Traditional Mongolian Contortion: An Endangered Heritage?

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Written by Tristan Lefilleul, photographs by Olivier Laban-Mattei

Mongolian contortionists are world-renowned as the best in their field. They are recruited by the most prestigious exhibitions and circuses, presented with the most distinguished awards, and considered to be the most esteemed models of the profession. Believed to be a powerful vehicle of social mobility, this art form attracts people from all over Mongolia. Mongolian children dream to become contortionists and parents often wholeheartedly support that decision. Private contortionist schools can charge high enrolment rates, facilitating ample financial gains for school managers, which sometimes leads to their corrupt behavior. Since the end of communism in Mongolia, the contortionist stage act has been modernized to adapt to contemporary tastes and trends. This phenomenon is becoming a larger cause for concern for the keepers, historians, and practitioners of traditional Mongolian contortion, which is protected as a national intangible heritage.

In Mongolia, the contortionist’s dance is called “Uran Nugaralt,” which means artistic bending. Uran Nugaralt has been an art form since the 12th century. It is believed that the art of bending and contorting was first observed in Mongolian royal palaces during festival and celebratory events during the time of the great empire. Adding a certain spiritual aspect to the dance, it is believed that Tara sculptures created by holy Buddhist leader Zanabazar inspired the unique features of traditional Mongolian contortion, which combines arduous physical movement with harmony, rhythm, and synchronization. For example, three acrobats can stand on a one- meter wide base, push their legs above their heads, and synchronize their physical movements to create an artful floral form. During a dance, which usually lasts more than eight minutes, the contortionists must achieve a succession of physically strenuous poses in rhythm with musical accompaniment. From a traditional perspective, it is said that this art reveals the beauty of the human body through exploring and enhancing the flexibility of the human body.

In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is the international committee delegated to protect intangible cultural heritage worldwide, chose not to inscribe traditional Mongolian contortion on the Heritage of Humanity representative list.

The campaign to include traditional Mongolian contortion on the Heritage of Humanity list included a nomination form signed by the Mongolian Minister of Education. The form states that Mongolian contortion is caught between tradition and the globalization and obligations of the modern world. Eleven safeguarding measures were proposed to save the Mongolian contortion tradition. However, the arguments that Mongolian authorities presented in their official nomination to include traditional Mongolian contortion on the Heritage of Humanity list were not sufficient to convince the intergovernmental UNESCO committee. In a draft document of their decision, the members explained that the nomination’s supporting documents did not provide enough information regarding not only the sense of identity this art form brings to the community, but also the practice’s social and cultural functions and contributions.

In 2011, during a meeting between Mongolian authorities, who nominated traditional Mongolian contortion for the Heritage of Humanity list, and representatives of the artistic discipline in the country, a traditional Mongolian contortion practitioner said, “I’m sincerely grateful that I learnt Mongolian contortion, this wonderful genre of arts through the training of my teacher T.Tsend-Ayush. I regret there’s no more such trainer with high capacity like my teacher […] we face the risk and challenge to have no generation to continue our heritage and train contortionists. Doing contortion is one thing and teaching and training others is another ability that not everyone has. It’s vital to transmit this knowledge and methodology”.

T. Tsend-Ayush, a renowned contortionist, was one of the first practitioners to join the State Circus, which was established in Ulaanbaatar in the MONGOLIA-3801940s by the communist regime. The contortionist group had only a few members who were selected at a young age. After completing intensive training, almost every artist acquired international success. These achievements gave the State Circus its worldwide reputation and rendered the contortion art form a Mongolian specialty. In 1990, with the fall of the communist regime, many state cultural institutions privatized. The prestigious, long-standing circus suffered the same fate while more and more private art and contortion education schools were established in Mongolia. As the transition progresses, the number of pupils attracted by art democratization increases. This is a phenomenon that follows Mongolia’s economic expansion, which has occurred in every sector of Mongolia’s society over the past two decades. Contortion education follows this same path and young Mongols, especially young girls, have a high demand for contortion art education.

This leads to a paradoxical observation: the trainers of traditional contortion are worried about the loss of an ancestral tradition, while contortion schools and their students are increasing. It seems that this fear is provoked not by a lack of successors, but by the inability to express or communicate traditional contortion as a national heritage.

