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Land of the fathomless: Bhutan's Royal troupe

Like all the countries and regions nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, Bhutan holds tantalizing mystery. The difference between that kind of mysteriousness and the fathomless kind is slim, but once you have crossed the border you know it.

Most cultural groups from the East can be penetrated at some level. Even if the dance style is strange, its refinement and rhythmic complexity speak to the Weserner's fascination with the difficult. Dances of ritual origin may be meaningless as far as actual content goes, but the concept of ritual art is within grasp.

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In the case of the Royal Dance and Musicians from the Kingdom of Bhutan, who dropped in at Carnegie Hall last weekend route around the country, one crosses the border into the land of the fathomless. For one thing, dance, which is truly the must universal of languages, is also a limited language as practiced by the Bhutan troupe. The program's opening selection, depicting saints on their ascent to heaven, was interesting for its flashing jumps. Attired in Gypsy-like skirts, the male dancers looked like birds in flight as the colors of their skirts streaked up into the air. However, this presumed introduction to a dance style turned out to be the whole picture. The same jumps were the mainstay of every other dance number.

The larger part of the program is given over to two pantomimes based on Buddhist legends and teachings. "Pholay Molay" tells the midjourney adventures of noblemen and ladies, their attending servants, and unattached but ubiquitous clowns. "Shawo Shachi" has more of the morality play to it, if one sticks to the libretto. It's about a hunter who is persuaded by a yogi to lay down his sword and shield.

In fact, however, liberettoes mean nothing. From what I can gather, these stories are merely pretexts for low humor. The subject matter is topical. If the Bhutan theatre resembles anything, it's the Italian commedia dell'arte.

The Bhutan pantomimes will strike the greatest chords of recognition in its clown figures. Apparently, big noses and stocking caps and bob foolishly are as common to the Himalayas as they are to Naples and Minsky's. That ism something to ponder. And whether Naples and Minsky's are as familiar to the general public of the United States as they are to Bhutan is something to ponder. The bhutan troupe will have a good chance to find out, for they are traveling across the Midwest in the next month, dipping into Houston April 8-10 and ending up in California April 17-23.


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