Review: Shwe Man Thabin at Asia Society

Shwe Man Thabin Members of this Burmese troupe offered an abridged two-hour version of zat pwe, a traditional all-night performance, at Asia Society. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Shwe Man Thabin Members of this Burmese troupe offered an abridged two-hour version of zat pwe, a traditional all-night performance, at Asia Society. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The New York Times
By GIA KOURLASAPRIL 12, 2015

Zat pwe, an outdoor Burmese performance dating to the late 1800s, is a busy, all-night affair in which Buddhist offerings mingle with court and folk traditions, acting, opera scenes, a percussion-and-gong ensemble and dancers who melt onto the stage like marionettes. In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, such events end at sunrise, which is ushered in by the hna pa thwa, an unbroken, improvised sequence of dance, singing, acting and clowning.

For its weekend engagement of Shwe Man Thabin, a troupe formed in 1933 by Shwe Man Tin Maung, the Asia Society in New York offered an abridged two-hour version as part of Myanmar’s Moment, a series that coincides with the institution’s museum exhibition “Buddhist Art of Myanmar.” On Friday, 18 endearing musicians and dancers appeared from Shwe Man Thabin, a 75-member multigenerational group, affording audiences a rare taste of Myanmar’s culture.

Marionettes were used in the royal courts to dramatize Buddhist jataka tales, about the lives of Buddha. The influence of marionette movement is fascinating today, as agile dancers bound into the air and then collapse on the floor like wilted dolls with one leg stretched forward and the other bent behind.

There are shadows of contemporary bone-breaking in this eccentric, timeless dance form, which, while angular, is also full-bodied. Serpentine curves of the torso guide the dancers to use their arms in opposition — up and down, out and in — while ornate fingers sway backward with hands that flash from front to back. In this troupe, the women are delicately beautiful yet, disappointingly, merely decorative, even though the men are similarly adorned: Costumes come drenched in sequins and rhinestones.

Although the rousing musicians gave the evening an excellent base, the pacing was a bumpy; moments of broad humor landed in awkward places. But the frisky Shwe Man Chan Thar, portraying both the male (mintha) and female (minthamee) roles in a number that required hypersonic costume changes behind a piece of fabric, embodied the characters with quick-witted bite.

Later, the spectacular San Min Aung, in a duet with an actual marionette, mimicked the puppet by dropping onto his knee and floating back up — a disjointed dancer seemingly controlled by invisible string. After the hna pa thwa performance in the program’s second half, audience members lingered in their seats, dazed, even after the performers had bowed and waved goodbye. Finally, the company member Shwe Man Win Maung intervened. “That’s it!” he said, with a laugh. “Go home.” Does that happen after an all-nighter in Myanmar? It seems unlikely.

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