Soulful Bowlfuls of the Mongols
A narrative for Shen Yun 2017’s ethnic dance Mongolian Bowls:
Somewhere in the great expanse between the Gobi sands and the Siberian north, a herdsman’s song rings through the crisp open air. His stirring strains call out to you, drawing you closer to the white dots clustered in the distance—yurts that make up the camp of his nomadic kin.
The Mongolian people channel the spirit of the eagles soaring overhead, and for centuries have lived like the horses, galloping free. The lands they reverently call home are wild plains that sprawl in every direction, as far as the eye can see.
Here, young women donning dresses of white and brilliant cobalt blue now spot you approaching from afar. Taking a break from milking, shearing, and other chores, they gather to greet their distinguished guest. Some come carrying bowls of fresh milk tea—fragrant, warming, and ever so nourishing—balanced delicately on top of their heads.
First, a ceremonial offering is performed: the tea is presented up above, down below, and all around. Then the melody begins. Frothy bowls stacked high—the crowning glory of the ritual— the women glide gracefully across the grass. With billowing arm movements, snapping wrists, and strong shoulder shakes, they engage in a beautiful dance. Their faces and gestures radiate with pride in their unique heritage and pastoral way of life. They transition from formation to formation as smoothly and purposefully as migrating geese in flight.
The music heightens. The energy escalates. The dancers engage in splendid techniques. Round and round they go, twirling at an exhilarating speed. And all the while, their bowls remain balanced, poised and with ease.
At last the day begins to fade. The ladies’ performance comes to a close, and they beckon to withdraw. Yet even at parting, the gracious group extends a final toast to send you off with a heartfelt farewell.
Come again, they seem to say, and we hope you’ve enjoyed your stay.
A Taste of Nomadic Life
A backdrop of sapphire sky doming emerald grasslands, an invigorating orchestra led by a poignant erhuist, and a score of dancers winsome and full of zest—that’s how Shen Yun 2017 takes you on a jaunt to the brisk Asiatic steppes. Composed by D.F. and choreographed by Chinese ethnic dance expert Gu Xuan, Mongolian Bowls is a number with notable flair.
The traditional bowl dances of the Mongolians represent a ceremonial offering of milk tea. With a pinch and flick of the thumb and ring finger, they send one symbolic sprinkle up to the heavens, one down to their beloved homeland, and one all around to welcome each honored guest.
Suutei tsai—black tea with cow’s milk, salted and enriched with a spoonful of butter—is one of the most popular beverages of the land. If ever your adventures take you to these majestic steppes, the hospitable locals will offer you a taste as soon as you set foot in the yurt. Take care to accept the bowl with your right hand. And have a good sip before setting it down. Compared to other regional favorites like airag (fermented mare’s milk), urum (clotted cream of yak), or chatsarganii shuus (sea-buckthorn juice), their milk tea—though atypically flavored—is relatively tame.
The 2017 season’s Mongolian Bowls is the first female Mongolian dance Mr. Gu Xuan has choreographed with Shen Yun. Throughout the years, from Courtyard Elegance to Lantern Joy to last year’s Manchurian Maidens, his creations always seem to speak to me. As I’m dancing, they tell me tales and create delightful images in my mind. (Did you notice the movements representing shearing, wool spinning, offering tea, and eagles flying? Or how about the milking gestures in the opening of the dance? Once feeling jocular during rehearsal, I turned around and asked a friend if I was blocking her cow… But in all seriousness, this dance took countless hours of practicing to master, and it really taught us to stay levelheaded throughout.)
We began learning Mongolian Bowls early last summer. Then, as now, I found it so rich in meaning and tradition that I couldn’t help but let my imagination wander. So above is the yarn I’ve spun for finding my Mongol groove. This way on stage, no matter how many oceans apart we may be from those awe-inspiring steppes, there’ll always be a drop of these nomads’ spirit (warm, creamy, and a bit salted) running through my veins.