Pichet Klunchun and Shantala Shivalingappa Embrace Their Traditions With Open Eyes

Back in June, Emmanuelle Phuon’s Khmeropédies I and II honored the classical dance of Cambodia, while exploring how the Cambodian dancers she worked with could expand upon their traditions. Pichet Klunchun had a similar mission in creating Chui Chai with dancers from his native Thailand, but his approach is much more indirect, as his group’s performances in Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theater revealed (New Yorkers can see Chui Chai on July 24 and 25, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival).

Klunchun himself trained in khon, a masked dance-drama form with connections to martial arts, although the four women who enter slowly in brocaded costumes look like court dancers. Their tall golden headdresses resemble the temple steeples shown in a projected black-and-white photo of old Bangkok. They lift each foot high and set it down with soft care; their wrists make little circles, highlighting their uncannily arched-back fingers. They remain kneeling while a story is enacted, its details told in supertitles, with the sounds of the taped music—nasal wind instruments, drums, vocals, something like a wooden xylophone—enhancing dramatic points.

The story is a Thai cousin to India’s Ramayana. Rama is bringing an army to regain his kidnapped bride, Sita. The demon-king kidnapper is very worried. Idea! He’ll get his niece to transform herself into Sita, play dead, and float down the river. Rama will be too grief-stricken to fight. But the girl has never seen Sita. The scene ends with her agreeing and going to meet the captive.

Shantala Shivalingappa in a section of her program "Shiva Ganga"
Rodrigo Cesar
Shantala Shivalingappa in a section of her program "Shiva Ganga"
Pichet Klunchun (foreground) and Porramet Maneerat in Klunchun’s "Chui Chai"
Kristi Pitsch
Pichet Klunchun (foreground) and Porramet Maneerat in Klunchun’s "Chui Chai"


Pichet Klunchun and Dancers
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
July 14 through 18

Pichet Klunchun and Dancers
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College
899 Tenth Avenue
July 24 and 25

Shantala Shivalingappa
Jacobís Pillow
July 7 through 11

We don’t see elaborate pantomimes that express anxiety, determination, confusion. Instead, the traditional choreography gives us physical attitudes and rhythms that express those feelings in very refined ways. (I remember that when Klunchun and French choreographer Jérôme Bel performed Bel’s wonderful talking-dancing duet, Pichet Klunchun and Myself, at Dance Theater Workshop a while back, Bel had a hard time distinguishing between the Thai characters Pichet portrayed; the differences between them were too subtle for him.)

The villain of Chui Chai (Porramet Maneerat) wears a fierce red mask and glittering red-and-green suit, with red pompons topping the little wings that arch up from his shoulders. Most of his moves are slow and measured, with occasional bursts of speed (small, smooth running steps) or sudden stops—say to lunge and point a finger toward the direction of Rama’s army. Showing his worry, he shifts back and forth between one seated pose on a platform to its opposite. Sometimes he takes a step or pose and executes a few little bounces to settle into it. He paces majestically, claps his hands to summon his niece, Benyakai (Kornkarn Rungsawang), and leans toward her in an implacable lunge, while she, with a docile, white-masked face, kneels and gently circles her hands to show her dismay and uneasiness.

The most contemporary aspect of the second part of the fascinating Chui Chai is its soundtrack. Against a background of city-streets traffic, passersby are asked questions like, “Do you know Sita?” and “What would be Sita’s occupation if she were alive today?” (“Model” and “exotic dancer” are some of the answers to the second; giggling girls suggest “selling papaya salad” and “motorcycle taxi driver.”) The transition from the traditional drama is smooth yet surprising. The four golden women begin looping their ball-bearing run around the stage, prior to exiting. Suddenly, Pichet appears at the end of their line, but he’s wearing black pants and no shirt. When the compliant niece approaches him and they stand face to face, the two begin slowly weaving their flexible hands together. But this is not exactly Benyakai becoming Sita; it’s Klunchun asserting his intimate entanglement with tradition and its struggle to acknowledge the modern world.

He dances alone, then, meditatively, gazing back at his uplifted foot as if pondering his history. He’s a beautiful man—supple yet reserved, miraculously powerful in softness. As the others begin to reenter slowly, they’ve discarded some of their traditional attire. One woman wears shorts with her glittering coat, another has taken off her headdress. The demon and another masked dancer (Noppadon Bundit—perhaps a royal servant?) hold their masks under one arm. A woman, not seen before (Julaluck Eakwattanapun), is dressed in shorts and a yellow tank top. As the others move ceremoniously through Asako Miura’s glowing light, she moves in a more contemporary way—stretching her arms and legs further into space.

For the most part, Klunchun sits and watches them, one hand cocked on top of his head like a crown, or he walks on smooth tiptoe around the perimeter of the space. But when they join hands in a line facing us, and struggle—pulling in various directions, risking losing their balance—he joins them. In the end, they all face upstage, looking at another projected photo. It must be the same city, seen today. If the old temples are still there, they’re hidden by steely skyscrapers, with inverted funnels on top. Almost everyone exits, but Klunchun is kneeling in Benyakai’s place, and “her” uncle is entering slowly. What must be transformed? What must remain? Beautifully put questions, for which there are no unambiguous answers.

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