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A Heritage Preserved and Shared

Dance review: "Mystical Arts of Tibet" brings the purity of ancient traditional dances and music to Pasadena.


Ever since the Chinese invasion of the 1950s, the ancient splendors of Tibetan culture have been steeped in such sadness that any performers from the new refugee Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India have been greeted in this country as heroic survivors. In fact, they turned out to be the victors in one of the key artistic struggles of the last half-century.

Where the Chinese and others in that period corrupted many of their oldest music and dance traditions through misguided Westernization and the imposition of crude political agendas, Tibetans-in-exile preserved the purity of their heritage and gave it back to the world in such projects as the inspiring "Mystical Arts of Tibet" program at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Saturday.

Performed by visiting lamas of the Drepung Loseling Monastery, this program presented samples of instrumental music, ceremonial chant and ritual dance, plus a demonstration of the process of debate and inquiry in monastic life.

Selections were often shortened, with a smaller number of participants than might be normal (or ideal)--but nothing became merely diversionary. Indeed, the act of performance was described as an offering to the forces of goodness, with the audience invited to send out its own positive energy as a vehicle for change.

Relieving the prevalent austerity: playful interludes by dancers impersonating a giant snow lion and two shaggy yaks--capering, four-legged examples of how all living creatures rejoice when humans create a wholesome environment. In contrast, the grotesque "Dance of the Skeleton Lords" reminded everyone of how transitory a human life can be, while the stately "Dance of the Black Hat Masters" gave form to a major theme of the evening: the trouble brought about by a sense of isolated identity or ego.

Accompanied by horns, cymbals, bells and drums, these dances lost effectiveness through over-saturated colored lighting that dulled or coarsened the brilliant costume colors. As a result, they commanded attention chiefly through dramatic movement values: short, punchy phrases, bold rhythms and intriguing contrasts between the expansive swirl of arm motion and the sharpness and buoyancy of footwork (lots of hopping and skipping).

The vocal selections invoked forces of goodness, ritually purified the environment and sought to free people from their ego obsessions, often incorporating the unique, traditional multiphonic singing in which each participant simultaneously produces three notes or tones.

Larger ensembles on tour and on recordings have made the technique absolutely overwhelming. The Drepung Loseling lamas, however, used it sparingly--never more impressively than in "Tong-nyi Nga-ro: Sounds of the Void," in which six singers sitting cross-legged on the floor (eyes closed) produced a rising, intensifying tidal wave of sound that seemed about to crest in a shattering cosmic scream when it suddenly dissolved at the lower-than-low chant of a multiphonic soloist.

The Saturday performance formed part of an extensive, ongoing schedule of Tibetan Buddhist activities in the Pasadena area--most notably the Drepung Loseling monks' creation of the sand-mandala of Avalokitesvara at the Pacific Asia Museum (on display through Aug. 8) and the recent visit of the Dalai Lama.

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