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Re:moving with Pichet Klunchun

The dancer who moves against the grain.

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Published: 24 Sep 2020


Time taken : ~10mins

Dancer and choreographer Pichet Klunchun has dedicated his life’s work to the renewal of Khon, contemporising the centuries-old classical dance form for relevance in the globalised future.

Maverick is a term one often hears, when it comes to anything to do with Klunchun. He earned this permanent descriptor for his bold contemporary works that deconstruct revered classical dance forms and systems. In Thai culture, Klunchun has said, this is unheard of – you don’t question culture.

Klunchun’s relationship with dance started with Khon at age 16, a Thai classical masked dance based on the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. He studied the 17th century dance form under the renowned master Chaiyot Khummanee, and was exposed to contemporary dance when he furthered his dance studies in the United States. That's when he began to develop his own dance vernacular. Questioning and challenging the status quo through the medium of dance and movement, he later founded the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company to nurture dancers and evolve the Thai classical dance form with modern times, perhaps developing a new language for the ancient art form. His contemporary works have since travelled the world, performed by the choreographer’s self-funded Pichet Klunchun Dance Company (around since 2011, and previously called LifeWork Company, a subtle but clear signal of Klunchun’s dogged dedication to his work).

Unlike most in Thailand for instance, Klunchun views death as separate from religion and it's a running theme in his works. He sees it as “an indiscriminate constant in our lives that cannot be authentically created in any art form…[and] as the unity and harmony of movement and energy”. He broaches the subject in one of his most celebrated works created in 2005, Pichet Klunchun and myself, with the acclaimed choreographer Jérôme Bel, and in that segment of the piece, they discuss and demonstrate how death is articulated through dance in their respective cultures. In 2016, Klunchun created a visually stunning contemporary work called Dancing with Death that was inspired by the Thai folk festival Phi Ta Khon, a village festival that honours fertility and death.

In another seminal work, Black & White, presented at Esplanade’s da:ns festival in 2011, Klunchun’s Khon dancers performed as themselves, not as characters from the Ramakien. Typically, Khon dancers take on roles, performing the thoughts and emotions of say, the tosakan (ogre) or hanuman (monkey) – the dancers’ personal thoughts and emotions are not expressed because the meanings of the movements have already been defined in the ancient epic. It’s not kosher to do otherwise. But Klunchun turns this on its head, simply by having the dancers perform as themselves. The movements—the physical language—remained roughly the same but the meanings and nuances of those movements changed completely.

Traditional performing arts don't communicate with audience[s], don't offer professional opportunities, and don't sell tickets. So no one thinks about its quality and meaning. Culture that was originally established for kings cannot be relevant in our time just by preserving [it as it is]… They originally developed as rituals for Buddhism, [as entertainment for] royal families, or other things. In the past, people in Indonesia or India didn't go to see ‘dance’. The dancers were playing the roles of gods, and people went there to meet the gods.

Klunchun, in an interview with Asia Center Japan Foundation

Klunchun’s latest work No.60 deconstructs the 700-year-old classical Thai dance canon Theppanom, which comprises 59 core poses and movements that all Thai classical dancers need to master. He reimagines the poses, creating a new philosophy and set of principles that he hopes will give dancers the freedom of thought and practice, to do more than copy and repeat the art of their masters. No. 60 thus reveals to the viewer, a body freed of ideological impositions and its corporeal passage from court culture to folk vernacular and the present.

No. 60 was first presented as a work-in-progress in 2019 at Esplanade’s da:ns festival and premiered in February at Kanagawa Arts Theatre as part of TPAM2020. The Intermission of No. 60 will be presented at Esplanade’s da:ns festival this October 2020.

We check in with Klunchun on the status of his works, life right now, and his thoughts on dance in this unusual year.

What is a typical day like for you now?

Pichet Klunchun Dance Company has been working hard without break for many years. Our dancers work as full-time staff and have not really had a chance to have long breaks. So, when the pandemic struck the world in March and April, we decided to let our dancers take a break for two months with salary. The reason for this is so that our dancers can take care of themselves both physically and mentally, and also enjoy free time that they didn’t have before without having to worry about their financial stability.

