Myanmar's performing arts scene

Most musical theatre and dance in Myanmar is inspired by ancient myths and legends, and by Buddhist beliefs. Read on to discover more...
Traditional Burmese dance of the spirit medium at a concert in Mandalay. Photo: Shutterstock
Traditional Burmese dance of the spirit medium at a concert in Mandalay. Photo: Shutterstock

Traditional Burmese dance of the spirit medium at a concert in Mandalay. Photo: Shutterstock

Music, dance and drama in Myanmar are very much a part of everyday life in the country, performed on makeshift stages by the side of the road rather than in elegant theatres or concert halls, and with an audience of chattering and cheering locals gathered for the occasion. Fairs and festivals are often cultural as much as religious in appeal, with travelling troupes of artists performing pwe, a distinctive Burmese blend of theatre, song and dance, mixing slapstick comedy with stories from the great Buddhist and Hindu epics.  


Taking a holiday to Myanmar: how to get started

Insight Guides can help you with planning, organising and booking your trip to Myanmar. Simply, get in touch and share your budget, interests and travel style. Our local experts will create an itinerary exclusive to you and your requirements, which you can amend until it's just right. Alternatively, browse and modify ready-made holidays to create your dream trip today. For more inspiration, take a look at our online guide to Myanmar to plan your visit and discover when's best to go, the top attractions, historical highlights and some of the best cultural features.


Understanding pwe

The most characteric example of the Burmese performing arts is the pwe. Most popular is the zat pwe, the ultimate mélange of music, dance and dramatics. Anyein pwe is a more “folksy” theatrical form presenting episodes from daily life, along with dancing and storytelling. Yein pwe is pure dance, solos alternating with group numbers. Yok thei pwe, or marionette theatre, is a uniquely Burmese theatrical form not so often seen today. Nat pwe is ritual spirit-medium dance, only performed in public at animistic festivals, and rarely seen by visitors.

Among other forms of theatre, pya zat is often seen before zat pwe performances. A dance-play with mythical themes, it is generally set in a fantasy world where a heroic prince must overcome the evil-doings of demons and sorcerers.

From the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, a masked dance-drama called zat gyi flourished in royal courts under the patronage of Burmese kings. Today, public performances are rare, although papier-mâché replicas of zat gyi dance masks can be purchased at souvenir stalls along the stairs leading to the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Myanmar has a National Theatre with its own company of dancers and musicians, while other troupes are trained in the State Schools of Music and Drama in Yangon and Mandalay. Countless troupes travel around villages and during pagoda festivals, staging performances throughout the countryside during the dry season.

These troupes present their repertoire to throngs of villagers, performing on temporary bamboo stages, under a makeshift awning or (more often than not) in the open air. Large audiences sit on mats spread in front of the stage. Many bring their children, as well as picnics. Performances often last from sunset to sunrise; many spectators doze off for a couple of hours in the middle of the show, hoping to be nudged awake for their favourite dance sequence or story.

Myanmar mask dance. Photo: ShutterstockMyanmar mask dance. Photo: Shutterstock


Performing pwe

Pwe is a generic Burmese term for theatrical performances and dramatic shows. It embraces all kinds of plays, dramas and musical operas. Dancing is inevitably part of a pwe, and performances generally last for at least eight hours, and often right through the night. It’s possible to make a loose classification of different types of pwe, thus a zat pwe is a religious performance based on the various Jataka, or Buddha life-cycle stories, while a yama zat pwe is based on the great Hindu epic, Ramayana. Anyein pwe are plays without plots, usually accompanied by clowning, ironic repartee and dancing. Finally, yein pwe feature group singing and dancing.


Dance-drama

The history of Burmese dance troupes dates back as far as 1767, when King Hsinbyushin returned to Ava after his conquest of the Thai capital of Ayutthaya. Among his captives were the royal Siamese dancers. It was from these highly trained performers that the Burmese developed the dance movements which still prevail on stage today.

