddler, I followed my parents around, performing for meager returns. My stomach was often filled with nothing. Later I joined the village troupe. We used to perform in Lhasa and neighboring areas in summer. When winter came, we had to trek to Nepal and India. The trips were hard."

See Dance Above

Subjects and Themes of Tibetan Opera

Llamo is closely associated with Than-togpgyal-po, a deified saint and god of drama. To this day performances are dedicated to him and offerings are made to him. The performances themselves serve as a form of entertainment and way of appeasing the spirits of the soil to ensure a good harvest. The actors have traditionally been peasant farmers and shopkeepers but today there are members of semiprofessional troupes.

The themes and subjects of the opera are drawn from Tibetan history and Buddhism. They often have a moral message of good prevailing over evil and feature dancing and acting and have a main story line broken up by short parodies and satires.

The scripts are derived from literary texts. A narrator provides background of the story and defines each main character. The dramatic part of the opera is presented as a tableaux with one or two actors singing with a chorus echoing the last phrase of each line or stanza. When a scene changes the performers perform a dance specific to their character as they move to a new position.

Tibetan Opera Schools and Plays

Today, Tibetan Opera has four schools: 1) The Goinba School, originating in Ngamring and Lhaze counties, features high-pitched and sonorous singing, mixed with songs and dances from the Doi area, and traditional acrobatics; 2) The Gyanggar School, popular in Rinbung, Gyangze and Xigaze and characterized by an ancient, rugged and solemn style derived from Lamaism; 3) The Xangba School, from western Tibet combines the influence of local folklore and the Gyanggar School; and 4)the Gyormolung School, from the Shannan and Lhasa areas is the most recent school to be established. Specializing in singing, choreography, stunts and comic effects, it is the most developed among the four schools and has formed a jubilant style with rich and colorful songs and dances. Today, Gyormolung troupes are active in different parts of Tibet and are even known in Sichuan's Garze region, India and Bhutan. [Source: Chinaculture.org chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China.Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

The Gyormolung (Juemulong School) is the most famous Tibetan Opera school. Though it was the last school that came into being, it is most vibrant and popular form because it brought forth many new ideas in vocal music, dance, tricks and comedy performances. Local Tibetan opera teams of the Juemulong school spread all over Tibet, Ganze in Sichuan, parts of India and Bhutan. Its performing forms include dance, speaking, chanting, fixed vocal music. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Tibetan Opera reflects the Tibetan people's lives from various periods. The original scripts from which the opera was adapted have remained popular readings among Tibetans for centuries. Currently there are about 20 traditional repertoires (although some of the scripts have been lost and only the names and some of the plots remain). The famous Eight Great Classical Tibetan Operas include Prince Nor-bzang, Maiden Vgro-ba-bzang-mo, Brothers Don-yod and Don-grub, Prince Dri-med-Kun-idan, Princess Wencheng, Gzugs-kyi-nyi-ma, Pad-ma-vod-vba and Maiden Shang-sa, most of which were derived from historic events, famous lives, folk tales and stories from the sutras.

History of Tibetan Opera

Compared with the few other folk operas of Chinese ethnic minorities, some say, the Tibetan opera has the longest history. They say it dates back about 14 centuries. Others say Tibetan opera was created by monk Tangdongjiebu of the Gelu denomination at the beginning of the 15th century for the purpose of collecting alms to construct a chain bridge over the Yarlung Tibetanbo River.

The Chinese government says: According to Tibetan historical records, King Songtsan Gambo greatly admired the costumes, music and dancing of the Tang Dynasty introduced to Tibet by Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty when she married the Tibetan king. He arranged for the training of 16 beautiful girls in a combined art form of the Tang-style and Tibetan folk music and dancing in order to entertain the princess. Later, this entertainment developed into a more clearly defined form of dancing and singing. [Sources: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China.Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Some say the origin of Tibetan Opera goes back a millennium to Tibetan ritual dances and early Indian Buddhist drama. Since Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history have provided the inspiration for Tibetan Opera, most of its repertoire is based on Buddhist stories and Tibetan history. There is a beautiful legend about the Tibetan Opera in its present form. During the 14th century, a high-ranking monk and bridge builder named Drupthok Thangthong Gyalpo decided to build iron bridges across all of the major rivers in Tibet to improve transportation and facilitate pilgrimages. To fund the project, Thangthong Gyalpo created a singing and dancing group of seven beauties who danced while he played the cymbals and drums. They performed throughout Tibet to earn money for his bridge project. This is believed to be the source of the present Tibetan Opera. Thangthong Gyalpo himself is considered as the father of Tibetan Opera. To honor the great founding father, a blessing of his statue always precedes each Lhamo and usually ends with the presentation of the hada (a strip of raw silk or linen used for ritual greetings) by the performers and audience members.

Tibetan opera was popular in the 17th century. Since the 17th century, Tibetan Opera developed and reached its peak with a long list of excellent players and traditional repertoires. Different genres evolved, each with a certain style. Performances were held during various festive occasions. The Shoton Festival which was once a religious festival became a special festive occasion of Tibetan Opera joint performance, during which many professional and amateur troupes were summoned to Lhasa to entertain the Dalai Lama and his followers.

Tibetan Opera Performance

Over the centuries, Tibetan opera has formed a three-part stage format. In the prelude, known as "Wenbadun," Wenba men in blue masks, two Jialu men and several fairies take the stage, performing religious rituals, and songs and dances. A narrator expansively introduces the story, the characters and the libretto in rapid repetitive rhythm. The second part is the opera itself. All the players enter and start singing and dancing. The third part is an epilogue which features a blessing ceremony and is also an occasion for the presentation of hada (silk ritual greeting scarves) and donations from the audience. The highlight of the performance is its masks, through which the role of the players can be identified. The masks have various colors and motifs, each indicating a certain meaning. For example, the red mask refers to the king, the green the queen, while the yellow the lamas. [Sources: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China.Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Tibetan Opera costumes are very lavish, with rich brocades and a striking variety of masks and animal motifs. The musical score is created entirely by the drum and cymbals that punctuate every movement, and by the singing actors. The rapidly chanted narration alternates with the sung dialogues repeated in the chorus. The dance movements are refined, exaggerated and vigorous. The highlight of Tibetan Opera is the mask. Located on the front of the mask is usually a motif, such as the sun or moon. The role of the actor can be identified from the type of mask he or she is wearing. For example, a red mask represents the king; a green, the queen; a yellow, Lamas and deities, etc.

Tibetan Opera call for skills in singing, dancing, elocution and the martial arts. Historical pageantry, myth and magic are woven together with earthly humor and scenes from the daily lives of ordinary people. The primitive simplicity and vigor demonstrated in the singing and dancing is effectively reflected in the typical Tibetan landscape backdrops.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, Save Tibet, Kalachakranet.org

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China “, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015


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