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On the Road from Mandalay: A Burmese puppet troupe performs in San Francisco

By Nina Keefer

In the quiet before the puppet show, U Than Nyunt kneeled behind the backdrop near the hanging marionettes, lit three candles and presented an offering of coconut and bananas. "I'm paying my respects to the local guardian spirits and requesting that they not be offended," said the puppeteer.

Two spirit medium puppets (natkadaw) perform the ritual beginning of every show by lifting an offering of banana and coconut (kadaw-pwe) towards heaven and paying their respects to the local guardian spirits.

The first troupe to perform traditional Burmese puppet theater (yokethe pwe) in the United States, the Mandalay Marionettes played to a packed house at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum in early November.

To show respect to the puppet master and the marionettes, the puppeteers, singer and musicians removed their shoes before climbing on stage. The drummer spread "drum food" or pat-sa, a mixture made of ash, on the heads of his drums to tune them. Then with a clash of gongs and cymbals, the hsain waing orchestra began playing as the audience entered the hall.

Marionettes hanging backstage. A complete set is made up of about 28 puppets, which are carved to be anatomically correct and operated with 8-16 strings.

Though many of the Burmese in the U.S. had never seen a traditional puppet show, the Mandalay Marionette's reception was enthusiastic. "They were very happy to see us," said Ma Ma Naing, co-founder of the company. "In New York people in the audience had tears on their faces. They miss their country and like to remember."

With three beats on the gongs and cymbals, the performance began with a ritual dance performed by spirit medium puppets. Behind a waist-high painted backdrop, the puppeteers manipulated their marionettes and Daw Aye Shwe sang the lyrics. In a series of scenes, animals, ogres and alchemists appeared, symbolizing the chaos of the world at creation. Only after such a beginning can the kings, ministers, pageboys, clowns, princes, and princesses appear and the dramas begin.

Exceptional in the U.S., Burmese puppet shows are not common in Burma either. Once a truly popular form of entertainment, puppetry in Burma went into decline after World War II. At the height of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, puppetry was considered even superior to live drama. It has had a profound influence on dance as Burmese dancers attempted to mimic the delicate and precise movements of marionettes.

"Ma Ma Naing is an active force in the revitalization of the art form," said Kathy Foley, a theater arts professor and puppetry expert at UC Santa Cruz who arranged for the troupe to give a workshop at the university.

Traditionally, a young person would have learned to perform by serving as an apprentice, but Ma Ma Naing's route was very different. While accompanying her father on his interviews for a book on Burmese literature, drama and puppetry, she first met puppeteers as a teenager. "At that time I had no idea that one day I would be a puppeteer and never dreamed that one day I would be here," said Ma Ma Naing, who became interested in puppetry while running a gift shop in Mandalay. She and her husband U Than Nyunt formed a small group, found retired puppet master U Pan Aye, now 76, and after practicing for a year, opened a small theater in 1991.

While puppet troupes must struggle to survive, traditional performing arts are receiving increasing support from the military government's ministry of culture. This is part of a recent attempt to include the traditional arts in the promotion of the military regime's brand of nationalism. Since 1995, annual yokethe pwe competitions been held by the government's Ministry of Culture and puppetry is now included in the curriculum of the University of Culture's dramatic arts program. The Mandalay Marionettes have won several gold medals in the competition. Lieutenant general Khin Nyunt, Burma's Military Intelligence chief, is a patron of the company.

"It is very difficult to come to the U.S., but [the government] knows us very well," said Ma Ma Naing. A significant reason for the rarity of Burmese performing arts on the international scene is that most performers cannot get passports to leave the country.

In Burma, the Mandalay Marionettes perform daily for tourists. This revenue allows them to appear occasionally at schools and at pagoda festivals, where shows run all night long on consecutive days. "The organizers keep asking us if we're tired," said Ma Ma Naing, comparing their schedule in Burma with their international tour of performances and workshops first in Europe and then in Hawaii, New York, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. "But for us this is a piece of cake."