During the Bagan period from the 11th to the 13th centuries, a form of dance resembling that practised in India was popular at pagoda festivals and during royal audiences. This had disintegrated into popular drama after the fall of Bagan, and took a back seat to the highly refined Thai classical dance. But it still wielded some influence in shaping a uniquely Burmese dance form. Burmese dance reached its zenith in Mandalay during the late Konbaung dynasty era. Although some stylistic leaps and turns of Western ballet were introduced and assimilated during the years of British colonial rule, enthusiasm for dance went into a period of decline. Efforts have been made to revive the theatrical arts, and while the programme has been quite successful, it’s also been very inward-looking. 

Burmese dance emphasises double-jointed suppleness. Wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, fingers and toes are bent in stylised directions with seeming effortlessness.


Legendary tales

Ancient legends permeate all aspects of theatre in Myanmar. Nearly all performances are based on the Hindu epics (the Ramayana in particular), or on the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s 547 prior incarnations. The Ramayana is the best-known saga in South and Southeast Asia; it tells the story of the capture of the beautiful Princess Sita by the demon king Ravana, and of her heroic rescue by her husband, Rama. The Jataka, meanwhile, are familiar to every Burmese schoolchild and adult. The tales relate, in a quasi-historical moral fashion, how the Buddha purified his soul before his final rebirth and enlightenment. The tales decribing his final ten incarnations immediately preceding Buddhahood are seen as especially important. 

As the stories are well known beforehand, it is up to the troupe and its individual dancers to bring them to life for audiences. The highlight of a zat pwe performance usually comes in the early hours of the morning at about 2am, when the star dancers show off their finest skills. 


The Maha Gita

The complete body of Burmese classical songs is generally referred to as the Maha Gita, meaning “Great Song” or “Royal Song”. These are the songs and music of the various Burmese royal courts, which today form the basis of Burmese classical music. The impact of the Maha Gita on the performance of Burmese music can hardly be overstated. It forms the basis of both the chamber music ensemble, the hsaing ensemble and also of solo musical instrument performances such as the piano. The Maha Gita also provides much of the basis for music in the theatre, both that of the puppet tradition and that which employs live actors.


Traditional burmese puppet show. Photo: Shutterstock


Marionette theatre

An exception to all other forms of theatre is the yok thei pwe, or marionette theatre. A single master puppeteer manipulates 28 dolls, some with as many as 60 strings. He presents the dialogue simultaneously, while getting help from only two stage assistants.

Puppet theatre in Burma had its foundation not long after Hsinbyushin’s return from Ayutthaya with the Siamese court dancers. The king’s son and successor, Singu Min, created a Ministry for Fine Arts, and gave his minister, U Thaw, the task of developing a new art form.

In 18th-century Burma, and to some extent even today, modesty and etiquette forbade the depiction of intimate scenes on the stage. Further, many actors refused to portray the future Buddha in the Jataka tales, considering this to be sacrilegious. U Thaw saw a way around these obstacles. What human beings could not do in public, wooden figures could do without prohibition. And thus the yok thei pwe was born.

The orchestra opens with an overture to create an auspicious mood. Then two ritual dancers appear, followed by a dance of various animals and mythological beings to depict the first stage in the creation of the universe. Next, making its appearance alone, is the figure of the horse, whose heavenly constellation brings order to the primeval chaos. Then (in order) a parakeet, two elephants, a tiger and a monkey come on stage.

The imagination of the audience is stirred with the entrance of two giants, a dragon as well as a zawgyi (sorcerer) who always flies on stage. These figures prepare onlookers for the magical world of Burmese-Buddhist belief, which provides the plot for almost all puppet plays. According to traditional Buddhist doctrine, each organism consists of 28 physical parts. U Thaw, seeking to be consistent with this belief, directed that there should be precisely 28 marionettes. Each of these is almost a metre (3ft) tall, faultlessly carved and with costumes identical to the originals that U Thaw specified. The two principal characters are a prince and princess – Mintha and Minthami – around whom the romantic plot of the performance always revolves. 

The yok thei pwe is fast disappearing in modern Myanmar. It can occasionally be seen at temple festivals, including the Shwedagon Pagoda festival in Yangon, and regularly in Mandalay at tourist-oriented marionette theatres. 


