Unwrapping Culture digs at some dark issues beneath all the flashing lights and plastic trinkets

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      A Co.ERASGA and Pichet Klunchun Dance Company production. At the Dance Centre on Thursday, October 15. Continues to October 17

      Walking into the Scotiabank Dance Centre theatre after Unwrapping Culture, you might think you had stumbled upon the aftermath of some out-of-control three-year-old's birthday party.

      Thousands of neon rubber bands covered the floor, along with pastel-haired dolls; dozens of mechanical dinosaurs, crocodiles, and dragons; flower garlands; and plastic figurines.

      In fact, it was the detritus of a gutsy show that slyly, and frantically, critiques consumer-junk culture—and, specifically, the loss of Thailand's ancient, elegant traditions to it.

      It was surprisingly dark and bitingly subversive underneath all the plastic, noise, and neon.

      The piece was created by Thailand's Pichet Klunchun, a master of the classical khon dance who has taken the revered form into edgy contemporary territory, working with local Filipino-Canadian artist Alvin Erasga Tolentino.

      The show's opening was brash and chaotic. The audience stood and sat around the floor, looking onto a central corridor piled with bags and knick-knacks. The two dancers appeared at one end, sporting Hawaiian shirts and gyrating to a Thai rap video playing on the big screen behind them, satirizing the pop-culture junkies in today's Bangkok.

      Soon Tolentino and Klunchun were taking on the role of hawkers at Thai night markets, playfully foisting lotions, toys, and other junk on audience members.

      Unwrapping Culture was at its best when Klunchun would suddenly shift into his exquisite, rigorous khon—but not the way the masked dance would have been performed back in the days of royalty. At one point he streaked white greasepaint on his face and used masking tape to affix a ridiculous fake flower and dinosaur to his head, strapping  a screeching toy machine gun over his shoulder, and then lunging and gesticulating his fingers to the strains of the haunting traditional Thai music. Meanwhile, Tolentino slowly and meditatively emptied the neon rubber bands out of a garbage bag into a circle on the floor, like he was enacting some sacred-yet-profane ritual.  It was all as if to say, "This is what we, and our culture, have become."

      Focused, meaningful moments like this were interspersed with near anarchy. The audience would be invited to throw bright rings over Thai classical-dancer dolls on the floor, or the duo would let lose a dozen flashing, screaming mechanized toys around the floor. Often the work felt much more like performance art than dance.

      It could seem crazy on the surface, but Klunchun was pushing at some dark and challenging ideas. At one end of the room, he erected a sort of sham shrine out of night-market trinkets, surrounding a statue of the Ramayana demon king with souvenirs and flashing twinkle lights. When Klunchun and Tolentino draped themselves in the orange robes of sacred monks and knelt before the blinking altar, it was a stark comment on the new religion of commerce in his country—and, of course, elsewhere. Why this was so provocative is that Thailand prides itself on its spiritual devotion to Buddhism.

      But as anyone who reads the news knows, Thailand is in a state of upheaval, and not just politically: witness headlines earlier this year about the ongoing problems of misbehaving monks. And this is a show that offers a brazen contrast to the tourist perspective so many of us on the West Coast have had. It's a wild ride. So if you're feeling adventurous tonight, you should check it out.