Multimedia: Celebrated Troupe Brings Myanmar's Performance Tradition to New York
An evening of zat pwe presents a panoply of music, song, dance, drama, and comedy. (Rachel Cooper)
From April 10-12, Asia Society welcomes Myanmar’s Shwe Man Thabin troupe for two nights of music and dance performances and a morning workshop. The events are part of Myanmar’s Moment, a programming series built around the Asia Society Museum exhibition Buddhist Art of Myanmar, on view through May 10, 2015 in New York City.
Zat pwe is the traditional Burmese performance form that combines elements of music, dance, and theater into a unique variety extravaganza. It is a highly popular part of village pagoda celebrations, featuring dancers, comedians, clowns, and acrobats, all accompanied by a live percussion-gong-oboe ensemble known as the hsaing waing.
Ahead of the performance, here is an introduction to the zat pwe form, the Shwe Man Thabin troupe, and Chan Thar, the troupe’s leader, who will be performing in New York. (Note: much of the following text is adapted from a new AsiaSociety.org article by Myanmar scholar Kit Young that is recommended to anyone wishing to delve further into this art form and these performers.)
What Is Zat Pwe?
An evening of zat pwe presents a panoply of music, song, dance, drama, and comedy — all led by a male stage star known as a mintha, like the one above. (Rachel Cooper)
A zat pwe in Myanmar is a popular all-night outdoor theater performance that began in the late 1800s and has continued to the present day. An evening of zat pwe presents a panoply of music, song, dance, drama, and comedy all led by a male stage star known as a mintha, accompanied by his female counterpart, a minthamee, and an ensemble of clowns. The music of the hsaing waing, a traditional percussion-gong-oboe ensemble in Myanmar, is integral to every moment on stage. A zat pwe continues all night, ending with the first rays of the morning sun.
The zat pwe blends cultural and historical elements gathered from a variety of sources: dance in the old royal courts, marionette theater traditions, Buddhist teachings of the jataka tales, contemporary dramatic plays addressing social issues such as drug addiction, family crises and corruption, and clowns who use humor to address risqué local politics and gossip.
Shwe Man Thabin: A Family Legacy
The greatest zat pwe advocate and dancer following World War II was Mintha Shwe Man Tin Maung, who started his own troupe, Shwe Man Thabin, in 1933. He brought international recognition and accolades to the music and dance of the zat pwe. His genius was to combine classical forms with more spontaneous improvised movement, dialogue, and socially relevant topics.
Studio portrait of U Tin Maung, founder of the Shwe Man Thabin troupe, circa mid-1950s. (Courtesy Kit Young)
After Shwe Man Tin Maung’s death in 1969, his mintha sons — film actor Nyunt Win, Win Bo, San Win, Win Maung, and Chan Thar, all household names throughout Myanmar — continued to direct Shwe Man Thabin. They each contributed their unique talents to sustaining the troupe, while moving forward in dramatic and contemporary presentations, always mindful of their father’s commitment to balancing high performance standards with changes in their audience’s social and cultural expectations.
Today, two companies of Shwe Man Thabin tour Myanmar. Chan Thar directs one company with 70 performers. The second group is a smaller company, comprised of mostly younger performers, directed by Shwe Man Tin Maung’s grandson, Tin Maung San Min Win. In 2013, the family celebrated 80 years of Shwe Man Thabin and its founder, Shwe Man Tin Maung, in three all-night, packed-house zat pwe performances at the National Theater in Yangon.
Meet the Performer: Chan Thar
Shwe Man Chan Thar (b. 1959) is the youngest son of Alinga Kyaw Swa (Performer Laureate) Shwe Man U Tin Maung. He learned to dance and sing with his father, brothers, and instructors of the Shwe Man Thabin troupe. A stellar dancer, choreographer, singer, actor, film actor, and playwright, Chan Thar’s gifts have brought him national and international acclaim as the most prominent mintha performing today on Myanmar’s zat thabin stage.
Video: Chan Thar on stage in 2014 (1 min., 41 sec.)
After his older brothers retired in the late 1990’s, Shwe Man Chan Thar became director of Shwe Man Thabin — a troupe which includes 70 dancers, comedians, musicians, and stage hands who tour all of Myanmar. In his role as director, Shwe Man Chan Thar constantly seeks ways to incorporate stage innovations, techniques, dramatic plots, and new songs that will appeal to his audiences.
Video: Interview with Chan Thar (2 min., 16 sec.)
This article is excerpted from writing by Kit Young with contributions from Rachel Rosado.
Note: Asia Society’s April 10-11 performances are now sold-out; tune in to AsiaSociety.org/Live on Saturday, April 11 at 8:00 pm New York time for a free live video webcast of the second performance. Tickets are still available for Shwe Man Thabin's demonstration and workshop on Sunday, April 12 from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm.