Performing Authenticity: Tibetan Song and Dance Ensemble Makes its ArgumentSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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One could have heard a pin drop as the audience listened in wonder to the multi-toned chanting of monks performing a Buddhist invocation rite. By contrast, the hall rocked with laughter at a comedic excerpt from a traditional opera. All in all, the audience was enchanted by this exhibition of Tibetan culture. Yet the apparently apolitical framing of this event masked a larger political context whose ironies are for the most part lost on many in North American audiences.
Ann Arbor theatergoers had a chance to enjoy an evening of Tibetan performing arts when the Tibetan Song and Dance Ensemble visited the Ann Arbor Power Center on October 23. The Ensemble is based in Dharamsala, India and is part of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), under the auspices of the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of the Dalai Lama's exiled government there. The troupe was brought to Ann Arbor by the University Musical Society. According to the director of the ensemble, Mr. Jamyang Dorje, most of its young performers (80 in all, 36 on this tour) were born and raised in the Tibetan communities living in exile outside of China.
In Europe and North America, with the emergence of the Dalai Lama as a beloved symbol of non-violent resistance worldwide, and with the efforts of activists supporting the cause of a Tibet independent of Chinese control, audience- members at these performances are often well aware of how the Dalai Lama came to establish a Tibetan government in India. After winning the civil war against the Republicans (KMT) in 1949, the Chinese Communists (CCP) sought to regain direct control of western regions once nominally ruled by the last Chinese empire (the Qing). In 1950, the CCP moved to take control of Tibetan regions and their troops marched into Tibetan territory. Massive Tibetan uprisings in 1958 and 1959 culminated in the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, along with about 70,000 Tibetans, to exile in India. From India, the Dalai Lama and his government appealed for international help as Tibetans still in Tibet suffered a brutal crackdown at the hands of the occupying forces. During the violent "revolutionary campaigns" of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the youthful Red Guard unleashed by Mao destroyed nearly all of Tibet's temples and monasteries, forced monks and nuns to return to lay life, and banned all religious practice and Tibetan performing arts.
Since 1980 however, reforms implemented by the Chinese government have allowed a limited revitalization of Tibetan religious practices and institutions as well as performing arts within China. As a strategy to demonstrate its enlightened sovereignty to the international community, the Chinese government now claims to protect Tibetan religion and creative forms of expression, and points to the modernization efforts of recent years as evidence that Tibetans are happy to be part of the "great family" of the Chinese state. Despite such claims, exiled Tibetans continue to call attention to discriminatory policies against Tibetans and to the violent suppression of Tibetan dissidents. For various reasons, as ensemble director Jamyang Dorje says, this is "a most difficult period" for Tibetan exiles, and they seek continued support from the international community in their struggle for an independent Tibet.
In light of this much publicized political context, it is worth examining the cultural politics of such events as the recent performance in Ann Arbor. A staff member at the University Musical Society, explaining how a private local sponsor had donated a third of the budget for the performances of both the Tibetan Song and Dance Ensemble and a group of Chinese performers, stated that the performance of the Tibetan group was to be presented "as free of politics as possible." To this end UMS had scheduled the two performances at distant dates in the year's calendar. University musical associations must juggle an array of competing interests in bringing such diverse performances to campuses, and if presenting this performance in a non- politicized context meant insulating it from any public controversy, then it indeed went off without a hitch.
The ensemble played to an almost full house of delighted Ann Arborites. The audience was treated to a wide range of performing styles representing different Tibetan regions. As Jamyang Norbu, the former director of the ensemble, has said, the performing arts permeated Tibetan society, from the rituals of the great Buddhist monasteries to the everyday rites and ceremonies of the commoners. The twelve performances on the program, from traditional operas to regional folk dances, demonstrated this diversity. In addition, touring for the first time with the troupe are five monks from rGyud stod monastery (originally in Lhasa, now rebuilt in India). This monastery is known for a special style of multi-tone chanting famous in Europe and North America. The monks presided over the opening rite, in which all performers participated, of consecrating the stage for the performance.
