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Dancing with the maverick

Choreographer Pichet Klunchun invites you to step into the threshold between life and death.


Published: 3 May 2016

Time taken : ~10mins

Hailed as a maverick (Village Voice), Pichet Klunchun is known for bridging the fiercely guarded and measured Thai classical dance vocabulary with his contemporary sensibility, while staying true to the heart of tradition.

The award-winning Thai choreographer’s upcoming Dancing with Death draws its creative energy and inspiration from Phi Ta Khon (phi means “ghost” and khon means “mask”), a spiritual festival held in the northeastern region of Thailand celebrating fertility and death. On the surface, it sounds like an ethnographical piece on Thai folk culture, but dig deeper and you’ll find that it has many layers that explore the themes of mortality, being in a state of limbo, and the Buddhist concept of consciousness.

Before we give too much of it away, here are 5 things to know about Dancing with Death.

1. It all started at the Phi Ta Khon.

During this annual festival, revellers emerge from their homes in elaborate masks, brightly coloured costumes, and a variety of accoutrements symbolising fertility. They dance from morning to night, inviting the spirits to join them in celebration. Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin refers to such folk festivals as “carnivals”, or temporary spaces where social roles are subverted, which as a result, bring freedom to creative expression. It is this organic and free-spirited nature of Phi Ta Khon that fascinated Klunchun—and is what Dancing with Death embraces.

The piece features folk songs from the festival in a score composed by Japanese sound designer Hiroshi Iguchi, who incorporated field recordings of the festival and the sounds of the khaen (northeastern Thai mouth organ).

2. While the idea of death frightens most people, it is quite the opposite for Klunchun.

In Thailand, death is addressed often in relation to religion. The 45-year-old choreographer views it as an indiscriminate constant in our lives that cannot be authentically created in any art form. He also sees it as the unity and harmony of movement and energy. Some of his earlier works touch on the subject. In a segment of Pichet Klunchun and Myself, his 2004 collaboration with French choreographer Jerome Bel, the two discuss and demonstrate how death is articulated through dance in their respective cultures.

3. Dancing with Death was conceived in two years.

Before Klunchun started working on the choreography, he interviewed the locals, mask-makers, and shamans to understand more about the festival. In fact, for all his pieces, he usually spends a year doing research.

4. Klunchun created new physical vocabulary just for the show

It draws from the dance movements of the locals and marries the spontaneity of folk expression with his contemporary expression of traditional khon (classical Thai masked dance techniques). In an interview with The Nation, he notes, "I was curious as to how these villagers attained perceived wisdom for their creative insight from perseverance. And from this knowledge, we started to create our choreography, which is of course based on each individual dancer's perception and creation at each moment of the performance… I created a short piece of choreographed movements for my dancers; they repeat it, and we see what it leads to or, mixed with each of their individuality, which exit each takes.

5. The set was completed before the choreography.

Dancers perform on a yellow oval-shaped stage, which he describes as the starting point from which they are left to negotiate their own paths. The stage symbolises the state of limbo in which the physical and spirit worlds both exist, while yellow represents the desire or consciousness that steers one’s direction, and which also remains after one is long gone. Through the themes of life and death, Klunchun explores the Buddhist concept of citta (consciousness).

Dancing with Death was presented on 7 May 2016 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of da:ns festival.

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