Traditional Burmese Dance Troupe Returns to National Stage

By Sara Gamon 13 August 2013

The Shwe Man Thabin traditional Zat Pwe troupe held a celebratory two-night extravaganza of song, dance, comedy, drama and spectacle over the weekend at the National Theater in downtown Yangon, marking the first time the group has been able to perform on such a large scale since 1988.

The weekend performances were a celebration and tribute to the founder of the troupe, the late Shwe Man U Tin Maung, who started the ensemble 80 years ago. His son Chan Thar now directs the group, which is currently made up of both second and third generation progeny, as well as several non-related performers.

According to Kit Young, an American musician and scholar of traditional Burmese music, the Shwe Man Thabin troupe is the last family ensemble in Burma. “There used to be a lot of family troupes in the ’30s and ’40s, even under the British. And then they just died out,” she said. Worried about potential politically explosive live performers, “the military government made permits, licenses, registration so difficult, that performing troupes just gave up.”

During the decades under dictatorship, the military tried to appropriate traditional Burmese arts to both curb critics and give the regime an element of legitimacy as the protectors and promoters of national culture. Only vetted performers who had emerged from military-sanctioned pathways, such as students of the government’s University of Culture, or those trusted to not speak out of line, were allowed to perform for large audiences and at places of national prominence.

Young, who attended the government’s traditional music competitions during the 1990s, described them as “dreadful” with no “spirit,” comparing them to the stilted art that the Czech author Vaclav Havel decried under communism.

The weekend’s performances were a world removed from those days of repression. Young, also the only non-Burmese performer in the show, said the event marked “the first time there has been such excitement on stage in this building since it was built,” in 1990.

Outside the performance hall, a gallery of old pictures and newspaper clippings entertained audience members before the show began. Once it started, attendees were treated to an exciting twist on traditional Zat Pwe, as the Shwe Man Thabin troupe has long experimented with adding modern elements to its performances. They made clever use of film, image projections, and old sound recordings, at points seamlessly switching between the voice of a stage actor and the voice of Shwe Man U Tin Maung himself, recorded over 40 years ago.

Vignettes ranged from comedic to romantic and even included a live re-enactment of Shwe Man U Tin Maung’s death on stage while dancing in 1969.  Both a traditional Burmese “Saing Waing” ensemble, as well as a rock band, accompanied the troupe. The mood at the show was festive, as people passed around food, took pictures and enjoyed the buoyant six-hour performance.

Young lamented that the modern Burmese middle class takes little interest in Zat Pwe. “They say this is just for farmers. Except for people over 60 or 70 who remember this as children. Then the middle class respected this.”