The audience was particularly pleased with the elegant line dances of various folk festivals from different Tibetan regions, in which brightly dressed lines of men and women danced intricate patterns on the stage as they sang, alternately and together, the choruses of the songs. Men's virtuoso acrobatics accompanied the "Ralpa" dance (representing a genre of dance in traditional Tibet danced by traveling performers to tell stories of the famous yogi and teacher Milarepa), and the comedic "Yak dance" (an excerpt from a longer traditional opera). The audience cheered the men's whirling stunts and laughed uproariously as the old nomad man and woman in the "Yak dance" had their buffoon son milk the two "yaks."
The performance was a great success. The audience was duly charmed and the souvenir table in the lobby bustled with activity both before and after the show.
But free of politics it was not. The irony in such performances is generally lost on many in American audiences who do not recognize the multi-sided and tacit representations of culture that are both openly political and intended to convey the spiritual quality of a timeless Tibet.
These performances are meant to inform, yet they elide as much as they reveal. They are meant to exhibit a Tibetan space completely distinct from a Chinese one, and yet in this context, these performances are inseparable from the fierce struggles with the Chinese state over the ability to display and control what is "authentic" Tibetan culture. The stakes of this struggle over authenticity must be seen in the context of two competing nationalisms, one backed by the immense and powerful Chinese state apparatus fueled by recent market reforms, the other embattled and stateless, attempting to maintain its appeal to Tibetan youth growing up within larger Hindi and Euro-American cultures. Tibetan traveling road shows are a microcosm of this struggle because both Tibetan and Chinese nationalists must present their claims of sovereignty to the international community, hoping to win moral support and gain crucial financial aid and investment from wealthier countries.
In recent years, Tibetan exiles are facing more difficulties because the terms of the struggle with the Chinese have changed. Under the policies of a different regime, citizens of the Chinese state now enjoy a measure of everyday autonomy unheard of during the near-total repression of the Cultural Revolution era. Despite the violent repression of political dissidents, most Tibetans in China have been able to return to religious activities and the creative arts within new limits imposed by the state. A generation of Tibetans has now grown up under Chinese rule, and among them the performing arts are again flourishing. Amateur folk troupes organized privately by Tibetans far out-number state-run "professional" troupes in most Tibetan regions, and most are run by those dedicated to reviving "traditional" Tibetan performing arts.
In the early 1980s Tibetan performers from within China started to visit the international stage, and Tibetan exiles and their supporters protested the Chinese stateÕs use of these troupes to demonstrate Tibetans' "happy" acceptance of Chinese sovereignty. Indeed, in a review of the 1992 European tour of Tibetan drama troupes from Lhasa, the Beijing Review reported that the audiences applauded the PRC flag held by the Tibetan performers, and that all Tibetan members supported the People's Republic of China.
Performances of Tibetan troupes from inside China have encountered protesters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, who argue that not only are such performances being used by the Chinese for nationalist purposes, but also that they present "inauthentic" Tibetan performing arts, adulterated by "sinicized" forms of dance and drama. This current tour is no exception, for what audiences are not told is that the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) replaced a troupe from Lhasa which was originally booked by an American management company for the tour of the U.S. According to Jamyang Dorje, after protests were lodged by Tibet support groups in the U.S., the company withdrew its backing of the troupe from China and invited the TIPA group instead. This explains why the photo published in the Ann Arbor News review of TIPA's performance was not of TIPA itself, but of the Lhasa troupe — the publicity photo in the press kit distributed by UMS was of the original Tibetan troupe from China.
