A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances


This article aims to offer a critical reflection on a daylong Buddhist dance performance held in conjunction of the opening of the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery of Buddhist Sculpture at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on 1 May 2009. Most of the information gathered for this article was extracted from Core of Culture, the producer’s website under “Projects”. Search on the Victoria & Albert Museum (hereby referred to as V&A) did not yield any results on the Day of Rare Buddhist Dance, whereas on Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, the sponsor’s website, four press release packages were made available to the media as early as March 2009 in three languages (English, Chinese and Cantonese). A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances took place as part of a series of arts and cultural events called The Many Faces of Buddhism across several locations in London to celebrate the gallery opening. The recordings of these events were presented in DVD format a year later in spring 2010.


The Hong Kong-based Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation (hereby referred to as the Foundation) was “founded in 2005 with twin missions: the first to promote Chinese arts and culture; the second to foster a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy and apply its insights to the practice of creativity” (Source) throughout the world. The founder is Robert Ho Hung Ngai, son of Kuomintang general Ho Shai Lai and grandson of Sir Robert Hotung (Lam). The family lineage is carefully stated in the review article about the gallery because it is believed that sharing one’s wealth will bring good merits to one’s ancestors and future generations besides oneself. The Buddhist Sculpture Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum is named after the Foundation.

V&A is “the world’s greatest museum of art and design”[1] in central London and boasts a history of over a century with collections spanning “two thousand years of art in virtually every medium”[2]. The V&A website announces its “collections of sculpture from Asia are among its greatest treasures…thanks to a generous donation from the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation and has enabled the V&A’s unrivalled holdings of Asian Buddhist Sculpture”[3]

Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery boasts an impressive collection of Buddhist sculptures ranging from A.D. 200 to 1850 throughout Asia. The Gallery also features “an interactive display to explain the gestures and poses used in Buddhist sculpture”[4]. There is a review article on the Buddhist sculptures in the Robert Ho Family Foundation Gallery by Raymond Lam (a scholar from Hong Kong at the SOAS, University of London) published by the V&A Online Journal[5] and another by Antony Gormley at Financial Times under the Fine Arts Section[6].  The former claims it to be “the first in the V&A solely devoted to the chronological and geographical development of Buddhist art, and occupies an accessible location next to the Museum’s John Madejski Garden” (Lam). The Foundation’s website heralds it to be “U.K.’s first gallery for Buddhist sculpture”[7].

The Many Faces of Buddhism, is a series of arts and cultural events to celebrate the opening of the The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery on from Saturday 25 April to Sunday 17 May 2009. [8] The programme included dance (A Day of Rare Buddhist Dance at the V&A), visual arts, talks (International Forum on Buddhism and the Arts at the V&A featuring Lin Hwai Min from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Meredith Monk and other experts in the field) and films (International Buddhist Film Festival at the Barbican)[9].

A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances featured a full day’s performance (10 hours) gathering Buddhist dancers and performers from all over the world including Nepal, Japan, Sri Lanka and India. It took place at the Grand Hall (Raphael Room) of the V&A on 1 May 2009 and lasted from 11a.m. to 9p.m. It is claimed by the producer to have broken with “both the museum model and the cultural export model for traditional dance…[with] dance being presented as seriously as fine art, traditionally the most highly valued form of creative expression in Western culture” (Houseal).

POH day of rare buddhist dance program

The producer, Core of Culture, is a United States-based organization which aims to preserve “dances threatened by failing patronage, changing media preferences, or dying memories” (Program, ). It is founded by a dancer and editor of Ballet Review, Joseph Houseal who has immense interest in the ancient forms of dance including Japanese Noh, as a practitioner and an advocator. He is referred to as an “Asian Dance Specialist” in the Press Release of the Foundation. The Foundation has previously sponsored Core of Culture’s dance preservation project in the Kingdom of Bhutan, resulting in exhibitions and publications.

The preparation time of one year speaks volume to the amount of effort required to put this event together. Houseal commented,

“when the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation contacted Core of Culture in summer 2008 about taking various ancient Buddhist dances to London as part of the inaugural celebrations of the new Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery of Buddhist Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I realized the difficulty, as well as the sublimity, of the task.  I knew how it would enhance an experience of the sculptures in the gallery, as well as exalt the occasion of the gift in a manner so refined and magnificent as to take on truly historic proportions”.

For the event, they erected a “purpose-built Noh stage” at one end of the grand hall and a Sri Lankan folk altar at the other. The Noh stage was built to specification and later given to University of Reading where a full program utilizing the stage takes place. Judging from the logistics of the dancers and the props alone, the budget for this dance event appeared to be colossal.

