Friday, September 26, 2008

Dance Dance Evolution?

As part of my quest to experience, see, hear, visit, taste, and smell all the free things available in NYC, I went to observe Cham!, Ritual Dances of Bhutan. Free +1 to anyone who knew that Bhutan is a country, because I sure as hell didn't. But, yes, it's true: Bhutan is a country, a kingdom in fact, and here are some interesting sentences about it, courtesy of wikipedia:

The Kingdom of Bhutan (IPA: /buːˈtɑːn/) is a landlocked nation in South Asia. It is located amid the eastern end of the Himalaya Mountains and is bordered to the south, east and west by India and to the north by China. Bhutan is separated from Nepal by the Indian state of Sikkim. The Bhutanese call their country འབྲུག་ཡུལ་, Druk Yul (land of the thunder dragon).[1]

Bhutan is one of the most isolated and least developed nations in the world.[2] Foreign influences and tourism are regulated by the government to preserve the nation's traditional culture, identity and the environment. Accordingly, in 2006 Business Week rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest country in the world.[3]...The state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism, and the population is predominantly Buddhist, with Hinduism being the second-largest religion....After centuries of direct monarchic rule, Bhutan held its first democratic elections in March 2008....Bhutan is also the last remaining monarchy, constitutional or otherwise left in South Asia.

So the Rubin Museum, as part of a promotion they're running to alert people to the existence of their new The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan exhibit (and, maybe, like for me, to the existence of the museum as a whole), organized this event. The promotion involved, according to the brochure I was handed during the dance, flying 13 "monks of the monastic fortress of Trongsa [to] perform two common examples of cham," which is the "ancient ritual dance of Tantric Buddhism that has been preserved and performed in Bhutan for centuries," in public places around New York. Also: "The dances feature wrathful deities that destroy evil demons."

I witnessed the Cham titled Shanag Ngacham, or: Dance of the Black Hats with Drums, which turns out to be a pretty good title in terms of describing the contents of the dance, as you can see from the first video ever posted by the TheDailySnowman account on YouTube.


The dance I witnessed took place at the New York Public Library, located at 42nd and 5th. A fair crowd attended, maybe 150 to 200 people. A decent portion of the assembled masses knew what was going on and showed up on purpose; the rest seemed to just wander up the steps to the library courtyard, curious to see what was drawing such a crowd. It's pretty interesting that a museum is doing marketing through street performances, just instead of asking for quarters they were looking for visitors and attention.

I was trying pretty hard to figure out what the crowd was thinking and feeling. And by that I mean: I was trying pretty hard to figure out what I was thinking and feeling. I attended because I thought it'd be weird and cool and random to see monks do a demon subjugation dance in a public place in NYC, and we all know I was very available that weekday afternoon. But I was experiencing this weird mixture of appreciation for a bit of foreign, ancient, and fascinating ritual, along with this sense of Western superiority and hubris, as I was watching these guys do a dance to subjugate demons. And I wonder how honest this description, again from the brochure which I was handed, is: "Wrathful forms of deities personify tantric techniques of transforming greed, ignorance, pride, and other spiritual poisons--demons we all possess and that stand in the way of our reaching enlightenment." Is that what the monks would say? Or is this just the most blatant part of the inherent and inevitable Americanization of bringing monks from Bhutan to New York?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they're important to think about.

Lastly, here's a link to my Picassa web album, where you can see the pictures I took and read the witty comments I wrote. Now with bonus Chuck Klosterman photos and witty comments! (Note: The witty comments are about Chuck Klosterman--loosely--and not by him, which may rightfully lead you to question the wittiness of the comments in question.)


Cham! and Klosterman 9/16/08 10:06 PM

2 comments:

Stephanie said...

i'm never as good as you on being up wither interesting happenings in new york city and other esoteric cultural happenings, but I win on this one! i even went to an entire lecture about them on the first day of my internship this summer!

Avi said...

@stephanie
Then you, as promised, are the proud new owner of a +1. Use it in good health.