Travelling troupes of theatrical performers have been entertaining the Myanmar public for decades. Each troupe has about a hundred people, including male and female dancers, singers, comedians, traditional orchestra and modern music players. They travel for at least 10 months of the year traversing the entire country and performing for 150 to 160 nights every year on average.
“Some people say that we are gipsy people. Indeed, we only stop performing for two months every year and we are on the move the rest of year. Even during our break in the rainy season, we practice for the upcoming year,” says Tinzar Moe Win, 35 years old female leading dancer of SanpyaThabin Theater, one of the most famous troupes in Myanmar.
Their performance is called as Zatpwe. In Burmese Zat means ‘story’ and pwe means ‘show’. The male dancer, or Min Tha, takes the leading role in the all-night-long performances which include music, opera, comedy and duet dances.
SanpyaThabin has a total of 85 crew members and is led by three family members-a sister and two brothers named Tinzar Moe Win, Hanzar Moe Win and Aggar Moe Win respectively. The theatre was initiated 56 years ago by their grandfather who performed as the leading male dancer.
Later their father, the famous dancer Moe Win, followed this role.
The current Min Tha Aggar Moe Win, 28 years old, took on the responsibility of the leading role earlier this year from his brother, former leader Hanzar Moe Win. Aggar Moe Win hadn’t always had his sights set on the stage. He is a graduate of Thailand’s Siam University (2009) where he studied International Hotel and Tourism Management. Upon finishing school, he was asked to help his family by taking some performing duties while his brother Hanzar was recovering from a stroke. He said that the work was hard and he found himself questioning his choices.
“I asked my sister Tin Zar. Do I really need to stay in this kind of makeshift room and travel? I was upset and almost crying. Then I started participating as a modern music singer. Later I learnt dancing. Now I have fallen in love with dancing,” says Aggar. Aggar Moe Win describes himself as "just helping [his]family.” “We will see where it goes. My dream is to perform at Tokyo Dome. Dancing and music are a big part of my life now.”
SanpyaThabin Theater has a convoy of two, long trucks to transport all the equipment as well as the crew members. When they arrive at a place to perform, they set up the stage and store their belongings in makeshift rooms behind the stage. Each room has an area of about 6.5 by 4.5 feet. The single female dancers sleep together in the same place as do the males. Once a performance has been completed, they move on. Packing their performance equipment as well as their personal belongings inside big iron boxes, they load their lives onto the trucks and set off again.
The going is tough on the road, the schedule sometimes grueling.The troupe usually perform for three to six nights in a row but occasionally for up to ten nights consecutively. Shows begin at 10pm and continue the night through until six or seven the following morning.
Hanzar Moe Win, who has been performing as a Min Tha for 18 years claims the former military regime didn’t often allow shows to take place in cities. After the 1988 uprising they banned public gatherings and consequently, theaters had to focus on rural areas. Due to the lack of electricity and transportation for rural audiences who travelled from far away, they decided to perform all night long until dawn. The thinking behind this was that the audiences would be entertained the whole night through and could go back to their homes in safety when the sun had risen. It was to fill these hours and extend the show time that modern music performances were added to the Zatpwe schedule.
Hanzar Moe Win says that despite the success of the modern and traditional performance combination, he would like to see it restored to its original form. This however is not easy as the public has come to expect the modern element.
“I want to change the routine and remove the modern singing which is not a real tradition of Zatpwe. But I can’t do it alone. As other troupes are also doing the same for over a decade (since 1988), it’s hard to change the routine. I personally prefer the real, traditional Zatpwe dance which lasts just a few hours. But it’s not possible. We have put mixed modern music into our tradition and now we can’t remove it,” says Hanzar Moe Win.