‘Tsangyang Gyatso’ depicts sixth Dalai Lama’s struggles between divinity and humanity

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/3 16:33:39


A scene from Tsangyang Gyatso Photo: Courtesy of the China Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble

Ding Wei Photo: Li Hao/GT 


Against the dark blue background that represented nighttime at the Potala Palace, a single red-cloaked dancer twists his body to imitate a bird fluttering its wings as a man's voice sings, "Pure, white crane, please lend me your wings…"

The sight makes a middle-aged woman in the audience sob. "The boy misses his home," she murmurs to her companion.

This was the scene at dance drama Tsangyang Gyatso on April 27. The hottest ticket in town during the China Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble's (CESDE) spring performance season in late April, it features the troupe's 21-year-old dancer Huang Chendi as a young Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), Tibet's sixth Dalai Lama.

In the drama, the young man is required to keep his distance from secular life and regular folk, including his family and lover, after he becomes a "god" to be worshipped.

"We want to depict Tsangyang Gyatso as a human, not a god," Ding Wei, the dance drama's director and also head of CESDE, told the Global Times before the show.

Lonely legend

Forced to leave his home and move into the Potala Palace at a young age after being chosen as the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso must have felt lonely from time to time and constantly trapped between his desires for a happy secular life and his divine identity, Ding noted.

Probably the most charming figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsangyang Gyatso was born as a serf in Wo'gyainling in the southern part of Tibet and brought to the Potala Palace at age 14 as a Living Buddha. Refusing to take full monastic vows, he was viewed as an example of defiance, as well as a symbol of romance, for he was also a talented poet who wrote a number of catchy poems that remain popular in China even to this day.

This history were brought to life in the CESDE drama in which the rebellious young Dalai Lama sneaks out of the palace one snowy night to join the crowds on the streets of Lhasa, where he meets his lover.

"Living in the Potala Palace, I am the king of the Snow Land; wandering on the streets of Lhasa, I am the most beautiful lover in the world," goes one song in the drama.

These beautifully written lyrics, including those about the crane, are all poems written by Tsangyang Gyatso himself.

"People are curious about the mysterious life story of the famous figure behind all these touching poems," Ding said, explaining why the CESDE chose to create a dance drama about the sixth Dalai Lama.

"Additionally, the splendid richness of Tibetan culture, including its clothing, dances and music, also adds to the visuals and music presented on the stage," he said.

Originally debuted in 2015, Tsangyang Gyatso is CESDE's first self-produced dance drama. With support from the China National Arts Fund, CESDE took more than a year to produce the drama. 

Ding and his team handled the story with discretion. From the authenticity of the poems to the details of the clothing, everything is based on solid historical research, discussions with experts on Tibetan studies, as well as three field trips to Tibetan ethnic regions in the Gansu and Qinghai provinces in Northwest China, as well as Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region.

Restrained feelings

Recalling the trips in the early spring of 2015, Ding said it still breaks his heart every time he thinks about the 10-year-old monk he ran into near a temple in Qinghai Province. Dressed only in monk's robes, the child's arms were exposed to the chill weather on the plateau.

"The child told me he didn't feel cold since he was used to the temperature," Ding said.

Ding said he couldn't help but wonder what the kid's parents would feel if they saw their little boy dressed this way.

"I asked him if he missed his parents," Ding said. "The child was silent for a while before he uttered a 'yes.'"

Similarly restrained feelings toward familial bonds are also reflected in the dance drama, especially in a scene in which Tsangyang Gyatso dreams about his mother. The heartbreaking scene sees the young man, palms held together as if praying, approach his mother, while the old woman, head down and terrified, retreats as he takes each step, all the while continuing to worship him on bended knee.

New prospects

That night's show was a great success. The audience gave a standing ovation as the curtain came down. After the show, Huang was soon surrounded by fans asking for his signature and permission to take a selfie with him.

"We're happy that audiences love it," Ding said. He noted that a group of hardcore fans followed the troupe as it toured from Yinchuan, capital of Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, to Taiyuan, capital of North China's Shanxi Province, in April.

According to Ding, this success has been vital for the CESDE's continued survival. The troupe's first profitable original work, the drama has played a monumental role in helping CESDE transform from troupe heavily funded by the government to one that is more self-reliant.

The toughest days for the troupe came in 2013, Ding said, after CESDE's budget was slashed in late 2012.

"We put on a mere 10 shows in 2013, earning less than 3 million yuan ($400,000) while we had to feed a staff of 500," Ding recalled.

However, with the success of Tsangyang Gyatso, the troupe is doing much better financially, while gaining more experience about how to become a player in the market.

Talking about plans for a new drama, Ding said the troupe is still in the discussion stage. He noted that the CESDE plans to focus more on figures whose stories are relevant to today's society.

Newspaper headline: Lend me your wings

Posted in: THEATER

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