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A Maverick Artist Who Revives Traditional Culture - Pichet Klunchun Interview

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Classical Dance and the Body

-  Your works have been drastically changing: from Nijinsky Siam, via Black & White to Tam Kai. How do you develop a project?

Pichet: In each piece, the techniques evolve continuously: especially the techniques and bodies of the dancers of the company. We work on a piece at least for two or three years. We decide on an idea, i.e., the content and theme first, and then spend the first year for research. We get information from experts, read books and talk with people who have knowledge that we need. While researching, I always talk about what we want to create with the dancers. Since they follow the process together, the dancers themselves look for information too. After the research, we shut ourselves up in the studio at least for six months to consider the dance forms and directions. Then we consider the form of presentation for six months.

Nijinsky Siam   Photo: Sojirat Singholka
Black and White   Photo: Weerana Talodsuk
Tam Kai   Photo: Nattapol Meechart

-  How are the information gathering regarding the piece and the collective work with the dancers linked?

Pichet: Thought, or knowledge, is one of the elements that form a dancer’s body. It will be converted into physical language. But the problem that you often find there is that they don’t understand what they are doing and they don’t know the history. Then you end up with empty forms. What my company does is very new to traditional dancers, and if the dancers cannot liberate themselves from the physical memory that has been accumulated through training, they get stiff. I mean researching and obtaining new information should contribute to the formation of new memory. For instance, Black & White might appear to be a very traditional Thai dance choreography, but it is actually a newly created choreography.

Black and White  Photo: Weerana Talodsuk

That is why the dancers need new memory. For Tam Kai, we rejected all the techniques of the classical dance, so training of the dancers took two years. Everyone was a classical dancer, so we needed time. We thoroughly researched, worked hard in the studio, and then finally the piece was completed.

Tam Kai Photo: Nattapol Meechart

- In your workshop in “Dance Seminar & Lab” of Kyoto University of Art and Design in 2014, you didn’t use the vocabulary of Thai classical dance (Khon) but said that you were more interested in the movements in daily life. I was very surprised, and indeed, you don’t use the idioms of Khon in Tam Kai. How have you been shifting from the language of the classical dance to a broader realm of expression?

Pichet: There are various routes. You can immediately move to new physical memory, or you can go there starting from old memory. In my company, a new language emerges suddenly from an old language. Perhaps I’d better say, “develop” We don’t create a new physical language but develop an old physical language into a new physical language. Khon dancers usually play certain characters such as Tosakan (ogre) or Hanuman (monkey). They perform the thought and emotion of Tosakan or Hanuman, so their personal thought and emotion are not involved. The meanings of the movements have already been defined in Ramakien(*1) However, in Black & White, we didn’t work that way and the dancers performed as themselves. This is very problematic for Khon dancers; in short, that is a “wrong” thing to do. We totally altered the original meanings of the physical language. The movements have roughly remained as they originally are, but the meanings and nuances are altered. Officers of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand should get mad if they see that. Liberation of dancers’ mind and spirit is forbidden in the framework of the tradition, though I suppose foreign people don’t see any difference on the surface...

- In Tam Kai, in which you rejected the classical techniques, does the classical dance still function as the basis?

Pichet: Yes, actually everything is based on the classical dance. Let me show you the diagram that I made. (Showing how the computer graphics that visualize the lines drawn by the movements of each part of the body and the flow of energy move)

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

These are the forms used in Thai classical dance. These are the lines of the traditional movements. All the gestures are included in them, and if you synthesize them, a circle or a curve emerges. The power is in this curve. Then, if you erase the human shape and extract the curve... You see the direction of a power like this.

- You have shown me the diagram of “thep-pranom(*2)” on paper before, but that has evolved into this!

Pichet: Yes. This is the movement that we made by “developing” the classical dance and used in Tam Kai. You see connections between a movement and another movement. As you dot in a space, move, dot, and move, you put energy in points and create connections between them. You physically use the power of the connections. It is not a traditional movement, but the way you use power is the same.

- That reminds me of Rudolf Laban(*3) , who built a system where the range of physical motion is translated into an abstract mechanism from which various movements can be created. But do the movements based on the classical dance connect to daily life gestures?

Pichet: Yes. In Black & White, though the thoughts and spirits of the dancers are liberated, the choreography is instructed by me. However, in Tam Kai, the dancers themselves conceive choreography and dance it, which means their bodies, thoughts and spirits are free. That links to the democratic society, in other words, contemporaneity.

Black and White  Photo: Weerana Talodsu

*1: The Thai version of the Indian classical epic Ramayana. Tosakan and Hanuman are its main characters. *2: The basic posture in Thai classical dance. Pichet has authored a concise introduction to it in Thai and English. *3: Choreographer / dance theorist who led German modern dance in the first half of the 20th century.