Mongolia’s circus youth festival, brings approximately ten companies together each year within one of the country’s oldest circuses. Supported by four immense wooden pillars, the “ger”-shaped building is a former place of worship. The neighboring Buddhist temple Daschoilin had its property revoked during the communist period. Since the reappearance of spirituality in social life in the 1990s, the state reinstituted religious estates. Today the temple might retrieve its old property and lead the circus to face closure. However, the professionals of the artistic milieu seem optimistic.

As a teacher at School Number Four in the city of Erdenet, Delgertsetseg opened a contortion class. She was fuelled by her passion and the entrustment of a few key people. When the Mongolia’s circus youth festival competition ended, morale was high. The choreographer, Delgertsetseg, from the Erdenes company, was delighted. In Mongolia and Russia, each of the company’s performances was a success. Her arms laden with flower bouquets, Delgertsetseg explained, “I am very happy today. We won the second place in Mongolia and in Russia the Grand Prix. It is a very successful year for the company.” During the presentation and a half an hour before, Delgertsetseg looked at her pupils like a mother awaiting the exam results of her child.

“It is important first to check each one’s aptitude by observing mainly their back structure. Then, the training must be rigorous, but methodically controlled by professionals,” explained Delgertsetseg.

With a strict training schedule, at least 15 hours per week, the children very quickly reach a professional level but have a short career. According to one gymnast, most girls practice this art between the ages of 6 and 13, although there is no age limit if the training continues uninterrupted.

Amongst Delgertsetseg’s pupils, Marla, who is 16 years old, comes from an affluent family. She began contortion at the age of six when her grandmother took her to an audition to join the company in Erdenet. The teacher specially chose Marla from many other girls. Marla plans to continue her training until she reaches 20 years of age. She then wants to become a star behind the camera or in theatre. Marla feels unique when she shows her school friends how flexible her body is. “When we organize school talent shows, my school always counts on me to represent her,” Marla says with a sense of pride.

Marla is also a member of another company called the Miracle Art Club in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. With this group, Marla hopes to engage in new experiences and, in particular, travel abroad. This capital city school organizes annual shows in Asia. The Miracle Art Club is the product of a private initiative, outside of any educational curriculum, but successful thanks to the charisma and passion of its founder, Jantsan Kherlenchimeg, who is called Helen by her foreign colleagues.

Helen studied Mongolian language at university. She has always been fascinated by the arts, but her parents did not want her to make a profession out of it. However, Helen followed her passion by establishing the Miracle Art Club and passed this passion on to her son, who she enrolled into the fine arts school of Ulaanbaatar. Today, he is an accomplished painter who gives lessons to children at his mother’s club during the weekend.

Located on the ground floor of a tall building in a residential complex, the Miracle Art Club is housed in a studio no bigger than a two-bedroom apartment: one room for physical training and the other for fine art lessons. The children warm up in a room about 10 m2 in size. The art center opens during the week and sometimes during the weekend. Over 50 pupils visit the center for different art lessons. The school offers free lessons to impoverished families. More affluent families must pay 70,000 tugriks per month per child (about 30€). Helen, the manager, personally helps the kids who are the most in need. She offers financial and moral support, as she believes it is her role to assist them in their lives beyond just training. Not every school offers this same social assistance.

Because parents pay large sums of money for their children to attend private art schools, the financial gains earned by art clubs may lead unscrupulous professionals into corruption. For instance, a school could increase the number of enrolments while decreasing the number of trainers to maximize their profits. In this case, supervisory and training standards are not respected or met. For example, an ineffective or inadequate warm-up session can be of grave consequence to the pupils’ health and physical well-being.

In Helen’s opinion, too many Mongolian children suffer from an unstable family or home-life condition. These children are allowed to enroll in Helen’s club for free, while the more affluent families pay tuition fees to the club, funds of which, according to Helen, are reinvested to help the poorest families. “I do what I can. If I was rich, the money issues wouldn’t be issues anymore. But I give them all my support,” explains Helen.

Bademtsetseg has been taking her daughters to the Miracle Art Club for a long time. Her two daughters are now trained and talented contortionists. The youngest of the two daughters is 19 years old. Recently, an Australian circus offered her a contract. It is the fifth time she has gone to work abroad. Her training began when she was seven with a teacher who efficaciously taught her the basic techniques, which is probably why she has reached such a high skill level. Bademtsetseg is happy: the whole family has invested in the contortionist capabilities of her young child. To reap the reward of those efforts, the family had to wait until the young daughter reached the age of majority, as foreign circuses do not hire minors.

