Published on October 15, 2007
Internationally renowned choreographer and dancer Pichet Klunchun and leading French artist Jerome Bel return to the Asian stage this week, premiering their newest work, "About Khon", in Singapore on Friday and in Bangkok on Sunday,
This intercultural performance, for which Pichet will be joined by his LifeWork Company, has been developed from their earlier collaboration, "Pichet Klunchun and Myself", and Pichet's solo work, "I Am a Demon".
After debuting under the title "Made in Thailand" at the 2004 Bangkok Fringe Festival, the former has toured performing arts festivals in Asia and Europe, been staged nearly 100 times, and enjoyed by more than 20,000 people of different nationalities.
"I Am a Demon" had its premiere in 2005 and has been performed 22 times in Asia and Europe, most recently in Istanbul, Turkey.
Since his graduation from Chulalongkorn University's Fine and Applied Arts Faculty more than a decade ago, Pichet has been trying to find ways in which classical Thai dance can communicate with contemporary audiences, both here and overseas. That search continues with great artistic finesse in "About Khon".
In "Pichet Klunchun and Myself", two artists from very different performing arts cultures - Pichet was trained in khon (masked dance) and Jerome in contemporary dance - are on stage asking each other about, and demonstrating, their arts.
"There's a great deal of common ground between us," says Pichet, the 36-year-old recipient of the Culture Ministry's Silpathorn award.
"We're both searching for meanings in what we do - why we dance, for example.
"Also, we both like small yet beautiful details. Our differences are also interesting as exploring them brings out our similarities.
"We talk about death scenes on stage. He asks me whether a khon character dies on stage, and I say 'No, we use other means to show death on stage'. He likes this idea and says that theatre is all about presentation: If a character really dies, the audience wouldn't believe it, as it's not real. We, as artists, need to offer a chance for our audiences to exercise their imaginations."
Pichet then talks of how "About Khon" developed from "Pichet Klunchun and Myself" and "I Am a Demon":
"When we were on tour in Italy, I mentioned to Jerome that I wanted to create another work. I asked him whether it would be possible to cut down the dialogues in 'Pichet Klunchun and Myself' so that what remained were his questions about khon, and I leave out my asking about his contemporary works. He liked the idea."
"In 'Pichet Klunchun and Myself', the last question Jerome asks me is what I most want to do in my life. He notes that, listening to my answers to his previous questions, it's obvious that classical Thai dance has deep roots and lots of meanings. He also asks whether Thai people, in general, really know khon. I reply that they don't; that they are aware that Phra Ram and Phra Lak fight with Totsakan, but that doesn't mean they understand khon.
"I want to help my audience understand the art of khon, and to bring this classical art back into modern society. Also, I want to get young people interested in khon. Right now, they don't get it, so they're not interested. First I'm going to answer Jerome's questions about khon, which represent those of the general public, and then further develop khon so that it's easier to understand.
"I start by taking out what's not at the core. Much as I did in 'I Am a Demon', I strip out such accessories as the music and the costumes, and concentrate on the body and movements. Then, I demonstrate ten sao [a rigorous physical training every khon dancer needs to undertake], and, afterwards, mae ta [basic classical Thai dance movements].
"Later, one of my company members will help me put on the full Yak [a demon character] costume on stage. In the meantime, [classical Thai music scholar, musician, and singer] Sabchai Uasilp will be performing bot pak [a narration]. When I'm almost finished with the costume, the army of Phra Ram will take the stage. When I'm done, the army of Totsakan appears. This is to really show how khon is being performed nowadays."
"This flexible last scene is practical as it allows me present any scenes of khon. Before we get to this point, I will have explained its meanings and concepts [through the dialogue with Jerome], be it love, death, or others. For this world premiere, I've chosen the yok rob [battle] scene. In Thailand [at MR Kukrit Pramoj's Heritage House] we'll use live music, scores of performers, as well as elaborate props like the royal carriages. Obviously, we won't be able to do that in Singapore.
"With 'About Khon', I will have completed one of my missions as a professional dancer trained in a classical field," he says. "After this, I'm taking my work to another [universal] level. I plan to do a solo piece dealing with consciousness. It will show death and wars in modern history from World War I onwards. The point will be that we should always examine things carefully before making any decision, rather than being overwhelmed by impulses or emotions."
"About Khon" will have its world premiere at the "da:ns 2007" festival at the Esplanade, Singapore, Friday at 9.30pm. For information, visit Dansfestival.com.
The Bangkok performance takes place at MR Kukrit Pramoj's Heritage House on Sunday at 7pm. For tickets, call (081) 923 1029.
Thanks to Sojirat Singholka for assistance in facilitating this interview.
Life Work Company's website address is Pklifework.com.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.