Relationship with Audience

- How do people who are familiar with Thai classical dance receive your works?

Pichet: They think the form or concept of the classical dance shouldn’t be altered, so when they judge what I do, they only say, “This is not culture.” No theory, no knowledge: the only thing they care about is whether it is “culture” or not. They see Thai dance not as a dance art but as a “culture.” So they go, even at the slightest deviation from the traditional form, “It’s wrong!”

- Support for traditional performing arts not by looking into the quality but by just preserving the form: that can be found everywhere.

Pichet: Traditional performing arts don’t communicate with audience, 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.

- That might be true for Asian traditional performing arts in general.

Pichet: They originally developed as rituals for Buddhism, 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.

- Japan also has traditional performing arts like bugaku, noh, etc., but very few people try to radically renew them as you do. In that sense, what you have been doing can be a model for various Asian dances.

Pichet: But there are other people who have been working like I do in Asia. Eko Supriyanto(*1) Sardono Kusumo(*2), Lin Hwai-min(*3)...

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

- Young classical dancers have gradually been gathering around you. Do you feel that more people have been sympathizing with your activity recently?

Pichet: No, I don’t... I have a company, but there are just five people. We have been performing a lot, so more people could have joined. It must take time to gain sympathy. The difficulties are in many levels: society, class and culture. I have been doing something that people who had learned Thai classical dance have never done, and I haven’t studied at any dance school. In Thailand, teachers of the classical dance are usually graduates of the College of Dramatic Arts. I am in an unprecedented position because I didn’t graduate from that kind of traditional school. The Fine Arts Department has never recognized what I create. They see me as a heretic. Apparently, they don’t know how to deal with me because I’m too new to them. Therefore, there haven’t been new tendencies in dancers, but there are in audience instead. We see a lot of students and young people in the audience. They get interested, come to the show, and put up questions about or reconsider traditional culture. I mean the possibility of reviving traditional culture is becoming visible.

- Interest in the classical has been stimulated by heretical expression.

Pichet: They had never looked at the traditional dance as something that can be beautiful or interesting. They just thought it was dull and boring.

- What kind of things do you think they are familiar with?

Pichet: They are ordinary young people who, for example, enjoy Western pop music.

- What makes them come to see your shows?

Pichet: Firstly, my pieces communicate with audience. For instance, I don’t play a god. I don’t play anything that is beyond their imagination, and I perform wearing clothes that they can be wearing. I mean audience see my performance and understand that I am a human being as they are. They are also familiar with the stories that I tell. Black & White talks about how to keep balance in your life, and Tam Kai can be danced by anyone. What audience see is not distant from their lives. And the most important thing should be that I am friendly to everyone and don’t behave like a dance master. The hierarchy between the teacher and students is considered very important in the “culture,” but once you behave like a teacher, a distance is created between you and students and you become awkward at communicating.

Black and White  Photo: Weerana Talodsuk

- Do people who usually see contemporary theatre or Western contemporary dance come to your shows too?

Pichet: Yes, but people who are interested in traditional culture come too. There are also people in their 60s and 70s in the audience. They require quality firstly, and a new type of narrative secondly.

- So there has recently been a certain range of audience that receives stimulation from your pieces in Thailand.

Pichet: Yes. The number of audience has drastically increased in ten years. When I first performed I am a demon, there were only three people. Now 200 seats are sold out for one performance. I performed in Bangkok two weeks ago, and the three 180-seat shows were sold out. But I have recently been performing only once or twice a year in Bangkok. I perform abroad more.

- If it can be said that you had mainly performed abroad and there hadn’t been audience in Thailand, can it be said that the balance has changed?

Pichet: The balance has become better, but I still get bigger response abroad. Understanding of contemporary art is still shallow in Thailand, so people don’t go so far as to purchase tickets to see a show. Seeing contemporary art is considered different from seeing classical art. There has not been effort to acquire knowledge of and participate in contemporary art. Commercial shows are popular. In theatre, a hero, a villain and a clear story are expected. So audience’s taste hasn’t been cultivated yet. There is no one who is capable of explaining the difference between classical art and contemporary art. Information and education are needed in the society.

On the Creation Environment 

- You had had only three audience members, but now you have more than 500. Your position might be still relatively marginal, but I think your presence in the society has been increasing. Have there been changes in terms of the creation environment and grant opportunities?

Pichet: There is influence on the creation environment. Audience have more expectation than before: they want to see really interesting things. So creations are exhausting, and a process for one piece has been becoming longer and longer.

- Stronger, but positive pressure is on you.

Pichet: Yes. It is not so strong as to make me collapse though...

- What about financial support?

