Published on January 17, 2008
After thrilling the crowds in Prague last summer, Bangkok University's Performing Arts Department staged "Dancing to Nirvana" for the last time in the City of Angels last week before taking the production to Singapore at the end of this month.
An audible gasp filled the auditorium as the empty red platform in the centre was suddenly filled with several half-naked men and two women.
A man dressed in pure-white and a woman attired in blood red followed them into the middle. She pushed him hard and he tumbled to the ground, saying in Pali, "Itapajayatasupato is hard to notice. Nirvana is too complicated to my sight."
In "Dancing to Nirvana" director Pannasak Sukhee explores the values of patriarchy and the doctrine of Ittappajayata - the concept of existence and uncertainty. Because this philosophy is considered incomprehensible, it tends to be ignored by the majority of Buddhists.
"I've tended to be very considerate in my previous productions, as I've wanted to impress the audience with profound philosophies," said Pannasak in the post-show discussion.
"With 'Dancing to Nirvana', I intend to show my stupidity, to reveal the spirit of a Buddhist who can't appreciate dharma and who tries to find the way to purification, yet can't resist earthly temptations."
"Dancing to Nirvana" reflects what Pannasak sees as the condition of contemporary Bangkokians by revealing the effects of the chaos and demands of urban life on individuals who are incapable of going against the flow of political despotism. Desire for power and objects envelops their vision, and religion is simply gift-wrapping, hardly touching the core of human mind. The performance questions what and where spiritual happiness is, and how far an individual has to journey before reaching eternal peace.
However, this reviewer felt the weight of confusion pressing down on her head and shoulders as the dance progressed and was stifled by the heavy rhythm of deep breathing.
Others held a different view. "Inhale deeply. Then let it go. You feel happy and relieved that you are alive," said one of the five monks representing the Young Buddhists Association of Thailand at the after show discussion. "Where is Nirvana, the spiritual happiness? I'd say it can be noticed at the point of breathing, when you realise life is sustained only by this meditative mode, not by those materialistic methods."
Apart from looking at the existence of nirvana, the production also criticises the Thai patriarchal society where females cannot be ordained into a religious order on a par with the monkhood so as to maintain male superiority. This goes against the Buddhist belief that everyone can study dharma and achieve nirvana.
In "Dancing to Nirvana", this is portrayed through a prostitute who secretly watches monks lining up to collect alms and longs to be pure. Yet, while ashamed of the path she has to follow to survive, she constantly reminds herself of the Five Precepts.
Food for thought, indeed. Bangkok University will soon make us proud in the Merlion City.
"Dancing to Nirvana" performs at the Esplanade Theatre Studio in Singapore from January 31 to February 2. Tickets cost S$30 (Bt700) and S$25 for students at Sistic.com.sg. For more info, visit Esplanade.com.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.