Burmese classical dance involves storytelling through the use of set movements of the head, hands, fingers, torso, and feet. Both men and women are trained in classical dance-drama in Burma. Classical dance (which cannot be separated from classical theatre) emerged in the earliest days of Burmese society, with an early golden age occurring in the Pagan Dynasty (1044-1287 CE). Traditionally, dance-drama in Burma was an art reserved for the entertainment of the elite at court, or for shamanistic purposes of contacting the natural spirits, called nat. However, in the post-colonial age dance-drama has been adapted for modern audiences. In its thousand year history, Burmese dance has evolved through the introduction of new styles and stories from India, Thailand, and Laos. Even today, Indian and Thai influence can be seen in Burmese classical dance-drama.
The stories told through classical dance-drama have their origins in Hindu and Buddhist oral traditions. Some of these stories are the jataka, or Buddhist birth story, and the Ramayana, a Hindu tale from early India. These stories have been adapted for Burmese performers and audiences, and have become essential to the Burmese classical dance-drama repertoire.
Classical dance is performed to the accompaniment of an orchestra of percussion instruments, especially drums, cymbals, and gongs made of metal. This orchestra has its roots in Indian classical music, and in Burma is called the saing. All of the classical dance traditions in Burma use this kind of music.
An ancient tradition of mythical theatre also exists in Burma. There are two repertoires for this shamanistic dance performance: the nat pwe, a dance which calls to the indigenous spirits of Burma, and the nibhatkin, which is a Buddhist mystery play. The performers in both of these dancers are shamans and monks, instead of aristocratic professional dancers. The nat pwe is still a commonly performed genre, however, the nibhatkin has become increasingly rare in the modern era.
Burma also has a form of marionette theatre, called yokhte pwe. Courtly puppet theatre was imported from Thailand during the Burmese occupation of the Thai capital of Ayutthaya starting in 1767, and puppet theatre experienced a golden age in Burma during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Puppet plays tell many of the same stories as the dance-dramas, and most of the plots are focused around Buddhist religious themes. It is believed that the puppet theatre was developed to tell stories about the life of the historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, and that the Prince was too holy to be portrayed by a mortal, especially an actor. Actors were thus banned from the role of Siddhartha, and the puppet theatre claimed the place of the original dance-dramas. Though the ban no longer exists, one can still see puppet plays based on the historical Buddha, as well as dance-dramas developed from the same stories. The dance-dramas are closely reflective of the original marionette theatre, and many of the movements in these types of dance-dramas are much stiffer, like that of a wooden puppet.
Classical Burmese dance-dramas, orchestra performances, and puppet performances can still be seen in Burma today. Often, a performance schedule will include a combination of many different forms, including classical dance-drama, masked drama in the Thai style (called khon), traditional clowns, puppet dramas, and music interludes. These classical performance traditions are taught to new generations at the State School of Music and Drama in the cities of Rangoon and Mandalay.
Good site with photos about the Ramayana in Burmese classical dance-drama:
Photos from recent Burmese performances: