Tibetan dancers' vitality leaps cultural gap

Imagine a roomful of sophisticated New Yorkers laughing their heads off at a play where a herdsman and his wife milk their yaks, churn butter, and sing about how jolly life is in the mountains. These urbanites are not watching Jackie Gleason, or even ``La Fille Mal Gard'ee,'' but the first Tibetan folk opera company imported from the People's Republic of China. The four New York performances last week turned into a media event, and the standing-room audience thoroughly enjoyed itself, although the Asia Society's usual fare is more stringent and high-class. Tibetan folk opera, called Ache Lhamo, is a remote cousin of Peking Opera, the highly refined form that includes spoken and sung stories, acrobatic displays, and dancing. It seems the Chinese are now encouraging the preservation of these native arts, and the visiting Tibetan troupe, about 20 performers from a company of over 100 based in Lhasa, was welcomed at its debut with a short speech by Tang Xingbo, the Chinese consul general there. The program included seven scenes from the traditional opera ``Doasammo'' and four additional short numbers from a shrinking repertory that dates back 500 years.

The dramatic style of Lhamo is semi-naturalistic, with a very broad and physical acting style, reminiscent of early silent movies. The narration and dialogue are chanted in high nasal voices that can range through shades of expression from excitement to anguish.

In ``Doasammo,'' there's an evil queen who's trying to do away with her stepchildren so she can take over the throne. Eventually, after various narrow escapes, they're saved by good-hearted commoners, including the yak owners, and the demon-queen is punished.

As in other traditional Asian theater, the aristocrats look and act more refined than the peasants, though their motives may be disreputable. The proletarian characters wear plainer costumes and move less ceremoniously; they're good souls, and the audience likes them even if they've been co-opted into working for villainous masters.

My favorite was the queen's conniving maidservant, played by Yangla. Trotting after her mistress with knees bent and elbows out, she shadows the queen's gestures and rhythms, acting as a kind of crude yes-woman, and does her dirty work. She's full of vitality and deception as she coaxes the king to drink poison. In the second half of the program, the versatile Yangla played a young girl of the people who's been chosen against her will as a bride for the local prince. She struggles piteously but has to submit.

In the formal dance interludes scattered throughout the program, the Tibetans showed their amiable, energetic movement style best. For a brief battle scene at the end of ``Doasammo,'' soldiers hurled themselves at each other in crisscross lines and whipping spins very similar to the spellbinding maneuvers of the fabulous Chinese acrobats, but without the showiness.

In several dances that are not part of any narrative, the dancers move on and off in a shuffling lineup, accompanied by a drum and cymbals. Usually maintaining a circle, the dancers - all males - step, hop, and turn with their arms extended into the diagonals around their bodies. Often they spiral their upper bodies into larger, off-center spheres, and the circular theme bursts into its most flamboyant pattern with fast barrel turns. Though the dancers all maintain the same shifting step-hop rhythmic patterns, they don't take special care to be in precise unison.

What with flying beads and fur and brocaded costumes, the effect isn't one of virtuosity but of unquenchable vitality. Most of the dances were originally temple dances, and the spirituality remains not solemn or mystical but charged with a sense of life in the high, clean air.

This company is not the first representative of Tibetan folk opera to visit New York. A troupe of expatriates under the patronage of the Dalai Lama appeared here in 1975, and I remember them as even more earthy and lovable, less extroverted. All folk traditions are vulnerable to change, and the Tibetan culture has suffered traumatically under the Chinese Communists. Now it seems the government is trying to reinstate the folk forms, and even if the reasons are political, we are the beneficiaries.

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