April 23 – 27, 2008
This report may be dated and circumstances may have changed to some degree given all of the changes that have occurred in Myanmar since our visit there in 2008. However, it is critical to gather as much information as possible beforehand about issues as mundane as money: credit cards are/aren't accepted? If cash only, then in what denominations and need they be crisp new bills? Is internet available? If not, and you are on a multi-country tour and need to be in touch with your next stops during your time in Myanmar, explore other options for communications -- faxing? phoning? sending messages via the U.S. Embassy? -- or reconcile yourself and your correspondents to silence for the duration of your stay. There was a business center in our hotel but, inconceivable to a Westerner, no internet connections available.
Additional Lessons and Tips:
Performance Venue - On American Property:
Performing in Myanmar is particularly difficult because anything American attracts the negative attention of the military regime. The idea of performing in a theater was ruled out, not only because the theaters would have been in dilapidated condition, but even more so because the Embassy knew from experience that even if they were able to get permission to produce a concert in a theater, the regime would cancel the license within 24 hours of the performance. Similarly, if they hired a ballroom in one of the hotels in Yangon, the regime would likely force the hotel to renege on the contract at the last minute.
As a result, the Embassy arranged to have a stage built on what is usually a basketball court on the American Embassy's residential compound.
The second performance was at the International School of Yangon, a private institution with its own land and heavy subsidies from the U.S. and other Western countries whose children attend the school.
Practical Considerations -- bring new $100 bills
Myanmar's Hotels don't take credit cards, company checks or wire transfers. Fresh, new US greenbacks are the only way to pay for your rooms, no matter whether you are staying for many days times many rooms and have to stuff a money belt full to the brim (and subject yourself to the danger of being robbed.)
Outreach Activities -- desperately needed but hard to supply
We had very low attendance at our workshops, a striking difference from other countries where we often have to add workshops to accommodate the overflow.
From the less shy participants, we were able to find out that the 'authorities' had tried to dissuade them from attending, and that many of their friends were worried about braving the massive security at the American Library where the workshops were held; and-or that they were worried about Myanmar's secret service security cameras that they knew would be trained on the Entrance to the Library, keeping tabs on Myanmar citizens who pay too much attention to anything American.
Connectivity -- next to none
It is bittersweet to enter the Business Centre at a 5-star hotel in Yangon only to find out that even there (perhaps especially there) one cannot find internet service. We heard about an internet cafe downtown that supposedly had service. How if no one else did? Because the owner was related to one of the Generals.
OK. We went there. Signing onto webmail and downloading messages involved calling over to the young aides who ran from terminal to terminal, dialing in new aliases in order to undermine the government's firewalls. Better be quick -- only one or two sentences could get through before the fox caught the rabbit and the service was terminated.
One man can make all the difference
Our primary liaison in Yangon was Nyi Nyi Thu, Cultural Affairs Specialist at the US Embassy. I hope he is still there. Nyi Nyi is a charming, warm-hearted can-do person. I will never forget going with him to find a carpet and flooring store at the marketplace and picking out the most neutral linoleum available with which to cover the stage at the 'basketball court' and haggling over its price. This was the final layer that was to be applied to a stage that had been built from scratch on the court's concrete base.
How did they come up with the wooden under-structure? The Water Festival had gone on a week or so earlier and the floats and stages that had been erected for this massive national event were being taken down and Nyi Nyi arranged for the lumber to be reserved for our stage! Given where we were, it was probably teak!
The rationale for going despite the difficulties
The US Embassy organized seating for approximately 750 people at the first performance. More than a thousand came, and those who came too late to get a seat stood on the periphery of the 'basketball court', jammed together as if at a rock concert.
The energy was palpable. The audience stayed throughout the 90-minute program, despite the heat, crowds, standing room only, and bugs (which formed a carpet on the stage, attracted to the lights) because they were so hungry for new experience and intellectual and cultural stimulation.
The Q & A after the performance in which we heard astonishingly acute responses to our dances convinced us that the Myanmar were aesthetically attuned people with a richness of imagination that has not been crushed by the regime and the incredibly poor living conditions even in the capital city. (soon after we left, Cyclone Nargis hit and what was already a devastatingly difficult life for the Myanmar people became unimaginably worse.)
