A flurry of stick on string, and plaintive notes waft through the crisp morning air. For residents in Chubachu it is show time, and they head towards the Royal Academy of Performing Arts to watch the mask and folk dancers rehearse the traditional dance and music which the Academy was established to promote.
For members of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts it is an ordinary working day. It is an impressive show as two rows of nimble dancers emerge from a makeshift partition to rehearse, for example, the mating moves of the Black Neck Crane. The fluid motion of wrists and restive footwork to the accompaniment of string music is enough to transport one to the marshy grounds of Phobjikha.
The Thrung Thrung dance is also practiced on damp ground, inside a roofless bamboo enclosure the size of a basketball court. But this is not for realistic effect. It is actually the Academy’s only performing space and it is here that tourist and other guest are brought for a glimpse of Bhutanese culture presented by these performers. In an average show, the troupe performs four mask dances and four folk dances for Nu. 5000-.
To most people the Royal Academy of Performing Arts is an entertainment body to liven up marriage parties or the celebration of promotion. They are also called to entertain guest at official functions and dinners like any other professional troupe. Many do not even think about their valuable role as upholders, in their own way, of Bhutanese tradition.
The artists themselves and members of the academy sincerely believe that they play a vital role in preserving the culture and tradition of the country. According to the parent organization the special commission. It was established to keep the old songs and dances alive in the pure form.
The Director of the Academy , Dasho Sithey, explains that the institute goes as far back as 1954 when the late King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, commanded that some form of training school should be established for mask dance. A group of men were chosen and trained at Dechenchholing to perform the Bhoecham-mask dance that were done by gomchens and the laity. The name is derived from the attendants of prominent families who performed these dances during Tsechus.
The academy was institutionalized in 1967 with a clear mandate to preserve traditional songs and dances and give visitors a glimpse of Bhutanese culture. In the formative year the academy trained 25 mask dancers selected from all parts of the country. In 1970, folk dancing was introduced with a team of 10 males and 10 female Dzongkha dancers and five musicians of traditional Bhutanese music and three Lhotsham musicians with six male and six female dancers.
At a time when the country was stirring from years of isolated slumber and opening up to the world, the Academy played an active role in introducing dignitaries from many countries to Bhutanese tradition and culture. Among the milieu of prominent personalities are Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The dancers were also important participants in major events within the country like the Coronation Day.
More recently, the academy has had its fair share of glory abroad. In 1976, a travel sick troupe disembarked in Iran, loaded with Indian currency and apprehensions, on its first trip overseas. Four years later, a more exposed and confident troupe held a full house enthralled at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. They then traveled through 24 states in the US performing in universities and colleges. By 1990, the Academy had visited and performed all over Europe, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan and India.
But, while the going has been great outside, it is at home that the Academy feels somewhat neglected. Those running the institute argue that the academy’s function is to preserve tradition and culture, it does not receive the attention and support befitting such an important responsibility.
Whether it be the bright lights and cavernous sound systems of a Carnegie hall or high tech exhibit hall in Japan, the troupe always come back to its open air enclosure. According to Sonam Tobgay, the Deputy Director of the Special Commission, they have been pushing the government for an auditorium for five years now, but to no avail.