A day prior to the performance event, Joseph Houseal gave a talk to “introduce, explore and discuss the wider subject of Buddhist sacred dance heritage”[10], perhaps also to prep the audience about the solemnity of the performances. In the detailed program notes, it is carefully noted for each performance the history of the dance form, a brief synopsis of the play, lineage or background of the performers and interestingly, tips for watching. The wording for the tips was courteous and subtle in discouraging applause, such as: “When the performances are over, the qualityof silence is something to savour” and “One can watch Charya Nritya as if watching a visual prayer”[11].

The producer claimed “for rarity and authenticity, as well as pedigree, A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances was unprecedented in the history of Buddhism, of London and of the V&A” (Houseal). The rarity of the occasion was reiterated in the press release stating that:

“It is estimated that there are only 1000 Noh actors and only 30 Drikung Kagyu nuns who perform the dances left in the world. A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances will provide a unique opportunity to watch these few surviving examples of authentic sacred Buddhist dances, some of which have never before been performed in the West. In addition, the Sri Lankan Suvisi Vivaranya ritual has not been performed in Sri Lanka for over 50 years, and has been revived as part of this project”[12].

To bring in the Sri Lankan clan dancers, the Foundation “underwrote a Core of Culture research and scouting trip to Sri Lanka, resulting in the revival of danced ritual unperformed for more than 50 years, the Suvisi Vivaranaya, or Dance Ritual of the 24 Previous Buddhas”.  This ritual had almost been forgotten, etched in memory only by its heir, the “Dehimaduwa Bandara Clan of Kandy, Sri Lanka, a family of ritual drummers and dancers, appointed as ritual stewards 389 years ago by a Kandyan king”. Owing to the rediscovery by foreign dance experts, “the Bandara Clan is readying the ritual for international exposure” (Houseal). Authenticity claims around reconstructions of dying dance practices, especially outside of their original context, begs for a closer investigation of the numerous factors surrounding the dance, including the reasons that contribute to its decline or revival henceforth. Too little information is given regarding the practice of Suvisi Vivaranaya as well as the Dehimaduwa BandaraClan Family of Kandy. It was only made known that the dancers were sought out with the help of “Mohan Daniel of Serendib Gallery in Colombo” and that “every performer is a member of the Clan, and they range in age from early 20sto late 70s”.

It is in fact highly unusual for performers and practitioners of four different Buddhist traditions to convene on a single stage. However, the unusualness of the occasion resides in the location of the stage, in central London, rather than the coming together of different traditions. In an e-mail correspondence between the author and Joseph Houseal, dated 28 February 2012, he commented:

“Theatrical spaces are that. They will not be spiritualized to allow a ritual experience even if they allow a contemplative one…we rebuilt as far as we could the ritual spaces of the dancers, explained what we were doing to the audience…discouraged applause in many places…the issue might be more a matter of improving tourism to allow them to attend real ones without contributing to their decline.”

Houseal raised an important issue here that it is the collaborative nature of the tourism and heritage industries, with museum institutions like the V&A falling comfortably between both. The all-too-foreignness or the dislocation of the event, with money coming in from Hong Kong-China, management expertise from United States, performers presenting ancient Buddhist dances from exotic places in Asia, all of them convening in a cosmopolitan city in Western Europe, was desirable and called for in its distancing effect. “A hallmark of heritage productions-perhaps their defining feature-is precisely the foreignness of the ‘tradition’ to its context of presentation. This estrangement produces an effect more Brechtian than mimetic and makes the interface a critical site for the production of meanings other than the ‘heritage’ message” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1995, 374). As James Clifford has proclaimed, “tourism thrives on such startling juxtapositions, on what might be called the tourist surreal-the foreignness of what is presented to its context of presentation” (Clifford 1981 :563).

In India, there is an annual performing arts festival open to the public, called Mahabotsa, which brings together Buddhist performances from different countries and traditions as well. The festival takes place in Bodhgaya, the holiest site of Buddhism, where the Buddha attained enlightenment during the peak pilgrimage season. Bodhgaya is thronged by pilgrims from all over the world, giving the festival an international exposure. London is a cosmopolitan which attracts people from everywhere, but nowhere was it mentioned whether admission of the dance event was open to the public or by invitation or ticket. Viewing from the pictures of the event, the audience appeared to be a small selective group of people. Given the stellar list of players involved in putting together the dance event, it seemed to be a highly exclusive show or a private viewing for the elite.