In the sweltering heat of the afternoon, 24 carpenters and electricians (most in flip flops or bare feet and dressed in the traditional sarong) labored on the outdoor basketball court of the American Club here in Yangon, building a stage and audience risers out of unfinished teak. Voluminous white fabric came straight from the tailor’s and was hung as a cyclorama. After the stage was leveled and finished off, 1” thick rubber pads were placed on top to bridge the gaps between distressed plywood sheets. But rubber being far too sticky for dancers’ pivots and turns, we headed off with Nyi Nyi Moe Thu to the city center to pick out linoleum for the performance that was to happen the following night.
We chose an innocuous white and gray-flecked pattern; nothing like the plain black or dark gray standard for a theatrical performance being available. Why, you might wonder, would all of this effort and expense be necessary? Why couldn’t we load into a theater, or at least a hotel ballroom, where the staging and lights (and a/c) would be on hand? The answer is simple and tragic: Myanmar, being a police state and its rulers being distrustful of any public gatherings, and even more so those that are sponsored by a foreign country supportive of the opposition party, a theater or hotel would most likely have its performance permission revoked moments before the curtain went up. Thus the basketball court on American-owned property (mercifully covered, but not so mercifully open on the sides to the heat and humidity, and insects which formed a crunchy carpet under the stage lights later) was the only venue that was immune from interruption.
Karl Stoltz, the DCM and Acting Public Affairs Officer here, had written in November with the proposition that we consider adding Myanmar to our Asian itinerary. Karl knew BDC through our program in Malaysia in 2006, his previous State Department post, and reasoned that dance might be one of the only means to effectively engage with Myanmar people, given the lock-down on free thought and expression here. Dance’s ability to communicate without words could do what other media couldn’t. It wasn’t until a few weeks before we were due to leave New York for the tour that
Funding was solidified, visas were secured and Myanmar was on the schedule, wedged between Laos and Taiwan. Fast forward to the next day: Another shopping trip into the city to purchase pulleys and other hardware needed for the show that evening; and my urgent need to answer dozens of e-mails that had been coming in each day from other Asian posts down the line. The Myanmar government strictly controls internet access and no service was available in the Business Centre at our 5-star international hotel. Nyi Nyi thought that an internet café might be a better bet. And it was. Except that no sooner had a proxy server been located and e-mail messages downloaded, than the service was shut off. Young women employees of the café buzzed from one computer terminal to the other, madly typing in new numbers, and for a minute or so, the connection was good; only to be interrupted again. It seemed like an exasperating game of hide and seek – with the Government’s censors winning: I spent an hour in the café during which time I managed to read only 4 out of 50 current e-mails and was unable to send out anything. Frustrating as it was, I took it as a lesson in understanding the challenges of the populace here – and in such a poverty-stricken, isolated nation, only a tiny elite would ever have the funds to try.
This sense of “no chance” was verbalized in the first of two dance workshop we held. The seven dancers who attended were obviously thirsty for information from the outside – they wanted to be dancers but television and internet (!) were their only teachers. Two modern dance master classes gave BDC the opportunity to interact in an intimate setting with a group of young people who are experimenting with modern dance. They said, “we have no chance to learn, because practically no one comes here who can teach us.” An American dance company had not toured Myanmar since Martha Graham and her company in 1974. Each and every BDC teaching artist would be more than willing to return, but how? Who would fund such an undertaking? And how could we manage to circumvent the whims of a Government determined to keep its people deaf to the outside world?
The night before last was our first of two performances, and despite powerful afternoon rains, the audience arrived in droves. Quickly all the 450 seats were filled and an overflow audience extended into the parking lot. Charge d’Affaires Shari Villarosa gave us a lovely introduction and the show was on. The lighting dazzled the audience, but also attracted a plethora of insect life that gravitated to the linoleum floor. The dancers gamely lost themselves in their performances, jumping high on the custom-built stage and connecting powerfully with the audience. Whoops and hollers and loads of applause rewarded and surprised us. In such a complicated place where people have so much to lose just by attending an American performance, art transcended politics and the spirit was lifted.