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DANCE REVIEW : Tibetan Lamas Maintain Tradition in Exile

August 04, 1995|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the unearthly blare and clatter of Tibetan horns, cymbals and drum, two grinning skeletons dance merrily on the stage of the Philosophical Research Society, embodiments of Buddhist teachings about accepting impermanence.

Part of a memorable Wednesday program by nine lamas from the Drepung Loseling Monastery, this traditional masked dance features rhythmic hand-waving, hopping on one foot and saucy hands-on-hips poses: cheery and prosaic movements that deliberately contradict the chilling image of human death defined by the dancers' huge skull-masks and stark red-and-white bone-suits.

Elsewhere in the program, deep-toned chant and powerful singing convey a profound sense of emptiness ("Tong-Nyi Nga-Ro," Sounds of the Void), but also the need to envision a purer world than the one we inhabit and to help bring it into being. Some pieces feature "multiphonic singing" (each voice hitting three notes of a chord at the same time), which creates the illusion of a big, invisible choir.

The anthem-like "Song of World Peace," composed by the present Dalai Lama, reminds us that the situation in Tibet has scarcely been peaceful since the 1959 Chinese takeover--and that these Drepung Loseling lamas are refugees living in South India: political activists in the short run, spiritual activists in a larger sense.

If you see the ancient Black Hat Dance at one of the monasteries still left open in Tibet (as this reviewer did a year ago), the spectacle of 18 or more dancers in matching layers of rich, kaleidoscopic embroidery and high, round headdresses can overwhelm the dance's expressive content, which involves the battle between good and evil.

On Wednesday, however, the two Drepung Loseling dancers kept the conflict strongly in focus, though the tiny stage prevented them from moving through space as the dance requires. We can wish them infinitely greater freedom of movement the next time they bring us glimpses of their magnificent culture.

* The Tibetan Lamas of Drepung Loseling Monastery appear Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Barnum Hall, Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd., (213) 480-3232. Tickets: $16.

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