Musical performances

The structure of Burmese music is little known outside the country. There has been little systematic study of it and writings by Burmese scholars are even today extremely rare. It is generally related to the music genres of Southeast Asia and often uses gong and chime instruments similar to those found in neighbouring countries. 

Traditional Burmese music (such as that accompanying dance performances) is played by a small group of musicians called the hsaing waing, vaguely resembling a Javanese gamelan and dominated by percussion instruments. Its centrepiece is a circle of 21 drums, the pat-waing (smaller orchestras have only nine drums). Around this groups of small and large gongs (kyi waing and maung hsaing), a bell and clappar (si and wa), an oboe-like woodwind instrument (the hne) and a bamboo xylophone (pattala). 

Occasionally, a hsaing waing will employ the most delicate of all Burmese instruments, the 13-stringed harp (saung gauk). Shaped like a toy boat covered in buffalo hide, with silk strings attached to a curved wooden “prow”, it is a solo instrument usually played by a woman, unlike other musical instruments, which are all played by men. When used in a pwe, it accompanies solo singing.

Burmese music is based on a series of seven-tone scales referred to as athan. Each of these seven tones can be used as a starting tone for one or more “modes” (a form of tonal sequence that preceded scales in the West). There are no chromatic notes, and no harmony in the western sense. Instead, the music is strongly rhythmic and percussive, with a single melodic line played by the hne enveloped in virtuoso flourishes and swirls of sounds performed on drums, gongs and xylophone

Unless you’re lucky enough to catch a performance at a venue in Yangon or Mandalay, the place you’re most likely to experience traditional Burmese music is at your hotel. Most of the five-stars employ musicians to serenade diners, or as evening entertainment.


“The girl began to dance... a rhythmic nodding, posturing and twisting of the elbows... like a jointed doll, and yet incredibly sinuous.” 

George Orwell Burmese Days


The contemporary music scene

While traditional Burmese folk and classical music have been actively promoted by the military regime since the 1960s, with slots on state-controlled TV and radio, the same is not true of the new generation of popular music coming out of Yangon and Mandalay. Heavily influenced by trends in Korea, Europe and the US, Myanmar pop music is dominated by so-called “copy tracks” – covers of foreign hits sung in Burmese, or a mixture of Burmese and English.

Queen of the copy scene is the flamboyant Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein (sometimes described as Myanmar’s answer to Lady Gaga), who belts out chart toppers such as Queen’s I Want to Break Free and Celine Dion’s The Power of Love while dressed in peacock-feather hats or figure-hugging pink-lamé jump suits. 

Much less acceptable to the authorities are the numerous hip-hop acts which have dominated the country’s underground music scene since the early 2000s. More masculine, aggressive and materialistic in tone, they adopt the familiar style of US hip-hop – low-slung jeans, baggy T-shirts and baseball caps – but are just as likely to rap about political and social issues as girls-ganja-and-good-times. Others resort to obscure metaphors to express their anger at oppression and poverty. The upshot has been heavy censorship, and in some cases imprisonment of artistes, such as rapper (and now politician) Zayar Thaw, who spent six years behind bars. Other well known hip-hop artists include J-me and Ye Lay.

With YouTube as a platform to bypass state-controlled media, popular music is one of the main ways in which established attitudes to gender and sexuality are being challenged in Myanmar. Short skirts, high heels and dyed hair are nowadays commonplace in the world of girl singers and bands. 

One of the ironies of modern Burmese pop, however, is that while many of its most high-profile stars and promoters are seen as opposing the establishment, a large proportion are children of top members of the military regime or its cronies – this ensures them a degree of immunity from persecution, while fomenting feeling against the regime their parents remain part of. 


How to plan your trip to Myanmar:

From beachside-budget to luxury spas: where to stay on your holiday in Myanmar

While you're there: explore the country's best Buddhist monuments

Let Insight Guides plan your trip: check out itineraries online now

Take an alternative holiday

Insight Guides recommends THE places to travel in 2017

Need last-minute summer holiday inspiration? Where to go in June, July and August