Udarata dancers and European audiences



The Udarata (Kandyan) dancers were first seen in Europe in the 1880s, in shows organized by the impresario, Carl Hagenbeck. Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913) of Hamburg, Germany, became known in Europe for his travelling exhibitions. He started with animals, including elephants from Ceylon. But from 1874 he added on a ‘human zoo’ where he showed remote peoples, such as the Sami (Lapland) and Inuit (Eskimo), in settings resembling their home environment. Ceylon was included from 1880 or so. Carl’s brother, John Hagenbeck, whose zoo in Colombo became the Dehiwela Zoo, made the travel arrangements for the Ceylonese contingents.

The Ceylon show, titled the ‘Singhalese caravan’ was a great hit and soon became the staple of the Hagenbeck exhibition. There were women and children as well as men. Also elephants, snake charmers, bullock carts and dancers. One group had 200 persons. Between 1882 and 1890 eight Ceylon troupes toured Europe with Hagenbeck. They toured all the major cities of Europe. They had caused a sensation In Vienna in 1884 and Paris in 1886. Each ‘Caravan’ was better than the one before. In 1887 the Hamburg show was billed as "International Circus and Singhalese Caravan".

The ‘Singhalese Caravan’ always included dancers and drummers, presented as the ‘wild men of Ceylon’. The 1884 Caravan had several groups of dancers. There were ’devil dancers’ wearing masks and other dancers performing as in a perahera. The German magazine, Die Gartenlaube, carried a photograph in 1884, showing these dancers and drummers, as well as a ‘masked drummer’ from Ruhuna. Hagenbeck also exhibited outside Europe. In 1909 he had requested twenty ‘devil-dancers’ from Ceylon for a zoological exhibition in Buenos Aires.

The link between Hagenbeck and the Udarata dancers continued into the 20 century , since the ‘Hagenbeck Circus’, established in 1887 continued up to 1954. Nittawela Ukkuwa had been with the Hagenbeck circus and had lived for three years in Europe, chiefly in Germany. He does not say when. His brother Gunaya also had a stint with the Circus, in the 1920s, billed as the ‘Devil dancer from Ceylon’. Hagenbeck also set up a permanent zoo at Stelling, Hambourg, in 1907, known later as Tierpark. This was the first zoo to use open enclosures surrounded by moats, instead of cages. Reed says Udarata dancers had performed regularly at Tierpark.

Hagenbeck is criticized today for his ‘human zoo’. The people who appeared in them received extremely low wages and false promises concerning their stay in Germany. "The Sinhala dancers ‘suffered dreadfully from the cold and were paid only fifty rupees a month. They had to sell used cigarette butts to survive." said dance historian de Zoete. However, the dancers did not regret the experience. They were proud of it and anxious to show off the few words of French, Spanish or German, together with the names of European and American cities and the various casinos, circuses and exhibitions at which they appeared. Sederaman however had instituted a law suit against Hagenbeck for referring to the Sinhalese as ‘wild men’.

Other sponsors also took Udarata dancers to Europe for special exhibitions, such as the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, where they performed along with Balinese, Cambodian, and Kathakali dancers. Tittapajjala Suramba and his elder brother Jayatura danced in Europe as part of the Circus Knie of Switzerland ‘In the early decades’. Several of the Udarata dancers Beryl de Zoete met on her visit to Sri Lanka in 1948-49 spent long periods sometime as much has three years, in Europe, performing in various west European countries, special Germany and France. The dancers were eager to talk about their foreign visits to the anthropologist, Susan Reed as well, who interviewed them in the late 1980s. Performing abroad lends a cachet to any dancer, certainly, but Reed thought they had been exploited.

Udarata dancers performed to Western audiences in Sri Lanka, too. In 1907, Colonial Secretary, Hugh Clifford had wanted, Leonard Woolf, AGA Kandy, to organize a ‘show of the finest Kandyan dance’ to impress a lady visitor. Woolf ran to the Diyawadane Nilame who arranged for an enormous number of dancers to perform by torch light on the grounds of the King’s Pavilion, Kandy. Woolf made the necessary payments to the dancers. This shows that during British rule, Udarata dance was also performed, on invitation as a non-ritual, secular dance, not merely to entertain but to demonstrate its excellence as dance. I am told that these exhibition dances carefully leave out the ritual elements.

Anna Pavlova was a famous Russian ballet dancer who popularized western ballet by dancing it all over the world. Her name is greatly venerated in the dance world. Pavlova toured Asia in 1923, dancing in India, Japan, Burma and Ceylon. This is not well known. Pavlova had seen a performance of Udarata dance during her visit here. Andreas Nell said that Pavlova had been charmed by posture of the dance and the rhythms of movements in unison with the songs and drums. She wished to revisit Kandy just to see the Kandyan dancing with its perfect rhythm. ( Neville Weeraratne "43 Group" p 135).

Ruth St Denis (1879-1968) was the most influential dancer of her time in the US. She expanded the world of dance in the west. The Denishawn Dance Company created by Ruth and her husband Ted Shawn was an important company at the time, though forgotten today. Martha Graham who pioneered modern dance started her career in it. This Denishawn dance company toured Asia in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1926, the company visited Ceylon as part of their 1925-26 Far East tour, performing in Colombo and Kandy. In Kandy, Shawn hired a troupe of Kandyan dancers to dance for them. Among those who danced was Nittawela Gunaya. Andreas Nell said that Ruth St Denis took photographs at this ‘arranged day performance,’ bought a costume and expressed great delight at the experience. (Weeraratne p 135).

Jane Sherman, a member of the troupe has written about the performance. ‘The men and boys were handsome, muscular and obviously full of the physical joy of dancing. The basic position was a deep plie in second position. Poses were held momentarily in this position, high leaps were made with the legs still bent in plie, swift turns started and ended with the plie, while advancing or retreating stamping steps maintained it. All movements were done in unison, at the most exciting times the group numbering from 3 to 30 would circle the drummer with leaps and turns and clanking of anklets’.

Ruth St Denis wanted her company to train under the Udarata dancers. The Udarata dancers therefore spent three hours every morning, teaching three of the Denishawn dancers, including Shawn, the basics of Udarata dance. Shawn was interested in studying other forms of male dance because he wanted to create a truly masculine dance style for his troupe. Sherman however thought the movements too difficult for the Americans to master. There were rapid changes of rhythm which they found hard to follow. New York Public library Dance Collection has film footage showing Shawn and the other male dancers of his troupe dancing one behind the other in a circular formation, imitating the traditional dancer. Back home, Shawn created a dance called ‘Sinhalese Devil Dance’ in which he coupled the Kandyan dance with southern masks.

Twenty years later, the local dancers themselves decided to start a dance company that could go on foreign tours. The Ceylon National Dancers troupe was formed in 1946 by Nittawela Gunaya together with Sri Jayana. Gunaya was its star dancer. The company toured India in 1949. I have also stumbled on a poster, selling on Amazon.com which says this group, including Gunaya, performed at Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York on 14. April 1949.

The Company went on a world tour in 1958, performing in Europe, Russia, India, China and Japan. (Reed p 124) They also performed, by invitation, at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Summer Festival in Massachusetts, USA. ‘Jacob's Pillow’ is a dance center founded by Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. The Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and companies from India and Japan had also performed there. University of California, Los Angeles has a collection of dance programmes of the dance companies that toured US. The 1958 programme of the Ceylon National Dancers is in Box 19. The Asia Society was impressed by the 1958 performance and the Ceylon National Dancers were invited back to the USA, to perform before selected American schools and universities in 1961-1962. The posters relating to these performances can be seen on Internet.

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