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The Contortionists of Mongolia – Photo Essay

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Photos and words: Christine Schindler

Enter the strange land of Mongolia – endless steppes, rolling hills, nomadic ger tents, galloping horses and contortion. Yes, that’s right, contortion, the art of stretching and bending the body into unusual and various shapes, lines and positions.  Mongolian contortion is a cultural practice that is unique to circus arts. Merge ancient Buddhist animal poses, traditional Mongolian ‘Biyelgee’ dance, and Russian ballet into contemporary circus and you’ll have the exquisite art of Mongolian contortion. In Mongolian, contortion is as common as ballet to the western world, and instead of dreaming of tutus and pointe shoes, Mongolian girls aspire to be world-class contortionists. Mongolia has produced some of the most magnificent contortion acts in the world, namely, in circus companies as Cirque du Soleil.

mongolian performance

Mongolian contortion is unique in its expression of motion, balance, and poise. Not originally a circus art, it draws from a long-standing history of a variety of forms of dance.

Unlike other forms of contortion, which aim to astound and horrify the audience with their awkward and unnerving positions, Mongolian contortion uniquely expresses itself through dance – from traditional to contemporary. Each movement between poses is fluid in finely tuned positions right to the fingers and tiptoes.  It has a grace, form, poise and fluidity that exhibits the beauty and capability of the human body.

Although many Mongolian girls are gifted with a natural flexibility, all must undergo vigorous training, exercise and diet to maintain flexibility. Watching a Mongolian contortionist will leave you inspired by the courage and strength of the performer’s grace and poise. You may not be able to decipher the legs from the arms. You’ll be moved to tears by the defined movements. You’ll stand in awe of the timely and graceful movements of this traditional art.

More information:  A contortion performance can be seen every night from May to November with the Tumen Ekh Ensemble at 6pm beside the National Amusement Park (behind Seoul Club).


mongolian performer training

In order to gain the strength and flexibility to perform, Mongolian girls train at least three hours a day up to five days a week.

mongolia performers

Girls who exhibit a natural flexibility may start training from the age of 5.


mongolian girl performer

Contortion schools are as common as ballet schools to the western world, and many girls train in the art during school years.


mongolia perfomers

After spending many years training contortionists in circuses around the world, Bilgee returned to Mongolia to start her own contortion school in Ulaanbaatar.


mongolia performers

Contortion is a revered tradition in Mongolia; it is common for Mongolian girls to dream and aspire to a career as a contortionist.


mongolian performers

Girls line up in vibrant costumes as part of the opening of a national contortion competition in Ulaanbaatar.


mongolian performer

Mongolian contortion draws a parallel to Mongolian lifestyle; it shows a beauty and strength towards the hardships of everyday life.


mongolia circus performance

The art of contortion is believed to have originated from Buddhist meditation practices and poses imitating animals.


The influence of Buddhist poses is still seen in contortion performances in Mongolia – linked strongly to the country’s continued Buddhist practices.


mongolia empire performance

Contortion was believed to be a favourite form of entertainment by Genghis Khan and the practice was encouraged throughout his empire.


mongolia performers

Another strong influence in Mongolian contortion is Biyelgee, a folk-dance characterised by the stories of the nomadic day-to-day life.


mongolia performers

Russian ballet has been a more recent influence in the development of contortion.


mongolia culture

During the communist years under the Soviet Union, contortion was incorporated into the State Circus; here contortion developed under the strong influence of Russian circus arts.


With the incorporation into circus arts, contortion has developed the use of hand-balancing apparatuses, creating spectacular feats of strength and poise.


mongolia performers

Alongside traditional dance influences, Mongolian contortion includes vibrant theatrical costumes and make-up.


mongolian performer

The Marinelli Bend - one of the most difficult and dangerous contortion positions: While balancing and maintaining enough tension to hold her body above her neck with her mouth, she spins around on an apparatus her partner also balances from.


The ability to master difficult balance positions with an appearance of effortless motion sees Mongolia produce some of the best contortionists in the world.


Drawing from its religious, historical, and contemporary influences, Mongolian contortion is unique in its ability to merge these influences and include flawless motion between each pose.

About Christine Schindler
Christine plunged into the world of photography in 2011. After studying under a couple of dynamic and talented photographers. She has lived and travelled extensively in Europe, Asia, and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and Arts (International Relations) and is currently pursuing her own career as a photojournalist. She is currently in Eastern Europe exploring unknown travel routes. Her interests include documenting the personal aspect of culture and environment, and the changing traditions of society.

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