Investing in contortionism is often a burden for the participating families, but Miracle Art Club has found a solution to lighten the expenses. The center offers free education to the most talented pupils, those who will have a greater chance to acquire foreign contracts when they reach the legal age. Thanks to her rich contact base, Helen can easily find these talented pupils jobs abroad. The club then withholds a percentage of their contractual pay.

Mungunsor, who is 10 years old, dreams to follow the same path. During her four years of intensive training, she has won six gold medals at national competitions. Mungunsor can easily complete 10 push-ups with both hands on the ground and both feet on a wall. During training, she seems happy in the physical effort. “I feel good in those moments. I forget my problems,” confides the young girl. The young artist loves to be on stage, under the spotlight, in sparkling costumes. “I feel like a princess,” she says, smiling timidly. According to her teachers, Mungunsor is one of the best students in the art club. She will soon leave Mongolia for what will be her first tour abroad with the Miracle Art Club company, who will stay three months in Singapore, an Asian megalopolis that will give them the opportunity to appear in as many shows as possible and reap the financial benefits.

Mungunsor hopes that it will not be her last trip to a foreign country. “I would like to be a renowned contortionist, work abroad and earn my living. With my earnings, I will be able to buy a house and take care of my sister,” she explained. Mungunsor’s city-center apartment is very small. She shares the flat with her grandfather, her uncle and aunt, their children, and of course her mother and sister. It feels crowded in her two-bedroom apartment. By the end of the day, after training, Mungunsor prefers to meet her mother at her workplace, a spa in a Korean hotel. Mandah, Mungunsor’s mother, provides aesthetic care and massages to the spa’s clients. She does her best to take care of her two girls. Mungunsor’s older sister Huslin suffers from a mental illness. No specialized institution is able to take care of Huslin. Helen has contacted several organizations for their support, but their answers each time have been negative. For Mandah, Mungunsor’s tour abroad is both good news and a relief, as Mandah will be able to provide more uninterrupted, one-on-one care for Huslin.

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Helen was not entirely satisfied with their trip to Singapore in March 2013. She would have appreciated more frequent invitations from her contacts to join show productions. However, the girls of the company enjoyed living together. Mungunsor liked sleeping in a bunk bed. As soon as she came back to Mongolia, she bought an identical bed with her earnings. Mungunsor and Huslin are now able to sleep well without taking up too much space in their small apartment. Mungunsor did not enjoy the excessive heat in Singapore and also found it difficult to deal with stage fright before each show. At the end of the tour, she felt that the time away from home was too long, even though she spoke with her family once a week.

The business profits made by the Mongolian contortionist milieu are most certainly related to the prestige and reputation that Mongolia has built in this art discipline. European and Asian tours are often the best source of income for the private centers and clubs. A contract, and the knowledge it bears of upcoming work, allows the contortionists to undergo their winter training sessions more confidently. A company of acrobats and contortionists, called Angels, won a 5-month contract in Turkey during the summer 2013. Each week, they toured five-star hotels in the Turkish Riviera, Antalya. A Mongolian renowned circus family leads this group. The mother, Enkhtsetseg Lodoi, is a “member holder of the traditional contortion heritage,” according to the UNESCO criteria. She is a former student of T. Tsend-Ayush and she manages and choreographs Angels’ contortionist acts. In 1983, she won the gold medal at the Festival du Cirque de Demain and has several achievements to her credit during the span of her career.

In Enkhtsetseg’s opinion, the art of contortion is not only a vehicle of Mongolia’s cultural influence abroad but also a national treasure that must be maintained and protected. According to Enkhtsetseg, the discipline lacks a national standardization that would help preserve and impart ancient and challenging knowledge, skills, and traditions independent of the ambitions of profit and trends.

“Today, there is no monitoring of contortion education. Not all children can have a career in that art discipline, but some people make-believe that everybody can. Some centers put on stage contortionists that are not ready and that maybe will never be. Therefore the standard of Mongolian contortion is deteriorating,” explains Enkhtsetseg.

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