John Flory, the lead character in the famous novel Burmese Days, stated ‘no one with eyes in his head can resist a pwe-dance.’ Although Flory says a lot of disagreeable- and downright racist- things, it is hard to argue with him on this point. The mesmerizing dances and incredible tales told at a zat pwe are unique and memorable.
Once a regular feature of Myanmar life, these days there are fewer zat pwes being held and this tradition is slowly fading from the culture. But the newly established Mandalay Arts Foundation, a team of passionate art lovers, is hoping to change this trend.
And, fittingly, it all started with a pwe.
While on holiday in Myanmar in 1987, Dan Erlich’s trishaw driver offered to take him to a local festival. With time on his hands, Dan agreed and off they went, bouncing down the streets of Mandalay to a lively street party with a stage and band. As the night unfolded Dan became more and more captivated by the incredible dances of the zat pwe. He vowed then and there to return to Myanmar again to study this traditional art form.
Dan began to form connections with local artisans and travelled all over Myanmar to see performances. But as the years passed, he could see the country shifting away from its traditions with fewer and fewer zat pwes taking place. Dan grew increasingly determined to preserve this unique art form. ‘The zat pwe has shown me something very clearly, and that is the role that artists play in reminding people of their common past and the values that they share, and in so doing, binding together the generations, the rural areas to the town, and the different regions of Myanmar. This is not just entertainment. It is defining national identity and taking an active role in creating the future,’ he stated.
Almost thirty years later, Dan’s hard work has paid off. In 2015 the Arts Mandalay Foundation was established, a non-profit organization aiming to sustain classical performing arts for years to come. With the support of the Suu Foundation and other private donors, Arts Mandalay Foundation has developed the Inwa Arts School and brought the Mintha Theatre under its patronage.
The Inwa Arts School offers top-notch training from four renowned dancers. The school emphasizes quality over quantity, taking a few select students and providing a two-year course as well as full-board.
Student Ko Htoo Bwa Aung hails from Mawlu in the Kachin State. The 14-year old beams with pride when speaking about being a student at Inwa. ‘I saw a pwe in my village when I was a child and fell in love with traditional dance. After that day, I would dance all day- even when I was showering in the stream or walking from my house to the outhouse. Now I have a chance to learn from the masters and I hope to be a troupe leader in the future,’ he says with a smile.
The teachers spend their days sharing their expert skills and techniques with the young students. Teacher Pantra Kyaw Win is one of Myanmar’s most famous living performers. Now 72 years old, he got his start in dance at the tender age of 11 at a government school offering the comprehensive ‘Pantra’ (traditional performing arts) curriculum. By 16, he was a troupe leader and spent the next decades of his life performing at zat pwes around the country. His passion for dance – and his students – is clear. During the training, he sits back, carefully observing the dancers from afar and offering words of advice or encouragement as needed. He said ‘I am proud that I can contribute to preserving our country’s heritage.’
In addition to training the next generation of zat pwe performers, Arts Mandalay Foundation also aims to promote Myanmar culture to the outside world. To do this, the foundation took over the Mintha Theatre, a performing arts centre that had struggled financially since its opening in 2006. The theatre offers nightly one-hour shows of dance and music performed by the students (tickets: 14,000 MMK). Dan hopes, in the future, that the school will be a leading force in educating the international market about Myanmar culture. He elaborated on his reasoning by saying ‘Our model is for example, Bali, where arts have helped the whole country. Mandalay has similar intrinsic resources if it can keep them from slipping away.’
Hopefully the Arts Mandalay Foundation will continue to grow and encourage others to actively promote Myanmar culture. As Director U Aung Kyaw Tun sums it up ‘We want to keep our strong culture alive and share it with the world. If we lose our culture, we are also lost.’
For more information:
58th Streets between 29th and 30th Streets,
Nightly shows: 20.30-21.30 (14,000 MMK)