Circus of Spirit

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A yak prances across the stage, tossing its horns playfully, led by a wide-eyed boy with a dranyen guitar slung across his back. Together they’re journeying to Lhasa, the “place of the gods,” one of the epicenters of Tibetan spiritual life. The boy–named Tenzin–has recently left the familial comforts of village life to focus his mind at a monastery. He’s quite afraid, yet courageous.

Tenzin’s coming-of-age story is the subject of “KIPO!: A Circus of Spirit, Song, and Dance from Tibet, the Land of Snow,” a richly cultural production playing in Minneapolis, Minn., in coordination with the recent visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The ongoing performance is a collaboration between the Minneapolis-based TigerLion Arts troupe and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, an organization founded by the current Dalai Lama to “preserve the rich cultural heritage of Tibet.” Education is a primary mission of both organizations, and during KIPO! the audience gets a primer on the diversity of Tibetan culture and spirituality.

As Tenzin travels through the countryside, he encounters every stripe of Tibetan society: He helps plant crops with barley farmers, follows a band of highland wanderers, and prostrates himself beside an elder monk. All of these interactions are colored by traditional songs and dances, many taught to him by the strangers he meets on his path. Tenzin stomps along to the Drum Dance Festival of central Tibet, lends his voice to the poly-harmonic ballad at a marriage celebration, and looks on with awe at the uncannily spiritual Black Hat Dance. After crossing the Himalayan mountain range with some 80,000 other Tibetans in 1959 after the Chinese army’s invasion, Tenzin sadly watches the Skeleton Dance, a burial ritual meant to help shuttle the souls of the dead into the next life.

Tibet’s loaded wardrobe is also on display throughout Tenzin’s quest. The short pants, embroidered boots, and fur-lined tunics meant for day-to-day wear share the stage with women’s tasseled, vibrant aprons and elaborate, ceremonial headgear.

KIPO! (which means “happy”) ends on an uplifting note. After trudging through snowy mountain passes and losing family members to the invading army, Tenzin and his fellow Tibetans find a new home in Dharamsala, India. Here he puts his guitar-plucking skills and freshly learned dance moves to good use by joining the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (for a straightforward production, it gets a little meta at the end). He spends the rest of his days teaching others about his culture that was almost lost. If you’re in the Minneapolis area through Saturday, May 22, it would be worthwhile to hear his tale.

Images courtesy of TigerLion Arts.

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