Late for Nowhere

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Bringing the backstage to the fore

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Daniel Ehrlich’s photo book Backstage Mandalay sheds light on the dark, cramped spaces where traditional Myanmar performers ready themselves to take the stage.

 The same picturesque qualities that attract visitors to Myanmar can also inspire laziness when it comes to producing photo books about the country: Snap generic pictures of golden pagodas, fishermen on Inle Lake and cute kids wearing thanaka, and you have a coffee-table book ready for publication.

There is also the “creative” approach taken by many local photographers, in which great effort is expended in setting up contrived, “picture-perfect” shots: models “harvesting” paddy while wearing immaculate ethnic costumes, monks idling in weathered monasteries with open parasols resting on their shoulders and girls making lacquerware in the dim interiors of ancient pagodas.

Such artificial images might look nice, but they suffer from a lack of genuine narrative arc: There is no story behind them, aside from the photographer’s manipulations. The result is a beautiful, yet ultimately hollow, postcard image.

Boston-based photographer Daniel Ehrlich takes an entirely different approach in his book Backstage Mandalay: The Netherworld of Burmese Performing Arts (2012), a hardcover volume featuring 290 images of the behind-the-scenes preparations that anchor nat (spirit) ceremonies and traditional Burmese stage shows such as zat pwe and anyeint pwe.

Ehrlich, who has made nearly 30 trips to Myanmar since his first visit in 1987, prefers his images to be unposed and candid, catching people in unguarded moments. Whereas the hokey, staged photographs so popular in the Myanmar tourism industry are essentially sterile and lifeless, Ehrlich’s images capture telling details that prompt speculation on the part of the viewer and conjure narratives that flow beyond the fleeting moment captured in the image.

The leading image in Chapter 1, for example, depicts the low-key atmosphere of backstreet Mandalay, with a dirt path winding past an old brick monastery, wooden houses and shady, haze-enshrouded trees.

Many photographers might be tempted to frame this shot to block out ugly reminders of the modern age that run counter to the idea of Myanmar as a timeless land of charm and beauty. Refreshingly, Ehrlich avoids this approach. Here, a light truck is visible on the right-hand edge of the photo, while on the left a street dog sniffs the ground near a pile of trash. There are monks in the picture, but rather than dawdling with dainty parasols, they are lugging modern bags and briefcases on their way to who knows where.

The second chapter focuses on the activity surrounding nat festivals, including backstage rituals by nat kadaw (spirit wives) preparing for public ceremonies. Of particular interest is a series of images spread across three pages showing a nat kadaw enduring the process of becoming possessed by a spirit who enjoys quaffing orange soft drinks and indulges in the unhealthy habit of smoking two cigarettes at once.

The centerpiece of the book is Chapter 3, which captures the dimly lit world of traditional performances, and the time and effort that goes into getting ready for the stage. Singers, dancers and actors are shown sleeping, waiting, watching, dressing and putting on makeup as show time approaches.

These are tough conditions for a photographer who is reluctant to rely on the camera’s flash, but Ehrlich does an admirable job of capturing the aura of mystery and otherworldliness that permeates these events, both onstage and behind the scenes. The performers, sporting sumptuous, glittering costumes, seem to come from another era, and many of the subjects appear to be lost in thoughts that can only be imagined by the viewer.

Anyone who has seen one of these live performances will understand their capacity for transporting audiences from the mundane world to the realm of the fantastic, and those who pay careful attention while paging through Backstage Mandalay will enjoy a similar experience.

Given Ehrlich’s devotion to documenting reality, it’s not surprising that he makes a point of breaking the spell before the end of the book. One of the last photographs captures an all-night outdoor performance winding down at daybreak. The ground is strewn with trash, and the few remaining audience members are wrapped against the cold as they wander away from the stage. One person holds her scarf against her face, as if shielding her nose from a foul smell.

But the photograph on the next page, taken in late afternoon, shows families claiming their spaces on clean bamboo mats in front of the stage, settling in to enjoy another show that will, over the next several hours, carry them away into a world of tradition, folklore and fantasy.

Ehrlich clearly hopes this cycle won’t end anytime soon – that even as the crowds disperse each morning, they will return again in the evening to witness another performance.

This desire is expressed in the book’s dedication, in which Ehrlich acknowledges that vast changes will inevitably come to Myanmar in the coming decade but pleads with the country’s people to preserve the “great ceremonies” that define them uniquely in a world where everything is becoming the same.

 This story was originally published in the July 29-August 4 issue of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

August 5, 2013 at 12:49 pm

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