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Unmasking heroes, ogres & jokers: Faces in Performing Arts I

All it takes is a mask and your imagination.


Published: 17 Jul 2017

Time taken : >15mins

Masks are special things. You put it on. You trust. You just look into a mirror and wait. And if you trust, the mask will choreograph your body. The mask will tell you what to do.

Malaysian choreographer Marion D'Cruz, in her performance lecture work Gostan Forward.

Donning a mask opens an artist to endless possibilities. Whether it’s an actual mask or painting on a new face with make-up, here’s a look at how different performance traditions transform you into a celestial hero, an intimidating ogre or comical sidekick.

The heroes

Masks Kathakali

A Kathakali performance by Margi Theatre (India) at Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts in 2013

Pacha (noble male role)

Kathakali – Indian traditional dance
Origin: 17th century, India

Kathakali is a form of Indian traditional dance that is known for its elaborate and striking costumes and make-up. There are five basic make-up styles, known as vesham, and pacha, literally meaning “green”, is one of them. Pacha characters are heroic or virtuous, and include kings and deities.

Did you know?

Kathakali is traditionally performed by an all-male troupe and some performances last over a few nights, starting at dusk each day.

Masks Iwami

Iwami Kagura – Ritual Theatre of Shimane performance by Nishimura Kagura Shachu (Japan) at A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2015

Susano-o (heroic god character)

Iwami Kagura – Japanese traditional dance
Origin: Classical period Japan

In Japan, Kagura refers to a sacred Shinto ritualistic theatrical dance that is performed to the gods, and Iwami Kagura is the form that originates from Iwami in the Shimane Prefecture, a coastal region rich with Shinto mythology. A popular tale told in Iwami is of Susano-o, god of the sea and storms, slaying the eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent Yamata no Orochi.

Did you know?

Of the traditional dances of Japan, Kagura is the most dynamic and high-energy. And Iwami Kagura is the most popular.

Masks Krishna

A performance of Seraikella Chhau by Shashadhar Acharya & Troupe (India) at Kalaa Utsavam in 2016

Krishna (Hindu deity)

Seraikella Chhau – Indian traditional dance
Origin: Jharkhand, India

Hailing from Eastern India, Seraikella Chhau is the traditional dance originating from Seraikella in Jharkhand. Traditionally performed by all-male troupes, Seraikella Chau does not use dialogue, and portrays a wide range of stories and topics through evocative and poetic movements.

Did you know?

There are three types of Chhau, and Seraikella Chhau is one of the two that uses masks.

The ogres

Masks Ravana

A Cambodian classical dance performance at dans festival in 2007

Ravana, the demon king

Cambodian classical dance drama
Origin: Cambodia

Ravana, an evil demon king, originates from the ancient Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. In Khmer classical dance, Ravana features in dramatic dance presentations depicting scenes from the Reamker, a Cambodian epic poem based on the Ramayana.

Did you know?

There are four main role types in Khmer classical dance. Ravana is classified under the yeak role, which includes ogres and asuras.

Masks Mahmeri

Dances of Thanksgiving performance by Mah Meri (Malaysia) at A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2016

Moyang Bojos (the spirit of an ogre)

Mah Meri mask dance
Origin: Selangor, Malaysia

For the Mah Meri people of Pulau Carey, each intricately carved mask represents a specific moyang, or ancestral spirit. They put on these different masks during happy occasions and perform the main jo’oh dance to invite their ancestral spirits to join in the celebrations with them.

Did you know?

The Mah Meri mask dance is the only known mask dance practiced by an indigenous community in Malaysia.

More about the Mah Meri dance

Masks Onikenbai

The Sword Dance of Iwate performance by Iwasaki Oni Ken Bai at A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2012

Incarnation of Buddha

Oni Kenbai (Ogre Sword Dance) – Japanese folk dance
Origin: Kitakami, Iwate, Classical period Japan

Oni Kenbai folk dances can feature up to eight dancers, all wearing matching costumes and fearsome masks in five different colours. Despite the name “Oni”, meaning “ogre” or “demon”, the dancers each represent a different incarnation of Buddha, and are led in energetic and lively dances by the white-masked Buddha.

Did you know?

The art form is kept alive by children in Kitakami, who learn it in school and then perform the Oni Kenbai in local festivals.

The jokers

Masks Hyottoko

Japanese Kagura performance at A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2009

Hyottoko (male comic character)

Dengaku – Japanese traditional dance
Origin: Edo Period (1603–1868), Japan

Hyottoko is a lucky spirit with mythical origins, and different regions of Japan have their own myths about Hyottoko. In Japanese dengaku however, Hyottoko is portrayed as a comical figure that accompanies the traditional dancers.

Did you know?

Hyottoko gets his name the Japanese words for “fire” and “man”, and blows fire through a bamboo pipe, which explains his expression.

Masks Malttugi


Bongsan Talchum mask dance
Origin: 12th–14th century Korea

Talchum refers to mask dances in Korea, and this particular dance drama form originates from the Bongsan region in Hwanghae. Bongsan Talchum takes place outdoors and comprises seven acts involving different caricatural characters and even a lion.

Did you know?

Malttugi is a comic character who is a wisecracking servant to an unwitting nobleman.

More about Bongsan Talchum

There's more! Find out about other masks and make-up in part two of this series. Faces in Performing Arts continues here