Sunday, September 27, 2020

In the spirit of death

Apr 26. 2016
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An important Thai contemporary dance work is set for its regional debut, but its country of origin is left out of the celebration
Last year, with support from the Culture Ministry’s of Culture’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), Pichet Klunchun conducted research into the Phi ta khon festival held in Dan Sai district, Loei, in preparation for his company’s new work “Dancing with Death”.
Premiered at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in February as part of Tokyo Performing Arts Market, “Dancing with Death” received a warm reception from both audience and critics and next month makes its Asean debut as part of the Esplanade's da:ns series in Singapore.
Thai audiences though, are unlikely to see the piece, even though it is firmly based within their own culture.
While disappointed at the lack of support at the local level, Pichet is nonetheless enthusiastic about his latest creation and happy to talk to XP about his research and the results it produced.
“My main question was how these villagers, more than half a century ago and without proper training, could create such an art,” the recipient of the John D Rockefeller 3rd Award says. “We found that in this unique community there is a spiritual leader Chaopo Khuan, who is assisted in administrative matters by someone called Thaen. For example, it is he who decides the dates for the Phi ta khon festival, and not the district director nor the tourists. What’s intriguing is that the three-day festival shows the sheer balance of power between spirituality, religion, people and government agency.
“And to answer our main question, we found that ‘intuition’ is the key answer. We’re all born with intuition, but when we go through an education system that is bound by many restrictions, it may be suppressed and as a result never shows itself. City people, as a result, cannot fully make use of their intuition. It’s the opposite for the villagers who focus on certain practices for a long period of time and with perseverance. They can really see what they’re doing, instead of just doing it automatically. This intuition can also sustain the creation of many other things.
“I’m not saying that highly educated people don’t have intuition. They can but they have to realise first that the knowledge they gain from their education system is only a frame. There’s a lot of other stuff that has been with us since birth.
“We also conducted various workshops with people there, from various walks of life, and in the end we arrived at a theory, or an image, of a circle with exits in all directions.”
This theory became the core of Pichet’s choreography for this work, which deals with ancestors, spirituality as well as sacrifice. 
“For example, I created a short piece of choreographed movements for my dancers, they repeat it, and we see what it leads to or, mixed with each individuality, which exit each takes.”
This is different from most of Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s previous works which are based on the techniques of khon, the classical Thai masked dance theatre, and that’s why Pichet writes in his note for the programme: “the process has been truly arduous and I’ve known since the beginning that there is more chance to fail than succeed. However, if we fear the unknown and change, we will fall into the old pathway of those choreographers who finally give up creating dance performance and then change their career.” 
He continues, “I would like to put the best effort into my work – and if I fail, I will not regret it.”
And he has definitely not failed.
Writing after the performance in Tokyo, a critic for Australia’s major arts magazine RealTime Arts noted: “‘Dancing with Death’ is situated in the spiritual everyday. It boasts liminal figures: gods and the godlike.
“When the dancers come together they exert a palpable force, the force of common humanity.”
No surprise then that the work has already been invited to the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (Asia TOPA) and Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival next year.
Commissioned by the Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, “Dancing with Death” will be in Singapore next week and will be the first Thai performance ever to be staged in the main theatre. The audience, though, will not be in their regular seats in the auditorium, but on the stands on the stage, around the set.
“The audience should be able to watch the performance from above and the audience seats in the Esplanade Theatre are not sharply raked. We’ve been exploring many options and I think this is best,” Pichet explains.
Pichet will also conduct the “Bridging Traditional and Contemporary” workshop this coming Sunday, and the participants will also be part of the performance the following weekend.
The original idea was to stage the performance in Thailand in June. To this end, a few months ago the company set up a crowd funding programme online, where anyone could donate any amount of money to support the performance cost in Thailand, estimated at nearly Bt4 million. Just four days remain and the money is still well short. 
“If we don’t reach this goal, then, unfortunately, this [Thai] production cannot be staged here for now. We’ll keep it in our repertoire, tour to other countries and see what will happen.
“This has created another issue. A lot of people are questioning why we need that amount of money for this. Even the Culture Ministry is doubting that figure, though they can easily support a Thai film production with the same kind of budget. We have to rent a venue, and we’re looking at M Theatre, whose rental cost in addition to the rental of lighting equipment amount to about Bt1 million. A lot of people don’t realise there are many other costs involved in stage production. For example, when we promoted this campaign and conducted workshops at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) earlier this month, we paid Bt60,000 just to transport the set.
“Many [foreign] producers and artists say this is a very odd case. Usually, artists raise funds so that they can stage their works overseas. This is the opposite and I think, notwithstanding our decision four days from now, it’s a lesson for us, dance and theatre artists, the public as well as the government. 
And the major question is, of course, ‘Why?’”
<“Dancing with Death” by the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company will be perfomed at 8pm on May 6 and 7 at Esplanade Theatre in Singapore.

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