Pichet: I have never received a grant from the Thai government. We might be going into a sensitive issue (laughs). The government doesn’t support contemporary art in the first place. There are three conditions for becoming eligible to receive governmental support. One is that the content of your expression has to be related to the king. Secondly, it has to be related to Buddhism. Thirdly, it has to be related to support for children. If you meet one of the three conditions, you can receive the governmental support. A piece titled Tam Kai can never get it. A chicken doesn’t have anything to do with the government.

- Then, you are financially supported mostly by foreign funds?

Pichet: I don’t perform pieces produced with foreign money in Thailand.

- Are your domestic shows and overseas shows different?

Pichet: The contents are the same sometimes, but the domestic shows are poorer in scale, lighting, etc. There is not a facility like Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Thailand. Foreign people tend to think that Thailand is a developed and rich country where decent theaters and facilities exist, but that’s not true... That’s why I built my own studio.

- What do you do at your studio?

Pichet: Last year I invited four or five artists as well as two or three foreign artists for the performance. Not really a festival, but a two-week program. Shows at my studio are offered to neighbors for free.

- What kind of audience do you have there?

Pichet: Totally local people. Construction site workers, peddlers, all kinds of people. My venue is not in the central area of Bangkok but in Thon Buri District across the Chao Phraya river, where 60% of the residents are Muslims. I want to make the venue a place where both Muslims and Buddhists can come. And I want the local people have opportunities to get familiar with art.

- What have the construction site workers, for instance, told you about the shows?

Pichet: I think they didn’t intellectually understood but enjoyed the fact that they had new experiences. That stimulates them into interest in art. They are happy that the thing called “art” is close at hand, which I think is very important. Probably they don’t understand immediately, but by seeing shows again and again, they realize that art is absolutely not beyond their reach.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

*4: Indonesian contemporary dance artist who has been internationally active. *5: The most prominent avant-garde dance artist from Indonesia. *6: The leading figure in Taiwanese modern dance, and the artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.

International Cooperation and “Asia”

- The lighting designer for Black & White is Asako Miura from Japan. Your crews are from various countries. Are you interested in working with an international team?

Pichet: Of course I am, because I don’t have friends in Thailand (laughs).

- That may be one of the reasons (laughs), but what is the advantage of an international creation team?

Pichet: I am attracted to people who haven’t learned about Thai traditional dance and culture. The fact that they don’t understand it means they can convert it into something new. They can create new things, and they can offer me new knowledge and methodologies. Thanks to them, I have been able to do things that I hadn’t had enough courage to do, while people who are familiar with Thai classical dance and traditional culture cannot help being resistant to new things. I thought the same when I met Wu Na, who played music for Black & White. Wu Na uses a Chinese instrument called guqin that has only five strings, and when it was combined with Thai dance, something new immediately emerged. Khon is usually combined with percussions, not stringed instruments. So a new sensation was created, and the movements also changed.

- In such countries as South Korea or Singapore, there has been a lot of interest in the possibility of international co-production in Asia. What do you think of that?

Pichet: Honestly, I don’t quite understand why they are interested in the “Asian” framework... If you draw a line there and give financial priority to Asian co-production, won’t the “West” and “Asia” compete? Art is embedded in economy nowadays, which involves various issues, and I wonder what is going on. I had worked with Jérôme Bel, but for the rest, I have been working with various Asian artists.

- I think Asian people’s attention had inclined to the West too much, and eventually they became ignorant about Asia, even a neighboring country. I suppose there has recently been counteraction to that and they are seeking for different possibilities.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

Pichet: For instance, roughly speaking, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are very similar, and were almost like the same one country about 1,000 years ago. I am not interested in working with people in these countries because we are too close. Ways of thinking and physical characteristics are too similar. Some people may say that the similarity works though. When you say Asian cooperation, you need to think of each country’s characteristics. Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and India are very similar in physical trainings and techniques. Artists in these countries create using traditional performing arts as their material. In comparison to that, the ways Japanese artists use their bodies are very different from other Asian countries. There is little relevance to traditional performing arts such as noh and kabuki, and their physical techniques are totally new. Hong Kong and Taiwan are very much influenced by the U.S. In South Korea there are modern dance and entertainment. This is how I classify Asian countries, and the definitions of “Asia” vary.

- I think so too. There isn’t such thing as “the characteristic of Asia.”

Pichet: Well, I think there is. In Europe, artistic forms are mostly identical in any country, but in Asia, there are traditional performing arts, and there are modern things in contrast to them. You can imagine a passage from the traditional to the modern there. In that sense, the four countries that I mentioned are very traditional, and Japan and South Korea are very modern. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are a bit deviating. Europe appears to me as a homogeneous mass, while Asia is not homogeneous although countries are connected.

- What does the word “modern” mean to you?

Pichet: I guess what I think “modern art” is about is that the society is democratic, the ways of thinking are liberal, the techniques of physical movements reflect the society, and the society has an interest in physical movements. By the way, who is the female dancer who performed naked for the first time in Japan?

