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Mongolian cultural event starts with a yurt

The celebration outside Los Angeles City Hall includes song, dance, wrestling, contortion, art and fashion.

June 05, 2011|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Degeed Kevin Khundaga, 2, plays near traditional Mangolian masks inside the yurt in downtown Los Angeles.
Degeed Kevin Khundaga, 2, plays near traditional Mangolian masks inside… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Yurts are built to travel, but this one had come farther than most.

A traditional nomadic Mongolian home was erected outside Los Angeles City Hall on Saturday, part of a colorful cultural celebration that brought together artists from across the U.S. and several from Mongolia.

Photos: Mongolian cultural festival

The yurt, its wooden beams carved with intricate designs and covered with an off-white tarp, served as a centerpiece of the event, which showcased Mongolian culture with a celebration of the Naadam summer festival. It also provided a makeshift dressing room for the dancers, singers and wrestlers who performed.

There was plaintive throat singing about a great Mongolian king, Manduul. Wrestlers tried to topple one another. To a tune on the morin khuur, a two-stringed traditional instrument, the crowd moved shoulders and arms as they learned a Mongolian dance.

Outside the yurt, Gankhuyag Natsag fiddled with his iPhone as he described the centuries-old art of the Tsam dance, a Buddhist mask dance with 108 papier-mache masks representing different gods and spirits.

The Washington, D.C.-based artist danced the part of "the old white man" on Saturday in a ritual that he said was meant to ward off bad spirits and bring good luck and long life. A fellow dancer played the part of Red Makhgala, a fierce general and protector who brings happiness and saves the world.

Natsag, who makes the masks himself, said that although he has toured the U.S. and held performances and exhibitions in different parts of the world, showcasing the dance in Los Angeles was significant to him. "This is the biggest cultural city in America, and we really wanted to show our culture here," he said.

Inside the yurt, 14-year-old contortionist Emily Sodnompunsum was doing the splits as she applied sparkly eye shadow and bright pink lipstick. Later, dressed in a full-body gold leotard, she would nimbly balance, bend and twist her body as the crowed gaped and applauded.

"I just love it," said Emily, who said she became fascinated by the art when her parents took her to the circus when the family was still living in Mongolia's capital city, Ulan Bator. At first, learning to dance that way meant pain and many tears, but now she dreams of performing professionally to represent her culture, she said.

Bayarzul Enkhtaivan, a 27-year-old fashion designer, had flown in from Ulan Bator to put on a fashion show of traditional clothing with vivid colors, extensive embroidery, stiff collars and architectural lines. She said the clothing developed to suit the nomadic lifestyle, light but warm and able to withstand extreme weather.

Also in the crowd was a delegation from the government of Ulan Bator. The delegates said they came to learn about Los Angeles' public and private partnerships and were hoping to apply the new knowledge in building up their city's infrastructure in such areas as education and public transit.

Odonmandal Gombodorj sat smiling as she listened to two girls sing a well-known Mongolian song about mothers and adjusted her 4-year-old daughter's green-and-orange deel, a traditional costume.

Photos: Mongolian cultural festival

"Hearing Mongolian songs, wearing Mongolian costumes — it feels like I'm back in Mongolia," said Gombodorj, 35, who immigrated to the U.S. six years ago and now lives in Koreatown.

"Usually people ask, 'Are you Korean or Japanese?' It's never, 'Are you Mongolian?'" she said. "I want other people to know I'm Mongolian."

The city's diminutive Mongolian community of about 7,000 now hopes to carve out a corner of Los Angeles it can call its own. The Los Angeles Area Mongolian Assn., which put on Saturday's event, plans to collect signatures to petition the city for a "Mongoltown" designation, organizers said.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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