Every night in Ulaanbaatar, at the Children’s Palace, the Tumen Ekh (Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble) puts on an hour long show. From my knowledge, people don’t really think about Mongolian traditional song and dance. And if they do, they’re only knowledge will be about “Throat Singing”. I will admit that the throat singing is something special, but there is so much more to Mongolian culture than only that.
The Children’s Palace is located in a park (of which I don’t know the name). Right near the entrance to the park is this charming little gate. I was slightly taken aback by the amazing sculpture carved into the stone. My friend Irene and I thought it would be entertaining to imitate the creature, person….thing.
Upon walking into the theatre, it, like most other things, strikes you as communist. This building is an interesting combination of Communist and traditional Mongolian. You can see from this picture of the roof that there is definitely an Asian influence. However, there is the fact that the lobby is overwhelmingly concrete and cold, and the name itself, the Children’s Palace.
The theatre is fairly small. Considering it is a national song and dance ensemble, and the number of tourists it seems to draw, I would’ve expected something slightly more grand. It is only about five rows, in a horseshoe shape. It was perfect for the number of people there. It was full but not overly so. I guess that’s exactly what you ask for when you are a theatre organizer, promoter, person. There were such a variety of acts that I honestly don’t think I can remember the first one. I’m fairly certain that it might have been a guy who was lung singing.
After that, there were a variety of musical (both instrumental and singing) acts. Each was unique and amazing, but given that each act only last a few minutes and there is a full hour, it was a lot to absorb. Of the whole performance, there were two acts that stole the show. The first was of course, the throat singing. Let’s just say that there were moments when I was sitting there wondering how it is possible for a human to make those noises. Coming from a North American/European heritage, we don’t really get creative with how we use our bodies, voices, etc.
The second spectacular act of the evening was the contortionist. I knew that contortionist was popular in some parts of Asia and even in Russia, where it is a popular circus act. For some reason, the fact that it would be popular on all of Mongolia’s borders didn’t cause my mind to leap to the assumption that there would be Mongolian contortionists. Either way, I had similar sentiments watching the girl bend and balance while biting this stick thing, that I did when watching the throat singer: How is this possible? I definitely found there were a few times while the contortionist was performing that I had the heebie-jeebies. When an average person bends like that it doesn’t usually end well.
Actually, I lie when I say there were only two scene stealers. The final act was a mask dance, that involved all of the performers. I wish I had another adjective to describe how amazing the act was, but, alas, I have no other words for it. Fabulous seems a little too modern and Western, spectacular….I think I used that one a few times already too. The mask dance combined both the skills of the traditional musicians and singers, and the dancers. Each of the masked dancers represented something different. One of them represented death, for example. They really picked their final act well, it provided the perfect summary for the evening’s entertainment.
Although, I would normally be all high and mighty and like to say “I stay off the tourist trail” or that event is “too touristy for me”, I would recommend hoping back on the tourist band wagon. I’ve stayed off the tourist trail for the majority of the last week, I live in a local neighbourhood, go to local establishments, shop at the local super market and, when I’m feeling adventurous, the Black Market. But as a traveller, you often need the tourist traps to supplement the local experiences. At this event, the majority of the attendees to this event were Euro/North American tourists, and those who weren’t were Chinese. If I chose not to do the pseudo-cultural things on this trip, I would be missing out on a lot. Full traditional dances don’t just happen sporadically in your apartment building, you have to seek them out. And this seeking leads you to the same place as all the other tourists.