- Probably a butoh dancer, I guess.

Pichet: How many years ago?

- I don’t know exactly, but probably some 40 years ago.

Pichet: Nobody has done that in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia yet: you clearly see here the difference in the body in traditional performing arts and the body in contemporary art.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

Future Activities

- What are you working on now?

Pichet: I’m working on a new piece. For instance, I asked ten people, whose backgrounds are different, questions about death, life and beauty in my presentation in TPAM2015 today. What is death in the engineering world? What is life? What is beauty? What are they in the accounting world? That’s the theme I am interested in now.

- Then Khon as your background is not really relevant anymore?

Pichet: It is relevant in the end, but at this stage of research, I’m working on socially tangible matters. The piece is about death, life and beauty. Human’s life relates to death even though we do not talk about it. I want to show that death is beautiful. I am looking for the way to portray death and its beauty on stage by using the dance art form and the inspiration of Phi Ta Khon Festival. The origins of this the festival are traditionally ascribed to a story of the Vessantara Jataka in which the Buddha in one of his past lives as a prince made a long journey and was presumed dead. The celebrations on his return were so raucous as to wake the dead. In Phi Ta Khon festival, people in the local area of Loei province (northeast of Thailand) gather together to celebrate the event and dance in folk style. The dance is so raw, real and spiritually powerful. The dance techniques of my new piece will be similar to my previous work “Black & White”, that the dance movements and energy were developed from Khon dance techniques. On the other hand, artistic part, the dancers have to present their creativities through their movements like what they do in another work “Tam Kai” when each of them can present their creativities and individuality with freedom of movement. There are 2 parts of the performance.

  1. Life: represents freedom of each dancer in term of mind, body and movements as individual person who is different and unique.
  2. Death: the unity and harmony of movement and energy.

- The individual and the traditional do not contradict but coexist in your work. — Is that piece the main focus of your activity now?

Pichet: Yes. I have been simultaneously involved in the two processes: the traditional and the modern. The story and characters are traditional, but the narrative and presentation are modern. And the material is interviews with ordinary people. I think we can extend the range of audience by using thought of ordinary people.

- Is that piece the main focus of your activity now?

Pichet: I have another idea of collaboration with cooks. I want to question what the tastes of movements are. When you see a movement, you feel the energy and power, and the dancer’s body emits smell. But you don’t know the taste of the movement. What does it taste like? I want to know, and I want to tell audience, what it tastes like. So I want to work with cooks. For example, I show a movement to a cook, and he conceives its taste and communicates it to audience.

- It sounds like what is called “rasa (taste)” in Indian classical aesthetics. In India, traditionally, music or dance is described as “spicy” or “sweet.”

Pichet: Yes.

- We receive stimulations about the new as well as about the old from your pieces. Audience are simultaneously led to the two vectors.

Pichet: I think that is the strength of Asia. What is strong in Asian people should be the fact that they have firm traditional cultures.

- By the way, what do you think about butoh?

Pichet: I think it is a big achievement. They created a new language, and gave it three-dimensional meanings. It is also connected to traditional culture.

- I think their relation to tradition is a bit different from contemporary Asian artists... I mean butoh was created by Japanese people who lived in the post-war era, where they weren’t able to be proud of traditional culture anymore.

Pichet: Regardless of whether you like it or not, I simply think that it is a good thing to create something new. You can create a new knowledge no matter how you like or dislike it. I don’t like Thai dance either. I create my pieces because I don’t like Thai dance (laughs). I don’t like it, although eventually I have been promoting it. I was taught that butoh was influenced by noh at my university. Isn’t that true? Anyway, I think it was an achievement.

- Japanese people can’t be that clear about it.

Pichet: Why?

- Because butoh didn’t develop on traditional performing arts but showed it as “the ruins.”

Pichet: Do you mean it wasn’t connected but disconnected itself?

- So it isn’t as positive as contemporary Asian artists are. It isn’t represented as a linear development.

Pichet: I see. But I suppose that the idea also comes from a specific culture.

- Thank you very much for taking time. I look forward to the new work.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

[February 11, 2015, at Kanagawa Arts Theatre]

Interviewer: Daisuke Muto

An associate professor at the Faculty of Literature, Gunma Prefectural Women’s University and a dance critic. Studies the global history of dance with a focus on Asia in the 20th century and develops a choreographic theory based on the study. A coauthor of RELAY: Theories in Motion (Palgrave, 2016, forthcoming), History of Ballet and Dance (Heibonsha, 2012), and among his papers is “Kazuo Ohno’s 1980” (Bulletin of Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, No.33, 2012). His choreographic work Surely It Comes About was premiered in 2013.

Translator: Miwa Takasugi