For me, COVID-19 is the one of the situations that happened to and affected the world, but it is not the "ending" that brings the collapse of the performing art world. It is like the “intermission” for the world.

My daily life routine is the same. We still work and prepare for what’s next.

What is the biggest contrast in your routine between the pre-COVID period and these uncertain days?

Before COVID-19, there were so many things for me to handle such as traveling, production, touring. After COVID-19, everything stopped. I had time to communicate with myself and my soul, and take care of my body like I used to, 20 years ago. I had time to reunite with the first basic dance training I had when I started to learn dance.

One fall-out of this pandemic has been the limits to an individual's mobility: restrictions on travel and being confined to one's home. What are your thoughts on this for the medium of dance?

The artists' movement and body expression are not limited, but the "here and now," which is the fundamental concept of live performance, has been restricted.

I have to separate a couple of things from one another in response to this pandemic. Firstly, artists. Artists are least affected negatively because we spend most of our time in our respective studios working. In my opinion, to have limited mobility is good because it has allowed artists more time to train and focus on themselves.

Secondly, in terms of creation, especially for works that involve people from many places, this is now a big challenge. Similarly for production and programming for a festival or an event, these are now hit hard, because of cancellations and ongoing postponements. Scheduling has to be reconsidered and creation can now only involve people in the same group or community.

Loneliness – does that feeling terrify or endear itself to you? Why?

I have moved on from loneliness a long time ago. I have not felt loneliness since I started studying dance because I have dance and movement as my friend. I have no feelings when it comes to loneliness. If I feel it, I do not feel that it is a problem.

What, to your knowledge, is the biggest socioeconomic issue facing your country right now? How do you think that trickles down to you and your work?

We are, as a society, facing financial difficulty. People are living in fear. The pandemic makes me question the art form and the work that I am doing: Which part of the society do we belong to? How much is dance needed in the situation that people are living in now, in hardship such as our time now?

The lock-down situation is a new experience for me. I cannot tour, I cannot perform both abroad and within my own country. Even if I can perform in my country, I still cannot have an audience. This experience is interesting.

How are you rethinking your practice as a dancer/ choreographer, whether in big or small ways?

The pandemic is just an intermission. I have had a clear goal for me and my company even before COVID-19, so it does not have any effect on my practice.

I still strongly believe that the “live performance must be presented live."  There may be some delay of the live presentation but it will come back. What we can do now is train harder, such that when the pandemic is over, we can feed the souls of the people who are hungry for the arts, more than they were before.

Tell us what your next work or creative project is about.

My recent work No.60 is a duet. I plan to expand and develop the piece to be a group item for my company. I want to develop the knowledge to be my company’s technique. I am also working on two books, one about the knowledge behind No. 60 and the other is about my company’s history.* My work crosses over to painting too. My paintings are a record of my movement, and there will be an exhibition in Geneva later this year.

*At the time of the interview. As of the publish date of this interview, the book on Pichet Klunchun Dance Company has been published Thai. The book on No. 60, in English, is yet to be published.

A word or a phrase to sum up your life/practice right now.

Tree.

Acknowledgement:

Pichet Klunchun

Pichet Klunchun seeks to infuse the classical Thai dance language with contemporary sensibility while preserving its heart and spirit. Known for his efforts in updating the Thai dance genre Khon, Pichet founded Pichet Klunchun Dance Company in 2010 to create authentic art performances and nurture a new generation of professional dancers with strong backgrounds in classical Thai dance. Since 2010, Pichet and his dance company have participated in various intercultural performing arts programs held in North America, Asia and Europe.

Pichet has also received numerous international honours including the ECF Princess Margriet Award for Cultural Diversity from the European Cultural Foundation in 2008, the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture in 2012, and the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Award given by the Asian Cultural Council in 2014.


Re:moving

As things around us move beyond our control, artists around the world revisit movement and redefine what it means to move.
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