Artist-in-Residence Alvin Erasga Tolentino, Artistic Director of Co.ERASGA, shares his experience co-creating Unwrapping Culture with Thai Khon master Pichet Klunchun:
I began to study with Pichet Klunchun in the fall of 2013 in order to understand his work method and the classical Thai dance, Khon. Originating in the 16th century, Khon is a form of Thai stage dance performance, which was traditionally performed exclusively by men wearing distinctive masks at the royal court. Khon evolved hand-in-hand with the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian-Hindu Ramayana.
Pichet studied Khon from the age of sixteen with the renowned Thai master Chaiyot Khummanee, and is now acknowledged as a master of the genre. I worked with Pichet one-to-one to learn Khon. I still vividly remember the first time he showed me his intricate handwork, with me trying to mirror his every gesture with awe. Pichet allowed me to work in his home studio in the Tsang Theatre in Bangkok to discover the dance form in detail with him and his company members. He shared the broad history of Khon in Thailand and his own journey to it. I made every effort so that I could understand the movement vocabularies and interpretations depicting the main characters of Khon: phra (male protagonists), nang (female protagonists), yak (giants or evil antagonists) and ling (monkey soldier assistants to phra). This eye-opening experience was insightful and intriguing, and a compelling time with Pichet, not only learning and studying from such a Khon master but gaining an understanding of his relation to the world of art and Thai culture.
Pichet has earned a ‘bad boy’ reputation by stripping Khon from its traditional pedestal. He reconfigured Khon for his own use on the stage and in performance which brought him criticism amongst his fellow traditional Khon dance educators. Nevertheless, his newly envisioned use of Khon is a contemporary evolution for dance, keeping his choreographic works fresh and innovative over the years. His artistic works have brought contradiction with a political twist as he is a Thai citizen and an artist who makes noise – a witness and a reflector to a cultural Thai deformation.
An underlying deep knowledge and questioning of Pichet’s culture provided a turning point in my desire to continue to work with him. Our evolving discourse about dance, art and society in the currents of Asia has come about in our decision to collaborate and to bring to life Unwrapping Culture, to pose the question: what and who defines culture?
At times, the grey area of culture for Thailand or other parts of Asia, the mixed bag of tradition and contemporary aesthetics is a complex entity. Through artists, creativity and art expression, reflective questionings can occur. Thailand still ranks as a hub and a major tourist destination in South East Asia. There is an immediate fascination, a friendly country attracting hordes of foreigners keen to discover and be immersed. The Thai have been open and accommodating of their traditional culture and at the same time produce an incredible array of material goods.
My past travels to Thailand were cultural treks of fascination, yet I knew so little of the Buddhism that enriched a proud society such as Siam. But digging deeper and being informed through an artistic research with Pichet opens a new perspective.
Since my last project, Colonial, which I created in 2012 for Co.ERASGA which dealt with colonialism in my native land of the Philippines, I have been curious to make a comparison to a neighbouring South Asian country which was never been colonized. This curiosity has been a door to fully immerse in a cross-cultural work, and to pursue my ongoing search for the space in between, bridging cultural tradition to contemporary ideas for dance.
As Pichet and I process and stage Unwrapping Culture a few key points will be expressed in the performance arena that we will deliver together. The piece is not just a duet but a quartet - among our critical relation to the surrounding set and objects, and our interaction with the audience. Ideas we have brought to the choreographic elements are: Khon, objects, dance, dialogue, music, video and prayers, the accumulation of a Thai society that is seeking a survival mode in an intensified realm of globalization.
The Dance Centre presents the world premiere of Unwrapping Culture as part of the Global Dance Connections series October 15-17, 2015.
Pichet Klunchun gives a free talk about the art of Thai Khon on Wednesday October 7, 2015 at 5.30pm at Scotiabank Dance Centre.
Photos: Chris Randle