Little is known that Buddhism has been presented in the most dance forms as compared to other religions (Houseal, Program) given that music and dance are frowned upon in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism has been referred to as a “performing art” (Beyer) and “theatre of compassion” due to the rich array of performing arts it has to offer as a religion abound with rituals and ceremonies. Given its propensity to drama, it is not surprising that many Buddhist rituals have been adopted on the stage as performance, blurring the line between sacred and profane. ’cham is a good example of the adaptation of Buddhist rituals on Western stage as it “now stands as one of the marketable hallmarks of the monastic culture of Tibet, alongside sand mandalas and overtone chanting” (Henrion-Dourcy, 185, 2006). It is not a recent phenomenon for Western audience has long been fascinated with the exoticism that the roof of the world, Tibet, has to offer. As early as 1921, British audience were exposed to scenes of ‘cham (it was referred to as Devil Dance) through the screening of the “Film of the Mount Everest Expedition of 1921” at the Philharmonic Hall[13] in London.

“The music played during the Devil Dance film being shown at Philharmonic Hall…and Devil dancing fit in with one another very adequately, and in a crude way seem to me to be a very high form of art…This enter-tainment, with its accompanying films of travel across Tibet and of climbing 27,ooo-ft. on the world’s highest mountain, is to be continued, it is hoped, until the first week in February. The profits from the show are to be used for the equipment of a similar expedition next year.” (Somervell, 1923, 108).

Almost a century later, British audience continues to be enthralled by the Tibetan mystical arts as seen from the headlines “Tibetan monks to rock Glastonbury 2013”[14]. The performance at the hugely popular music festival was described as “a pilgrimage of a different kind [whereby] the Dalai Lama’s monks…will create a ceremonial Sand Mandala, which is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of building a symbolic picture of the universe out of coloured sand”[15]. That was not the first time the Gyuto Monks, who were signed to Universal Music, have toured internationally, their past performance venues included “London’s Royal Albert Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House”[16].

In view of these ancient dance practices on the brink of extinction, what would be the best practice to preserve them? According to Core of Culture, “Preservation means reviving dances no longer practiced, encouraging those who know their dances to find means and places to perform them, documenting the dances of changing societies and cultures, using modern technology to make preservation and education about the dances possible, and helping those who want to preserve their own dances to do so” (Core of Culture). How does one thread the fine line between preservation as heritage and intervention into the culture for “all heritage interventions – like the globalizing pressures they are trying to counteract – change the relationship of people to what they do” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004:58)? In Houseal’s word, if preservation means “reviving dances no longer practiced” how much would safeguarding measures bring the practice back to life? In the case of the Sri Lankan clan dancers, have they been actively performing again since this dance event at the V&A? Or is this just a one-off performance? To acknowledge the challenge of striking a balance between “freezing the practice and addressing the inherently processual nature of culture” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004, 58) is to take into account the vitality of dance as a cultural phenomenon. “If it is truly vital, it does not need safeguarding; if it is almost dead, safeguarding will not help” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004, 56). Back to the issue of heritage and tourism, “because heritage economy is now being recognized as a modern economy” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004, 61), there is danger of celebrating cultural differences on the surface, regardless of its vitality.

In her article “Theorizing Heritage” written twenty years ago in 1995, Barbara Kirshenblatt- Gimblett ends it by claiming “theorizing heritage is a place to start” in rethinking our practices on producing heritage. Dance, especially, cannot depend on pedestals and sculptures in galleries, but “on the living transmission of cultural knowledge and values, and that depends on intangible cultural property, which lives in performance. It must be performed to be transmitted; this is the source of its life” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1995, 378-379). By going behind the scenes and identifying the players who brought A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances together at V&A, this article hopes to raise issues and challenges in putting dance, particularly traditional dances, in modern cultural spaces.

[1] http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/h/history-of-the-v-and-a/

[2] http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/h/history-of-the-v-and-a/

[3] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/buddhist-sculpture-galleries/

[4] http://www.rhfamilyfoundation.org/#!/programme/36


[6] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/4926cb96-305f-11de-88e3-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3VEFKFqGF

[7] http://www.rhfamilyfoundation.org/#!/programme/36

[8] Program Notes of Day of Rare Buddhist Dances, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009.

[9] http://www.rhfamilyfoundation.org/#!/press/25

[10] http://www.rhfamilyfoundation.org/#!/press/27

[11] Program Notes of Day of Rare Buddhist Dances, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009.

[12] http://www.rhfamilyfoundation.org/#!/press/27

[13] The Philharmonic Hall, 97 Great Portland Street, London, originally the St James’s Hall, was built in 1907–08 to replace the St James’s Hall that once stood in Regent Street. The building is now used by the BBC and known as Brock House. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philharmonic_Hall,_London

[14] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/10114884/Tibetan-monks-to-rock-Glastonbury-2013.html

[15] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/10114884/Tibetan-monks-to-rock-Glastonbury-2013.html

[16] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/10114884/Tibetan-monks-to-rock-Glastonbury-2013.html


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