Dance is not often thought of as a political art form, but in the hands, and lithe body, of Pichet Klunchun, it’s a one-man revolution in a country that’s no stranger to uprisings.
As Thailand’s most internationally renowned dancer-choreographer, Klunchun has been strictly trained in khon, the revered, highly stylized, and ornate classical form. Using masks, it historically tells the Hindu Ramayana legend, known in his home country as the Ramakien. It is a sacred form, one that traditionally belonged to the royal court and one that had to be performed with masks in front of its regal audience. So by taking it out of that sphere, and by taking off that mask, Klunchun is already, as he puts it, making a political act—one that’s received its share of outrage from Thai conservatives.
“When you say, ‘This is my body. I am taking the mask off and the costume and so this is the body of myself,’ the people start to get very, very angry,” the affable dancer says, sitting in Bangkok and speaking to the Straight via Skype on a sunny tropical morning that’s clearly visible out the apartment window behind him. “People start to ask me, ‘Who are you? Why you do this?’ ”
But Klunchun goes even further. In the studio of his company, PK Lifework, he’s performed pieces on subjects including global warming and politics. And now, in a collaboration with Vancouver dance artist Alvin Erasga Tolentino, he is taking on the very commercialization and loss of culture in Thailand itself.
“I feel in the last few years Bangkok is like a garbage city with too much on sale,” complains the dancer, turning momentarily bitter and blaming the new consumerism on a mix of globalism and newfound affluence in Thailand. “I feel derision walking on the shopping street and seeing the pop stars on television. All the girls are copying that and I think this is not the right way.”
In the duet, called Unwrapping Culture, Tolentino and Klunchun in fact surround themselves, and the audience, with toys, metres of Rainbow Loom–style rubber bands, knickknacks, and other junk culled from Thai night markets—the noisy, kitschy, barter-happy shopping areas that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the country. In fact, Tolentino reports lugging back several bags full of the stuff on each return from working with Klunchun in Bangkok.
“It’s interesting as you do the work, you start to have the perspective of, ‘Why are we accumulating more?’ It’s the idea that accumulating is infectious,” the Philippine-Canadian dance icon relates to the Straight over the phone on a break here in Vancouver. “He’s trying to evoke all that materialism under Thailand’s reputation as a revered Buddhism country. There’s a huge amount of wealth there now, and what is the effect on the culture?
“As tourists we see this façade. It’s wanting to go to a night market and buy all these materials and think, ‘This is great.’ But what’s underneath it? What happens between the buyer and the seller?”
As a contemporary artist who has also incorporated classical cultural movement from his homeland into his work—including historical-political pieces like 2012’s Colonial—Tolentino had been fascinated with Klunchun for years. When the khon master agreed to let him come to Bangkok to study with him in his studio, he was elated.
“We got along really well,” he says. “I just adore him because of the discipline and fearlessness—being really true about decisions on what he wants to validate to the world.”
But Tolentino admits the rigid form was even more difficult than he imagined. “I was so sore,” he says with a laugh. “We would do sort of a giant, second-position plié for, like, 20 minutes, just up and down. But then you get used to it.”
The resulting piece, he says, will incorporate Klunchun’s strict khon style, what Tolentino humbly calls his own “shadow” version of it, and then very contemporary movement.
While it looks fun and playful with its multicoloured rubber bands, yellow garlands, and cheap stuffed animals, Unwrapping Culture, Klunchun says, is very much “a black comedy”. He adds with a sly smile about the piece that will travel back for a provocative performance in Bangkok: “Everything that you see is not everything that I say.”
Both Klunchun and Tolentino stress the work is immersive, with the audience all around them—a far cry from the strict palace courts that once took in khon.
“It’s likely that it [the performance] will change every night,” says Tolentino. “Some might be really willing to participate and some might think we’re quite nuts! But when you go through those night markets in Southeast Asia, they’re right in your face, and it’s that kind of exchange of energy—we wanted to get that energy in the work.”
Co.ERASGA’s Unwrapping Culture runs next Thursday to Saturday (October 15 to 17) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.