The culture of Burma (Myanmar) retains a reputation for being one of the most intriguing and mysterious in all of southeast Asia — and one of the world’s most exciting and undiscovered travel destinations. This is reflected in the fascinating performance art of zat-pwe.
Zat-pwe is a traditional form of musical theatre unique to Myanmar. While borrowing some elements from its south east Asian neighbors, zat-pwe is an extraordinary combination of story and performance art, and one of the most fascinating displays of culture through artistic expression.
With “zat”, meaning story, and “pwe” meaning performance, zat-pwe is one of Myanmar’s most enduring and energetic mediums for storytelling. They are often performed under the cover of moonlight — sometimes for days and nights on end — and are synonymous with festivals and celebrations throughout the country.
Modern forms of zat-pwe have been around for over a century, originally a duet performance by two leads, the mintha (the male lead) and the minthami (the female lead). Now, zat-pwe performances are often a stunning show of ensemble work, with many men and women performing together on one stage.
Even in its earliest days, zat-pwe combined elements of slapstick comedy, dance, theatrical melodrama and even pop music into its performances. These elements work together to tell stories of Myanmar’s history, interpretations of Buddhist tales and illustrations of local lifestyles in fantastic and magical color. And with the traditional zat-pwe duet often only starting at 2 or 3am, these marathon performances last throughout the night.
Zat-pwe is performed by nomadic troupes of performers, which often travel around to appear as a staple of Burma’s culture. Performing at many festivals, on makeshift bamboo stages erected just for the occasion. These troupes are also highly competitive — battles between both individual performers and rival troupes for the biggest applause make for a charmingly interactive experience for audience members.
A Treat of the Far East
Myanmar’s zat-pwe has many aspects that are closely linked to apsara dance of Cambodia or traditional Thaiforms of performance art, but unlike its theatrical cousins, zat-pwe is exceptionally energetic style that showcases both the athletic prowess of its performers, as well as the interpretive movement and angular poses that tell its story.
Although zat-pwe performances can have upwards of a dozen performers on stage at once, part of what makes zat-pwe unique is how individual personalities of its performers are part of the performance. The often very different styles of each artist work together in partially improvised explosions of energy, and live orchestras provide a soundtrack that matches the movements of performers on the spot.
Although these epic performances that can last well into the night demand exceptional endurance on the part of the audience, these incredible extravaganzas are one of the most colorful additions to Burma’s culture. No trip to this beautiful destination is complete without seeing a performance from start to finish.