Published on October 4, 2007
Bangkok University's dance theatre production "Dancing to Nirvana" made its world premiere in June at Theater Na Zabradli in Prague as part of the ninth "Apostrof 2007: International Festival of Independent and Amateur Theatres".
This different take on Buddhist teachings is now being staged at Bangkok's Black Box theatre, and judging from the audience's enthusiastic applause at last Saturday's performance, "Nirvana" will need very little fine-tuning to bowl over Singaporean fans when it represents contemporary Thai theatre at the Esplanade Theatre Studio in January.
Audience members were intrigued from the moment they stepped into the theatre. Their surprise didn't come just from the dry ice that filled the house, setting a mysterious and spiritual mood - there was also the ingenious layout of the space.
Seating was separated into three sections and the main performance area was slightly raked, surrounded and filled with ramps, stairs, steps, and stages, one part of which towered above the audience in the house-left section.
Another part of performance space - red-painted dance floors - wrapped around the audience in the centre section, trapping those of us sitting there, although the reason for that only became apparent well into the piece.
Set designer Chaisupakit Pholphimai made effective use of the flexible playhouse's potential and his creativity was very much in accordance with the director's production concept.
The piece opened with a traditional Thai music tune playing. Vaguely recognisable to most of the audience, it was also strangely unfamiliar, even eerie. At the end of the 80-minute performance, the same tune was repeated, this time with a visual explanation, and the audience understood with which event in a gentleman's life the music was associated.
The circularity of the set design was echoed by the repetitions of the script's narrations, monologues, and dialogues, perhaps suggesting that events in our life also occur in cycles, and our strenuous attempts to make sense of them return to torture us again and again.
That might sound like that we're all in a state of limbo and that we have to keep "dancing", knowing that we will never reach nirvana. Well, that has a ring of truth, but another side to this uncertainty and ambiguity is, if we are honest, our enjoyment of life's worldly pleasures.
Pannasak Sukhee, an assistant professor at Bangkok University's Department of Performing Arts, asked a number of germane social, cultural, religious and political questions in this production. He did not provide answers to them, and that's part of what made "Nirvana" so enjoyable.
By frequently projecting a photo of a huge Buddha on the wall, this playwright was bold enough, in a subtle and artistic way of course, to express his doubts about the relevancy of Buddhist principles in the contemporary world.
One of the most emotionally powerful and memorable scenes was when a woman teacher working in Southern Thailand was kidnapped and injured by a group of men. The powerful harmony of acting, movement and lighting design at this point must have made many in the audience quiver in their seats. We all knew right away who the teacher was. And maybe that's why, a few scenes later, some of us were a little disappointed when a newsreel showing the real-life teacher was flashed on the white wall upstage.
Most of the young performers - performing arts students - were not dancers, and they were slightly better at delivering dialogue than they were at dancing. But, thanks to arduous training under Parinya Tongponthong, they knew how to move powerfully and meaningfully across the stage. For the choreography it's obvious that Parinya has set aside the impulse to show off his prowess, instead carefully choosing what best suited both this dance theatre and his performers.
Aspiring TV actress, dancer, and performing arts senior student Suthinee Manyanon played the Woman in the Red Dress, who was both enjoying and suffering worldly pleasures and vices. She seemed to lack vocal and physical energy in the early stages of the production, but found both after a few scenes.
By contrast, as the character about to be ordained as a Buddhist monk but seemingly unable to let go of his worldly fetters, Koraphot Suebchomphu was totally engaging.
Wankwan Polachan, chairperson of the Performing Arts department, who also serves as producer, was mesmerising as the Mother, who believed that her son's entrance to the monkhood was her passport to heaven, all the time ignoring her daughter's good deeds.
"Nirvana" is the work of the same director who staged Dreambox's production of "La Cage aux Folles" last May and Bangkok University's "Cabaret" six years ago. The juxtaposition of these, as well as "Mahajanaka", which is now on national tour, clearly shows Pannasak's range of theatrical styles and topics of interest, and explains why he is one of the most prolific directors in contemporary Thai theatre today.
I watched "Dancing to Nirvana" a few hours before "Banlang Mek the Musical", yet the former's thought provoking messages and questions raised overshadowed the glitzy glamour of the latter, and still remain with me now. More significantly perhaps, in the spiritual journey of "Dancing" I discovered much more about myself and the people in my life.
Although Pannasak initiated this "dance" and invited us to join in, it wasn't long before we realised that we were already moving in step to our own routines.
"Dancing to Nirvana" is that rare kind of performance, one that doesn't end in the theatre.
"Dancing to Nirvana" is being staged daily at 2pm and 5pm until Saturday at Bangkok University's Black Box Theatre on Rangsit Campus. Tickets cost Bt300 (students Bt200). For reservations, call (087) 008 0875, (081) 466 1250.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.