By Merilyn Jackson for The Dance Journal
At times unfolding like a book, a two-year comprehensive training program devised by Kun-Yang Lin read through meditative arts with Hsu-Hui Huang of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theater, the martial arts led by Dr. Chik Qadir Mason and the art of moving with objects with puppet artist, Hua Hua Zhang. Each master wrote a workshop plan that took the dancers of Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers and other participants along a story-line that steeped them in their areas of artistic expression. In November, Losang Samten authored the final chapter in the project with workshops titled Tibetan Sacred Ritual and Dance.
As a child in the late 1950s, Samten escaped with his parents from Tibet to India. A former Buddhist monk, he first came to America in 1988 at the request of the 14th Dalai Lama to demonstrate the sand mandala art form, the first time the Tibetan mandala was seen in the West. In the following year he moved to Philadelphia, founding the Tibetan Buddhist Center here and making the city his home base ever since.
He’s since become a 2002 NEA National Heritage Fellow, a 2004 Pew Fellow, but may be best known for his role in Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film Kundun. He played the role of Master of the Kitchen and served as religious technical adviser, sand mandala supervisor and, having been the Dalai Lama’s Ritual Dance Master at the Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, oversaw the choreography and dancing.
“I spent two years in Morocco because I wanted to know about movie production,” he said, “and I got to know Phil Glass pretty well.”
Samten has published “Ancient Teachings in Modern Times: Buddhism in the 21st Century” and took time last month from his world-wide invitations to create mandalas to teach at Lin’s 9th Street studio. I first met him last spring at the Gershman Y just after he finished a large mandala there.
The mandala, painstakingly created out of colored sand and then dismantled, is a teaching device that may go back some 2500 years. It illustrates important philosophies in Buddhism and is considered a valuable tool for psychological introspection. Lin is using the mandala for his new dance to be premiered at The Painted Bride next February.
In the studio, Lin’s rough drawings of sections of the dance look like a mandala. Samten has been showing the attendees how to circle the bent and lifted leg with the flat foot hovering horizontally – a move he says is called “blessing the earth.”
Samten remarks there are nine steps for this dance and one of the students asked to see them all. “Some things you can show to the public and some things only to the initiated,” he explains with a twinkling eye, “So that’s my excuse.”
He further reveals that the 722 joints in the body each represent a deity and the dancers giggle as they ponder which joints represent which deity.
His humor and compassion are perhaps best exhibited in an anecdote he told about a woman on the West Coast who suggested she buy his mandala in order to make a donation to the Buddhist Center. Samten asked what she would be willing to pay, but once they arrived at a price, the would-be buyer said, “Oh dear, how would I get it home?” His answer? “That’s your problem.”
It seems the woman finally understood the spiritual ephemerality of the mandala – it can’t be bought, sold or kept, just absorbed into the psyche and spirit.
To me, the inspiration of that ephemerality – the impermanence of everything, especially dance, is what drives Lin’s piece, Mandala. At the final open dialog on December 5, the KYL/D dancers talked about what the workshops gave them and demonstrated one difficult section of the dance which is still in different stages of development.
They have had about 12 weeks of Chi Kung, Tai Chi and Martial Arts training with Chik Mason and in this section of the dance (one of five) you can see martial arts stances subtly blent with the sacred dances learned under Samten’s tutelage.
Olive Prince said later that her sense of weight has changed, while Jillian Harris, who relocated with the company from New York to Philadelphia, acknowledged a better understanding of references to “cultural influences Kun-Yang has made in the past.”
Jennifer Rose said “Losang helped me get to a place where I can better share my intuition and spirit.” Newcomer from Taiwan, Wen-Chun Liu said she “had Martial Arts flashbacks, where inside you feel very calm but outside, very intricate movement is happening.”
“This is a way to be expressive beyond ourselves [as performers,]” said Scott McPheeters. “It’s a change from the indulgence of what feels good in inner space to externalizing that energy.”
Is this the final chapter in Kun-Yang Lin’s efforts to expand his dancers’ expertise? Hardly. Dance training, like athletic and spiritual training, must be ongoing. New research and discoveries will always unearth innovations in training and, to be sure, Lin will continue to explore and unearth those many possibilities.
Mandala will have its world premiere at the Painted Bride Art Center, Feb. 10-12, 2011.
Visit www.kunyanglin.org for more information.
***Photographs by Matthew Wright
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