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Animals, humans & spirits: Faces in Performing Arts II

A closer look at the faces that transform you into something else.


Published: 18 Jul 2017

Pen 2

Updated: 27 Mar 2020

Time taken : >15mins

Be it literal or figurative, the act of donning make-up or masks helps to immerse artists into a role. We look at more faces of the performing arts from Asia, which show that when it comes to transforming ourselves, we’re only limited by where inspiration can bring us.


Masks Barong

Barong: Ritual Theatre of Bali performance by Gamelan Pinda Sari (Indonesia) at A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2014.

Barong Lion

Barong dance
Origin: Bali, Indonesia

In Balinese tradition, barong can refer to a mask of a mythological animal. The term also popularly refers to the barong kek, a mythological lion-like creature who is a spirit king. Revered as a protector of villages, barong kek is popularly featured in traditional dances in battle with Rangda, an evil queen of witches.

Did you know?

The barong can also be depicted as a tiger, a wild boar, dog or cow.

Masks Ilagaligo

Mask from I La Galigo by Robert Wilson (US)

Animals in I La Galigo by Robert Wilson (US)

Contemporary theatre
Premiered 12 Mar 2004, Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

The epic creation myth of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, was adapted for the theatre stage by Robert Wilson, renowned experimental theatre director and playwright, in 2004. In the production commissioned and co-produced by Esplanade, animals are represented through performers wearing costumes and different animal masks.

Did you know?

After its premiere in Singapore, I La Galigo went on to be presented in other parts of Asia, Australia, Europe and the US.

Masks Hanuman

Khon Explored performance by Pichet Klunchun Dance Company (Thailand) at da:ns festival 2011

Hanuman (Hindu monkey deity)

Khon – Thai traditional dance drama
Origin: 1691, Ayutthaya, Thailand (first recorded reference)

Khon is an iconic dance drama originating from Thailand that was originally only performed in the royal court. Tales from the Ramakien—an epic Thai tale based on the Ramayana—are told by elaborately costumed and made up performers who do not speak, relying on expressive gestures.

Did you know?

Originally, masks were worn by all Khon performers. Now, masks are only used for demon and monkey characters, such as Hanuman.

Masks Elephant

Young participants in A Fun and Interactive Afternoon with a Special Elephant! by ACTs of Life (Singapore)

Elephant Mask

20 Dec 2015, Storytelling and Craft session, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore

These cute masks were lovingly made and worn by the young participants of A Fun and Interactive Afternoon with a Special Elephant! storytelling and craft session at the library@esplanade. Each elephant mask was unique, and a special personal keepsake for these young arts goers.

Did you know?

Masks are a great way of getting kids, or anyone else, to engage in pretend play. Read more


Masks Huadan

A performer from Foshan Cantonese Opera Troupe (China) portraying a Hua Dan role in Peony My Beauty at Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration in 2015

Hua Dan (female role)

Chinese Opera
Origin: 4th century, China

In Chinese Opera, Dan refers generally to female roles, and Hua Dan (flowery role) is the specific role of a young, lively female character. They are usually maidservants or unmarried women.

Did you know?

If you see a female character wearing pants and holding a red handkerchief or other object in her hand, she’s most probably a Hua Dan.

Masks Jing

A performer from Shanghai Yue Opera House (China) portraying a Jing role in Of Beauty and Elegance: Yue Opera Excerpts at Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration in 2016

Jing (male role)

Chinese Opera
Origin: 4th century, China

Also known as Hua Lian, the Jing role features male characters with prominently painted faces. These include righteous outlaws, monks and judges, and they are roles that either feature a lot of singing, or a lot of action scenes.

Did you know?

Jing roles are portrayed by artists who present their own distinctive performance styles with their character.

Masks Tavel with Mum

Performers in Travel with Mum at Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts in 2015

Half-mask (female character) from Travel with Mum by The Nonsensemakers (Hong Kong)

Contemporary theatre
Premiered 13 May 2013, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

The performers in Travel with Mum, a theatrical presentation based on a true story, wore half masks that were designed to evoke different expressions when viewed from different angles. This was helped with clever use of light and shadows.

Did you know?

Wearing masks helped the performers be more expressive on stage, as they relied on their entire bodies to convey emotions.

Masks Topeng

Balinese Masks Performance by Roger Jenkins & Gang (Singapore) at Octoburst! in 2005

Narrator’s half mask

Topeng – Indonesian dance drama
Origin: 14th century, Indonesia

Topeng (“mask”) Bali is a dramatic dance form that is used to tell ancient Balinese tales, usually of heroes and kings, accompanied by live gamelan music. Most of the performers wear full face masks (topeng bungkulan) and do not speak, but the narrator, known as the penasar, wears a jawless half-mask (topeng sibakan).

Did you know?

A half mask is often used in performances because it allows the performer to speak, and be heard, clearly.


Masks Dancing With Death

Dancing with Death by Pichet Klunchun, 2016

Ghost character – Phi Ta Khon inspired mask from Dancing with Death by Pichet Klunchun (TH)

Contemporary dance
Designed by Piyaporn Bhongse Tong, 2016

Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun’s Dancing with Death featured a unique raised oval stage on which dancers performed. They wore bright, stunning costumes, inspired by the colourful masks and vibrant costumes worn during Phi Ta Khon, a joyous Thai festival of ghosts that honours both fertility and death.

Did you know?

During Dancing with Death’s run in the Esplanade Theatre, audience members sat onstage up close to the performance.

More about Pichet Klunchun and Dancing with Death

Masks Yakshagana

A Yakshagana performance by Sri Idagunji Mahaganapathi Yakshagana Mandali Keremane (India) at Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts in 2012

Male role

Yakshagana – Indian traditional theatre
Origin: 16th century, Karnataka, India

Originating from Karnataka in Southwest India, Yakshagana, literally meaning “celestial singing”, is a theatrical storytelling art form that combines music, singing, acting, dancing and elaborate costumes. Starting as a folk art, it has developed such that Yakshagana is now classified into northern and southern varieties.

Did you know?

Yakshagana artists are also classified into two broad categories—singers and interpreters in one, actors and dancers in the other.