Interview with Jitti Chompee
Jasmine Moir in conversation with Jitti Chompee
Hanoi, Vietnam, 17 May 2016
Could you guide our readers through your recent choreographic process: What inspires your work? Is there any method for transforming your inspiration into choreography?
My current way of working began to form in 2014, when the French Embassy in Thailand granted me a brief artist residency in Paris. There wasn’t really expectation for me to do anything except broadening my views as a choreographer. I didn’t have any dancers to work with; I didn’t even have a studio to work in. Basically, I didn’t know what to do, so I started going to museums and was struck by Picasso’s cubist paintings. When I got back to Bangkok, I was still mulling over the concept of mismatched body and facial parts. From there, I looked up traditional Thai paintings of mythical creatures in the Himmapan Forest and also found their mismatched body parts from different animal and human forms exquisite. Mythical characters and unusual, distorted, often “headless” bodies have become a recurrent feature in my choreography since then.
This experience with striking images also led to my interest in photography, as well as in using photography as the starting point for movement creation. I began collecting photographs from art magazines and collaborating with visual artists to learn more about composition. Back in November, I was directing the “Unfolding Kafka” festival in Bangkok and had an incredible opportunity to work with French artist Laurent Goldring. I was inspired by the minimalist beauty of his images and his vision to capture seemingly mundane subjects in ways that are so simple yet so unexpected, so unembellished yet so touching. My hope is for the audience to feel the same watching my work. I wouldn’t call this a set method, but starting choreography from images seems to work well and also allow my dancers to be more involved and have more ownership in the creation.
Are you saying you and your dancers would look at different images to come up with choreography together?
No, as ironic as it may sound, I actually don’t let my dancers see any visuals earlier on in the creation process, or their minds will be limited by what they see. I don’t want them to just translate still images into dance poses or movements. The images are more for myself to come up with a director’s vision. The choreography of my latest work, for example, was partly inspired by a photograph of a man and woman tied together at their legs with black cables. My way of using that photograph was to ask my two dancers to simply try moving in synchronization while being tied together at different body parts. As they were exploring different ways to move, I would observe body placements that worked between their height and shape differences, and pick moments that I found striking. Another thing I always do that may seem strange for a director/choreographer is telling my dancers not to push through when they struggle. Dancers have a tendency to test their physical and mental limits, but what I don’t want to see in our shows is effort. I don’t want to see dancers push through their limits to reach a goal, but I want them to stop then find a new way to reach that same goal effortlessly. As long as there is still time before the opening night, there is always room for exploration.
Could you tell us about your next production, Red Peter? I understand the premiere is this June in The Hague—how did this arrangement happen?
Leo Spreksel, director of Korzo Theatre in The Hague, approached me after he saw photographs of my previous productions. This brings me back to the importance of striking images—it is pretty much because of them that I was invited for a residency project at the theatre. Spreksel is interested in my incorporation of traditional Thai elements into contemporary choreography as well, and has given me freedom to further experiment on this. Red Peter is inspired by Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy”, a short story about an ape who has learned to behave like a human. I see clear links between this character and the monkey character type in Khon (classical Thai masked dance theatre), so I decided to work with a dancer traditionally trained in the monkey role. I don’t want to show off any Khon technique; I don’t have any formula dictating how many percentage of Khon or Western contemporary dance needs to be there. I am more intrigued by how the dancer can present the human-monkey image without his Khon mask, purely through physical transformation. Red Peter is actually an artistic research presentation rather than a proper production. The theatre won’t be selling tickets—it’s more for them to see if the piece has enough potential to be produced later on, as well as for the public to see how an international artist thinks and works.
It sounds like Europe is very supportive of experimentation. How does this compare to your experience in Thailand?
I can’t deny there is not much financial support in Thailand, but the contemporary dance scene is definitely on its way up. The key is to take the initiative to make connections and find alternative performance spaces, not just sit still and hope to be invited to perform in a theatre. I have staged productions in a warehouse, a hotel, even an empty swimming pool with support from the property owners, and these unusual locations actually add to their appeal. Dancers these days are also better trained and more open-minded. The audience, too, are more willing to consider new ideas. I’ve had 60 year-old ladies coming to see my shows originally because they are fans of my dancers who also perform Khon at the National Theatre. They usually say they don’t really get my shows, but will come back again because they find the dance beautiful and believe they will eventually have a better understanding of contemporary dance. To me, that is very endearing and inspiring. These wonderful ladies are now my regular audience.
Jitti Chompee, Artistic Director, 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre:
The residency project 2016 with Korzo Theatre is made possible by the Kylián Foundation in the Netherlands.
Jasmine Moir is a part-time Middle School Dance/Drama Teacher at the United Nations International School of Hanoi. She is also a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), Thailand Centre, and has written dance and theatre reviews for Bangkok’s English-language newspaper, The Nation.