Friday, February 8, 2013

The Lord of the Cremation Dance

One of the many questions I am asked about the Opera project in Bhutan is how we are going to combine Western and Bhutanese music and dance. We are not aiming to run seamlessly from one expression to the other: each has its own distinctive identity. The challenge is to let each expression retain its full identity while at the same time making sure they move coherently within the story. A possible solution is to identify a significant moment in the opera and explore how it would be interpreted from a Bhutanese point of view.

One of these moments is the death of Acis who has been crushed by a rock thrown by his rival-in-love Polyphemus (one of the Cyclops giants who can be seen to represent the Sicilian volcano Etna). It's a poignant moment in the opera and we felt compelled to explore how the Bhutanese deal with death and how it is represented in dance and music in order to feature these expressions at this particular point.

The Lord of the Cremation Ground Dance (Durdag Cham) is one of the sacred dances that appears in the five day religious festivals (Tsechu) that take place around the country. The dancers wear white costumes and masks that represent skeletons and the most immediate effect on the spectator is to remind them of death and impermanence. The skeleton masks are gorily impressive. The deep-sunk eyeball sockets are red with blood and the facial lineaments are also red, recalling the fresh and final flow of blood of the newly deceased. The dancers wear gloves that feature long red fingernails representing the stain of blood from the cemetery. They bend their bodies with deep backward movements which serve to successfully liberate the spirit of the deceased.

In the story of Acis and Galatea as recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Galatea, unable to bring her young lover back to life, relies on her powers to transform his dead body into a river, symbolizing the eternal murmur of their love.


Paul Jay said...

Using the masks from this dance was a fabulous idea!

Unknown said...

Really glad I found this article and it is really informative.
It would really help me if you may give me more information about this Dance.
I have a very haunting memory of this dance.I want to paint this and need more accounts on this dance.
Thank you