Summer Guide: Pichet Klunchun Is the Bangkok Rebel

The dancer-choreographer brings his tradition-challenging work to NYC

When Pichet Klunchun—currently the most prominent choreographer-dancer from Thailand—was 16 and beginning study of the classical art of khon, one of his first tasks was to train his wrists and fingers to bend back in the traditional crescent. His teacher helped, applying pressure until a bone broke the skin. This was only the first of many trials.

The story of Klunchun and khon, a form that represents legends, can sound like a legend itself: A misunderstood teenager becomes apprentice to an outcast master, sets himself on a mission of vindication, faces humiliation, takes a journey of self-discovery in a far-off land, and returns home to resistance then triumph and fame. His master dead and the apprentice now entering middle age, the mission continues: to make khon live in the present.

Traditionally, khon tells but one story, a story it takes a full week to complete. This is the Ramakien, a version of the Ramayana, the Hindu epic pervasive throughout Southeast Asia, codified by Thai royalty at the turn of the 19th century. Khon was a court art, a highly stylized palace entertainment of ornate costumes and masks. And although Thailand is Buddhist, the rites and rituals associated with khon became in some way sacred. Klunchun was taught to view them as such, as immutable, not to be questioned, despite the fact that the primary audience had changed from the nobility to foreign tourists.

Imagine his surprise, then, when an Asian Cultural Council scholarship in 2001 brought him to the United States, where teachers approached dance analytically and encouraged him to develop his own style. In Los Angeles, he heard William Forsythe suggest that traditional dance, including ballet, was excellent training but rather boring if not updated. In New York, he was shocked by the variety and abundance. "I never thought I could find dance studios in tiny basements," he recalls over e-mail, "and business people taking class." Still believing that his vocation was divinely ordained, he found himself starting to think about his art less in sacred terms than as a repository of political history, aesthetic history, the commerce between cultures.

Back in Bangkok, Klunchun experimented and took the unprecedented step of forming a company, Lifework. His ideas did not please the khon establishment; neither did the novel competition he represented to that monopoly. Worse yet, Klunchun began to acquire an international reputation, above all through his collaboration with the French postmodernist Jérôme Bel in 2004. Their minimal production, in which they answered each other's naïve questions and requests for demonstration of each other's art, toured Europe and America. A pass through Dance Theater Workshop in 2007 led to Lifework's bringing one of Klunchun's experiments to "Fall for Dance" in 2008 and to invitations this summer to expand that piece for Jacob's Pillow (July 14–18) and the Lincoln Center Festival (July 24–25).

These are high-profile engagements. Klunchun's theater in Bangkok, where he has used khon to address global warming and the current political turmoil, seats 30. Western audiences have been more receptive, and not just to the exotic. If we're mostly more familiar with The King and I than with the Ramakien, that ignorance can be freeing, allowing fixed symbols to loosen into universal or open ones.

Chui Chai, the piece being expanded, is about transformation, an episode in which a female demon takes on the shape of the hero's wife. At "Fall for Dance," knowledge of this subject didn't make it much easier to discern. The more apparent transformation was Klunchun's, bare-chested in jeans, mirroring the motions of a female dancer laden with the opulent beauty of a traditional costume. Klunchun's stripped-down rendering of the female dance exposed a different kind of beauty, and he showed yet another in stretching khon, extrapolating the arc of that back-bent hand into a turn, expanding his expressive range.

"The challenge in presenting to Western audiences," Klunchun explains, "is making them understand what they see. The challenge with Thai audiences is making them accept it."

Pichet Klunchun Dance Company's'Chui Chai,' July 24 and 25, Lincoln Center Festival,

Summer Dance Picks

Christopher Williams
June 3–6 and August 2–5

Recovering from the mammoth undertaking of last year's The Golden Legend, the theatrical imagination of Christopher Williams brings forth the first stages of his next projects in scholarship and fantastical stagecraft. At DNA in June, Hen's Teeth summons the Graeae, the Ancient Greek crones who share a single eye and tooth, while Gobbledygook draws upon Buddhist "hungry-ghosts" and the blood-drinking attendants of Madagascar nobles. In August, Williams turns to Irish fairie lore of men set adrift in oar-less boats for The Voyage of Garbhglas. DNA, 280 Broadway,; Irish Hunger Memorial, Vesey Street and North End Avenue,

Martha Graham Dance Company
June 8–13

Graham's 1938 American Document was historic in multiple senses. Her first dance to include a male, it was a response to fascism, a modernist collage of nation-defining texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. Much of the choreography was subsequently lost, and Graham fashioned a new version in 1989. Now the director Anne Bogart and the remixing playwright Charles Mee try their hand at a 21st-century answer to the question, What is an American? Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

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