Thursday, February 27, 2020

Moving Backward to Go Forward

Jan 23. 2013
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Pichet Klunchun put a spin on 'Lilit Phra Lor' and Thai dance

The research forum and festival on Thai and Asean dance and theatre, supported by the Thailand Research Fund, started last Saturday at Chulalongkorn University’s arts faculty. For me, much of the excitement was generated by triple bill of performances over the weekend, which wrapped on both evenings with Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s “Tam Kai”.

Just like Phra Lor, the hero in Thai literature, Lilit Phra Lor was lured by a magically beautiful cock to travel to another city where he fell in love with two princesses, which finally led to their tragic doom. Here, however, Pichet had a different message: he was cheekily questioning whether contemporary Thai audiences are being lured by the beauty of our classical dance and thus forgetting that there’s much more to it than just gorgeous movements. Another question was whether the rigidity of dance traditions is restricting the individual dancer in a contemporary art world filled with creative freedom. He also emphasised that Thailand’s contemporary dance is not only about the relationship between the past and the present, but also the here and the elsewhere, as we’ve opened our arms to foreign influences throughout our history.

The seven dancers walked on to stage, each with his or her own tumbler of water. They queued at the upstage left corner and one by one moved in his/her individual style diagonally towards the downstage right corner. Some were slightly inspired by the one in front of him/her in the queue, others simply ignored it. For the next half hour, the audience witnessed a myriad of movements, generally diverse, thoroughly pleasant and frequently hilarious, from each individual dancer. One brought his tumbler to centre stage, took a sip of water: that was his dance.

And then, the shift: the dance movements turned to classical Thai and the dancers performed the episode by the book, notwithstanding the rubber cock. A few patrons walked down from their seats in the stands. One gave Pichet a large garland to which many bank notes were attached; another took a photo of the two of them with her smartphone and probably instantly uploaded it to her Facebook.

After the three performances, as always at this campus theatre, the post-show discussion between the artists and audience provided more opportunities for exchange.

Internationally acclaimed theatre director Danny Yung – who had opined in the morning forum that for him “traditional” and “contemporary” were simply labels – noted that the three performances showed three different generations of Thai artists. Pornrat Damrhung said later that she was especially moved by the classical dance part, as she’s rarely sees Pichet perform it nowadays. Highly revered critic and scholar Chetana Nagavajara said it was like Pichet had reversed the order for “Tam Kai” and was demonstrating that what’s going on offstage is as important as what’s on it.

An expatriate audience member asked Pichet if he could give the ratio of improvisation to planned choreography in this work. The Thai artist, as philosophical as ever, replied that it was 100 per cent for both and added that it took the company two years to develop “Tam Kai”.

“Whenever we perform it, we agree that we have to use our brains – we can’t be stupid,” Pichet said, commenting on the improvisational nature and the focus on the individual dancer in “Tam Kai”.

Tonight in Phnom Penh, Pichet Klunchun Dance Company will join their Cambodian and Indonesian counterparts, led by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and Eko Supriyanto, for the world premiere of “Fire, Fire, Fire”, part of the Goethe Institut’s Tanzconnexions project. The three choreographers have differently reinterpreted the same episode of the Indian epic “Ramayana” in which Sita walks through fire to prove her loyalty to Rama. The three companies will travel to Bangkok this weekend and “Fire, Fire, Fire” will bring down the curtain of “Our Roots Right Now” on Monday evening. On Monday morning, Shapiro will give a workshop “Broken Angels” and Supriyanto “Flow, Slow, Spiral”, followed by Pichet’s “Picture, Posture, Life” in the afternoon.

Before that sure-to-be-sold-out closer, there are many dance and theatre activities to enjoy. Among them is a Nora workshop by Thammanit Nikomrat this morning and the “Philippine Neo-Ethnic Choreography” workshop by Agnes Locsin this afternoon. The triple performance today and tomorrow starts with the Thailand premiere of “Bach Cello Suites” and “Ferocious Compassion” by Cambodia’s Amrita Performing Arts followed by Waewdao Sirisook’s “Fauwn Leb/Identity” and Singaporean artist Daniel K’s “Q&A”.

This diversity and the tradition-based contemporary spirit are probably part of the reasons why performing arts festivals’ directors and programming officers from Austria, Korea, China and Singapore as well as a journalist from Australia have been spotted among the audience members at “Our Roots Right Now”.


- “Our Roots Right Now” continues until Monday, at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

-  Admission to workshops is free. Performance tickets are Bt500 per evening (three shows), Bt300 for dance or theatre professionals and those under 27 years old and Bt200 for students of all ages. Book at (088) 643 7664. For the full programme, visit or look on Facebook for “Our Roots Right Now”.

- Watch a video clip at

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