Pichet Klunchun Dance Company
Gerald W. Lynch Theater
at John Jay College
July 24, 2010
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2010 by Kathleen O’Connell
One of the smartest things that Thai dancer and choreographer Pichet Klunchun did before he stepped on stage in “Chui Chai” was take his shirt off. No, not because the work needed a bare torso to grab the audience’s attention. The exotic sheen of its traditional materials would have been enough for that. And Klunchun could have held the stage wrapped in burlap with a bag over his head; he’s saturated with charisma. But by stripping off his top and he laid bare the architectural beauty of the movement itself.
Klunchun has been formally trained in khon, a rigorously stylized form of court dance depicting episodes from the Thai version of the “Ramayana.” He started his own company in 2004 to create new work on a foundation of Thai classical dance. “Chui Chai,” presented at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, uses a tantalizing slice of canonic khon drama—an extract from “The Floating Lady”—as a gateway into a meditation on tradition and modernity.The performance began in silence. Four women robed in glittering brocade and crowned with golden, temple-spired headdresses danced slowly onto the stage. Their bodies tilted gently from side to side in measured harmony with the marked but delicate placement of their flexed feet and the sinuous play of their impossibly curved-back hands. They sank to the floor with exquisite composure when the music—a recording of a traditional woodwind and percussion ensemble—began to play. The fiercely-masked demon king Thodsakarn (Noppadon Bundit) took the stage, and the drama proper—performed to chanted narration—began.
Thodsakarn has kidnapped Rama’s beautiful wife Sita. Worried by the approach of Rama’s army, he asks his niece, the demon maiden Benyakai (Kornkarn Rungsawang, also masked), to transform herself into Sita, feign death, and float downriver past Rama’s camp. When her body is found, he thinks, Rama will be too grief-stricken to join battle. Benyakai consents, but is troubled by the plan—and she doesn’t know what Sita looks like.
The episode was short on action, but long on character and it was fascinating to see how the masked dancers used a subtly woven combination of movement, posture, and gesture to depict emotional states. To convey Thodsakarn’s anxiety, Bundit—poised sculpturally on a throne-like bench—re-arranged himself in an uneasy rhythm from right to left and back again. Delighted at Benyakai’s compliance in the face of his threats, Thodsakarn bobbled his shoulders and rippled his arms in a stylized evocation of a self-satisfied chuckle.
Per the program, chui chai means “transformation.” In khon dance, it denotes a solo that dramatizes an episode of shape-shifting, one character’s willed metamorphosis into the guise of another. We never got to see Benyakai’s chui chai in its traditional form; we saw Klunchun’s attempt at an updated rendition of it instead.
The khon episode ended abruptly just as Benyakai was departing to meet the captive Sita. The stage went dark and we heard snippets of recorded “man in the street” interviews, complete with traffic noise. “Do you know Sita?” the interviewer asked. “What would be her occupation today?” “An exotic dancer!” someone giggled in reply. “A movie star!” “A model!” The implication was that your average Thai citizen either doesn’t have a clue or operates with an imagination entirely constrained by modern media culture.
The spire-crowned women returned to dance. As they circled the stage with smooth, quick steps, Klunchun, shirtless and in jeans, suddenly joined them to begin a remarkable duet with Rungsawang, still robed and masked as Benyakai. Mirroring each other’s movements, they danced first in parallel, then face to face. Their steps led them into a stylized embrace, as if they had simply danced into each other’s being; their curling hands intertwined to form a gently opening flower that bound them together.
Movement curled through the dancers’ bodies like a plume of smoke, and it never stopped, even when the steps evolved at a glacial pace. Just as one part of the body reached a point of repose, another would take up its energy. The subtle rhythm of the ever-evolving adjustment of height and torsion kept every inch of space around the body fully charged.
Khon in its traditional garb is flat-out gorgeous, but it’s difficult to imagine how something so stylized—and so exactingly codified—could be recalibrated into a more flexible idiom without doing violence to its aesthetic. But when Klunchun danced shirtless next to his elaborately brocaded colleagues, it was possible to see just how beautiful the vocabulary looks on the body and impossible to miss its expressive potential. It was at once alien and perfectly legible.
Klunchun’s subsequent solo began as the distilled essence of all the dancing that had come before, but too soon morphed into a bog-standard contemporary idiom. His movements were freer and faster, but the further they deviated from khon, the more generic and unremarkable they became. If this was a transformation, it was going in the wrong direction. At the last minute, he recaptured his khon style: placing one hand against his head like a bird’s crest and the other on his hip like its fanning tail, he stood poised in regal composure.
Unfortunately, “Chui Chai” didn’t end there; it stumbled on for far too long through a heavy-handed depiction of the perils of deracination. The other members of the cast returned, having jettisoned parts of their traditional costumes. One woman (Angkana Kasuwan) wore hot pants under her brocade cape. Another (Julaluck Eakwattanapun), wore jeans and a T-shirt. They did some traditional things; they did some modern things. Klunchun paced impassively around them all the while, hands still held against his head and hip.
He finally joined them when they formed a line across the stage and held hands. They began to convulse with violent motion and the chain was torn asunder. Chaos ensued against the projected backdrop of a glass and steel city. Klunchun repeatedly fell to the stage with a thud; Eakwattanapun writhed on the floor; Kasuwan gyrated her pelvis like a lap-dancer. “Enough!” you wanted to shout, “we already got the memo about soul-crushing modernity.”
Then, for whatever reason, it was over. Klunchun knelt in a prayer pose while Bundit, still dressed as Thodasarn, touched his shoulder in approval. Klunchun walked off the stage alone with springy-kneed steps, a hand once again held against his head like a cockade.
The work’s disparate sections didn’t resonate with one another powerfully enough to form a coherent whole: Klunchun failed to make the idea that bound them together as strong in our imaginations as they were in his. When he tried to force the tale of Benyakai’s transformation into an allegory of modern Thailand, the work floundered. It glowed when he extricated khon vocabulary from its codified apparatus and let it speak for itself. In the end, “Chui Chai’s” opening and closing episodes felt like awkward appendages to its miraculous center, where past and present were bound together in radiant engagement.
copyright © 2010 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Top: Pichet Klunchun and Kornkarn Rungsawang in “Chui Chai”
Middle 1: Pichet Klunchun and Kornkarn Rungsawang in “Chui Chai”
Middle 2: Pichet Klunchun and Porramet Maneerat in “Chui Chai”
Bottom: Pichet Klunchun Dance Company in “Chui Chai”