In this way, the battle is waged on the international stage over the definition of "authentic" Tibetan culture. Indeed, the main purpose of TIPA from its founding in 1959 has been to preserve "authentic" Tibetan performing arts and to train performers and teachers in them. This was never more necessary than during the starkly brutal Chinese state violence against Tibetans in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when Tibetans faced nothing less than forced assimilation. But the context of a more open China in recent years has generated new difficulties for TIPA's project, and new ironies accompanying its claims. For TIPA's performances are no less nationalist than those sponsored by the Chinese (the performance ended with the display of the Tibetan flag and national anthem, for which the audience was asked to rise). And nationalisms, because they must represent an "imagined community" encompassing disparate interest groups, by their very nature must present a selective "truth" in order to convince foreigners and natives alike.
If the nationalist arguments hinge on the issue of "authenticity," then Tibetan "culture" must be portrayed to audiences by both sides as a timeless, unchanging essence. Tibetan exile activists seek to unmask Chinese attempts to portray Tibetan performances as the essence of an unchanged Tibetan culture — "the time," says Jamyang Dorje, "for cheating Western audiences is gone." Hence, the threat to Tibetan performing arts is represented as if it were exclusively from "sinicization" (in the form of ballet-like acrobatic movements, high-pitched falsetto singing of Peking opera, and the rearrangement of plot and lyrics to reflect Chinese themes and nationalist propaganda). Yet no mention is ever made of the influences of Hindi or Euro-American cultures on Tibetan performers growing up in India, Europe or North America.
Further, the changes TIPA itself has instituted for the traveling shows are played down as merely expedient, but what it presents as timeless Tibetan culture are actually radically recontextualized performances. Tibetan performing arts have been performed only very recently on a raised stage in the European model of spectatorship. Instead, they were traditionally social gatherings in which the spectators surrounded the performers in a courtyard, or they were religious dances with specific ritual goals. The performances given at the Power Center were tiny excerpts from these larger contexts, rearranged to fit the stage and the expectations of American spectators. What TIPA is participating in here is no less than a new genre of Tibetan performance.
That however, makes it no less Tibetan. But what of Tibetans in China? The final irony of these most recent struggles between Chinese and exiled Tibetans over "authentic" Tibetan culture is that Tibetan performers within China, acting within the more open climate to revive Tibetan performing arts, must be portrayed by exiled activists as victims of Chinese state coercion. Their performances are seen to be "less Tibetan," because they are seen to be automatons in state-run troupes, told what to perform by their leaders. Yet, exiled activists do not distinguish between state-run troupes in China and the far more numerous amateur folk troupes. Nevertheless, both types of troupes have in the past decade and a half been the source of much creativity among Tibetans, and the site of the reaffirmation of Tibetan identity and even resistance. How should such performers, who have had opportunities to travel and perform abroad, be distinguished from Tibetans who are mere "dupes" of the state? And if Tibetan culture is seen to be an unchanging essence, is the creativity of Tibetan performers in China (or elsewhere for that matter) who seek new forms or new syntheses of traditional forms to express themselves then unworthy of international support?
TIPA itself participates in modern forms of representation. Indeed, it has a department which composes songs with modern, often nationalist lyrics. The greatest difficulty of recent years for TIPA, then, is that a small, embattled group of exiles must claim to be the only source of "authentic" Tibetan culture, modern or not, for the over 5 million Tibetans within China. As Jamyang Dorje says, "modernization as you know is a trend that nobody can stop, but we feel that TIPA [must] take that modernization in the right direction."
One could say that TIPA's argument has prevailed in the international community against that of the Chinese state, and that they have been very successful in securing support and patronage from abroad. Indeed, most TIPA performers have individual European and North American sponsors who pay for such things as their room and board. But as this tour of the U.S. reveals, the current situation places TIPA in the very difficult position of having to compete with other Tibetans for a limited resource — the economic patronage of wealthy countries.
TIPA won this particular round of the contest for international support, but at what expense? If Chinese nationalist claims about Tibetan culture are to be subjected to analysis, then so too must those of Tibetan nationalists. For claims to authenticity on both sides elide painful realities the international community should know about and consider carefully. How in these changed times should European and North American sponsors and activists support all Tibetans as they struggle to live and create amidst both increased opportunity and great adversity?
Charlene Makley is a graduate student in Anthropology.