My grandmother’s name is Daw Myint Myint Sein. Most people know her as Amy Po Sein, the youngest daughter of the “Great” Po Sein, a man who is said to be the father of Burmese theatre. She too is a signer and a dancer and has spent her whole life in the world of creatives. She was born into the most turbulent time in the history of Burma. In her lifetime, she faced colonialism by the British, invasion and occupation by the Japanese in WWII, the rise of the Burmese nationalists afterwards, and the following crack-down and brutal repression by the Burmese Military Junta. She was not gifted in anything that is useful in times of turmoil. She did not know politics, business, or warfare. Instead, she depended on the only thing she was equipped with — an exceptional sense of storytelling.
In 2011, at the age of 79, she left Yangon abruptly with her theatre troupe to prepare for a show at a new hotel in Bagan. Thinn Thinn and I came back to Myanmar for holidays, and when we heard that she was in Bagan, we flew out to see her.
She told us that she was there to direct and produce a few shows, but she was also there to organise a one-off show to celebrate a special guest — supposedly one of the wealthiest men in America and his new wife. We did not know whom they were because they came under disguise to not alert the press about their honeymoon in Bagan. They were, however, VIP enough for the hotel to pay an entire dance troupe to put together a full show just for them. My grandmother invited us to come along and see this performance. She said Thinn Thinn and I were in for a treat.
At 7 pm, the next day, Thinn Thinn and I were lead by Ko Kyaw Myo Hlaing (A Kyee Kaung), her protege, to a small temple ruin about 500 meters away from the hotel. We walked through a long, winding and narrow path, which led us to a tranquil lake covered in lotus blossoms. We can see the dance troupe setting up at the temple across the lake.
The sun began to set in Bagan. Have you ever seen a sunset in Bagan? The way the temples, the lotuses, and the lightening bugs play with the light? If you have seen it, you already know why we call this country “The Golden Land.” If you have not yet seen a Bagan sunset, you couldn’t possibly know why, and I don’t know how to describe it with words.
My grandmother has decided to conduct the show in front of a small temple ruin. This was a reference to the ancient days of Burmese theatre when performances took place on the ground of temples or the courtyard of the palaces. The dances happened inside a circle on the ground. When an actor entered the circle, she is on set, and when she stepped out, she was done with the scene. There were no mirrors, smoke or curtains back then, so people used their imaginations a lot more.
The performance was to take place in the area between the pagoda and the lotus lake. A scarlet red carpet laid in front of the pagoda archway where the stupa inside was in full view. It was not a famous temple, so a tour guide would not have taken you there. If you wanted to find it, you would have had to speak to the locals and trek a few unpaved paths. It was modest, yet enchanting, and defiant of time. When the sun was almost retired, the Bagan skyline gave off a particularly rich blue. The theatre crew up the stage lights and went behind make-shift curtains next to the temple to get into costume. My wife and I sat on the ground, next to my grandmother.
With a loud bang of the drums, the dance began. The composition of the Burmese orchestra, “Saing Waing” is very different from that of the European orchestra. The 31 percussion set lead our symphony, not the strings. Next to the percussion set are wood-winds, bamboo clappers, bamboo flutes, and large and small Oboes (Hane). The drum corner (Pat-ma-gyaun), located to the side of the stage is where the Burmese orchestra is genuinely unique. Here, the great drum is accompanied by the small drums and cymbals. They all work together to for one purpose — to send a thrill of excitement down your spine.
The dancers stepped out. Burmese dance is angular, fast-paced, and energetic. What distinguishes Myanmar dance from others is that the emphasis is on poses, not steps. We don’t care as much about how you move into position but rather whether or not you strike the rise pose at the right the beat.
The show opened with “Sagawa” (the dance of the spirits), followed by “Dance of the Dynasties” — a routine my grandmother choreographed, where three couples, each in costumes of a different Burmese dynasty, took turns to dance a duet that represents their period. Then came the flower scene from “Ramayana” which is my absolute favourite.
If you’re not familiar with the play, it’s the Burmese adaption of the ancient Indian epic about the ogre king Dathaghiri who captured the princess Thida and the quest of the prince Yama, his brother Lakhana, and their friend Hanuman, the monkey warrior to rescue Thida. The flower scene takes place after the Ogre has successfully kidnapped Thida and brought her back to his castle. The Ogre enters the princess’s chamber with a flower as a gift. He hopes to win her love, but her heart belonged to the handsome prince. Nevertheless, she was already in his captivity, with no means at all to protect herself. Except for a scarf. She has prayed upon and devised herself an enchanted scarf that deterred the Ogre’s advances. The dance is centred around beautiful choreography where the Orgre tries to see the princess’s face and offer her the flower, but she hides behind the scarf which keeps turning him away. I’ve always liked this story because what happened at the end of the scene always makes me think. In the end, when the ogre was getting frustrated, and he can no longer bear it, he lunges at Thida, yank the scarf from her hands and tosses it back at her. Whenever I see that I would think to myself, “Did the scarf ever had any power? Or did the Ogre just wanted Thida to believe in it, and maintain the perception of having some power over him?
The Bagan night sky and the pagoda archway’s delicate floral embellishments perfectly framed the dances. The dancers moved to the sound of the drums and leapt against gravity while their capes and gowns swayed behind in the wind. I remember Thinn Thinn smiling and clapping, and occasionally wiping tears from her eyes. I also remember my grandmother watching, very calmly. I always wondered what she was thinking during that moment. Was she with us? Or was she back in her world, back in a time long gone? I didn’t want it to end, but I knew the sound as soon as I heard it. The Thingyan (Burmese New Year) song came on. My grandmother always sings this song herself. In it, she wishes you; her beloved, the best of luck, good health, great friends, success and joy in the next year and every year that comes after.
When the performance was over, my grandmother never got up to greet the special guest. She didn’t look like she cared about him or his money at all. Instead, she looked up to the stars, and then at the lotuses on the lake. Some lightening bugs hovered by in silence. I deduced quickly that the guest never mattered. He was just an excuse so the hotel will fund the performance.
I worked up the courage to ask her, “Who was it for? Becuase it was a gift wasn’t it? Was it to yourself? Your father? Your late husband? Bagan? Or was it to Dance herself ?”
“You’re right. It was a gift”, she replied, smiled and walked away. She never told me whom it was for.