Interview with Pichet Klunchun
Pawit Mahasarinand, President of International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC)—Thailand Centre, in conversation with Pichet Klunchun
In 2014, you received a grant from Ministry of Culture’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) to conduct a research on the world famous “Phi ta khon” festival in the Dan sai district of Loei province in Northeastern Thailand, in preparation for your new work Dancing with Death. What did you discover there?
My main research question is how these villagers—more than half a century ago and without proper training—could create such an art. I found that in at the center of this unique community is a spiritual leader, a conjuror named Chaopo Khuan. For example, it’s him whom villagers see when they get sick and it’s also him, not the district director nor the tourists, who determines the dates for “Phi ta khon” festival. What’s also intriguing is that the three-day festival shows, politically speaking, the sheer balance of power by spirituality, religion, people and government agency.
And to my main question, ‘intuition’ is the key answer. I also studied two research papers by French anthropologists but their findings are not as profound as what I discovered in Dan Sai which is more related to Buddhism. We’re all born with intuition, but when we go through certain educational system which comes well equipped with many restrictions, it may be suppressed and as a result never shows itself or become useful. City people, as a result, cannot make use of their intuition fully; the opposite can be said for the villagers who focus on certain practices, like transplanting rice seedlings and raising water buffaloes, for a long period of time and with perseverance. Then, they can concretely see what they’re doing, instead of just doing it automatically. Furthermore, they can also view many possible paths on which many other creations can take place.
I’m not saying that highly educated people don’t have intuition. They can but they have to realize first that the knowledge they gain from their education system is only a frame. There’s much else which has been with us since our birth.
How did you put this theory into practice, transforming this ideology into your choreography and set design for Dancing with Death?
I conducted several workshops on intuition with 30 Dan Sai people, from various walks of life and with no experience in arts, and the results confirmed the existence of intuition. In the end I found an image of “a circle with exits in all directions”.
This has become the core of my choreography for Dancing with Death which deals with ancestors, spirit as well as sacrifice. In working with my dancers, I realized that all have been well trained; in other words, they’re all confined in frames. And so, I first made sure they all understand intuition, which for me also means creativity, and then tried to free them from their backgrounds.
As for my set design, I was also inspired by a senior monk Luang Pu Dun Atturo from Surin province who wrote that everything can be defined and solved by our mind. The space in the middle of the set represents the mind and the dancers moving up and down multi-level slopes around it the spirit. Their movements have been inspired by works of legendary choreographers like Vaslav Nijinsky, Kazu Ono, Martha Graham and Pina Bausch.
How are all of these related to Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s previous works most of which are based on the techniques of Khon (classical Thai masked dance theatre)?
It’s completely different and those expecting to see me perform Khon will be absolutely disappointed. I notice that many Southeast Asian choreographers have stopped working after about ten to fifteen years because I think they rely too much on their traditions and are not conducting enough research to take their works out of the boxes. It’s like they simply marry their dances and show them off as beautiful wives, rather than making love to them and having babies who may not completely resemble them. For me as a choreographer, Dancing with Death is the greatest risk I’ve ever taken. I won’t regret, though, if it fails; I will if I don’t take this risk. My company is celebrating the 10th anniversary and with this work we’re creating new vocabulary which, we think, is possible for our future development, a different path for us from those of other companies in the region. For me as a dancer, I no longer want to be labelled, quite stereotypically, as a classical Thai dancer.
The world premiere of Dancing with Death was at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in February as part of Tokyo Performing Arts Market (TPAM) 2016. The Southeast Asia premiere is at Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay in early May. In 2017, this work will be part of the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (Asia TOPA) and Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival.
Pawit Mahasarinand is also chairperson of Chulalongkorn University’s Department of Dramatic Arts and artistic director of Sodsai Pantoomkomol Center for Dramatic Arts, where Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s Nijinsky Siam, Tam Kai, Black and White and The Gentlemen had their Thailand premieres.