Mesmerizing Traditional Thai Dance Versus Dumb White People Tricks

Last night I had my first Jerome Bel experience at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea. I went to see the latest work by the French experimental choreographer known for refusing to return the money of disgruntled customers, entitled “Pichet Klunchun and myself.” In the piece, which the program says is an exploration of “very problematic notions such as euro-centrism, inter-culturalism or cultural globalization,” Bel and Thai dancer Klunchun (who is brilliant, by the way) sit on chairs across from each other, Bel with a laptop on his knees. Bel first interviews Klunchun, asking him about his work, Thai culture, the type of dance he practices — “Khon” — a centuries-old Thai dance, and asks him to illustrate various moves. Klunchun then queries Bel about the same regarding himself. The first half of the program I found fascinating and I recommend that everyone in NYC go see it (showing through Saturday, the 10th) for that reason alone.

Khon, Klunchun reveals, began with a Thai king, who danced himself, and is a celebration of Buddha. The body is literally like a temple, the Buddha contained within both the center of the body and the center of the temple. So, arms legs, hands and feet, like Thai architecture, are shaped so that the energy flows out from the center, down through the limbs and rooftop structures, and is then re-directed back to the center, to the Buddha of the temple and soul. That’s why Thai dancers hold their hands and feet as such, which the fingers and toes splayed and flexed outward and upward. After he gives this explanation and begins dancing, you can really see the arcs of energy radiating out and back and out and back. Thai dancers practice flexing their fingers backward, and he shows us how. Ouch! Bel tried to flex his own, but to no avail. I tried as well, equally unsuccessful. It looks like it takes as much work as balletic turnout.

I found his this fascinating, along with Klunchun’s illustrations. At one point, he walks slowly slowly slowly across the room, showing how the spirit of a character who has died inhabits the stage (this after Bel asks him to feign dying onstage and Klunchun says he can’t; for a character to die onstage is for the king to die, for the country to die). Anyway, in his walks, the feet slowly lift from the floor, almost toe by toe, then the knee slowly bends, the leg rises, lifts, extends out, bends, the foot slowly drops to the floor, the step only ending when the last toe has touched ground. I can’t explain — you just have to see for yourself — but it was mesmerizing. His movements were so perfectly stylized down to the very last detail, so formalized, not a skin cell out of place. It really made me want to see the Thai dancer in David Michalek’s Slow Dancing films again, especially now that I understand the movement. He illustrated the four main characters of Khon: male, female, demon, and monkey — demon being his specialty; monkey he can’t do to save his life (my word choice of course; his language, like his dancing was very formal and ascetic). At first I couldn’t see the difference between the characters, but after Bel asked him to explain, I understood. Everything is so subtle. You have to watch really closely. And you will because it’s really so breathtaking in its simplicity. When Klunchun finally danced the role of a woman learning that her husband had died, I understood every movement, every discreet but articulated gesture to a tee. Beautiful! Bel thought so too.

Throughout Bel’s interrogatories, there were little culture clashes, most of which I felt were forced and contrived. Bel exclaims to Klunchun that Western dance (meaning ballet) also originated from a king — King Louis. But it’s a superficial similarity, of course, as, far from having the energy re-directed to one’s inward Buddha: the French king demanded that his court dancers have their bodies always turned not straight ahead, but toward him, thus the balletic turnout. “You direct your energy out,” Klunchun says at one point, demonstrating a very funny faux grand jete. “Out, out, out,” he said as he leaped through the air throwing his arms up. He was really quite an actor and could be very funny in his deadpan seriousness.

Then Bel turned the tables and asked Klunchun what he would like to know. After the exchange of some personal details intended to reveal cultural differences (Klunchun doesn’t understand how Bel can be unmarried and have a child, for example), Bel gets up and illustrates his work. He plays music from his computer. The song is “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie. Bel walks to center stage and stands stationary, looking out at the audience, eyeing us left to right. After about a minute, he begins jumping around, breaking into an unsophisticated version of club dance. After another minute or two of doing that, he sits. Klunchun, playing the outsider / voice of reason asks him, basically, WTF?? (my words again). Bel explains that in France they had a Revolution during which commoners overthrew all of the royals, sparing no family members. Hence, long live the French principle of egalite. He is deconstructing the spectator / performer dichotomy, showing the audience that he is just like them, no better. “But why then would they pay?” asks the voice of reason. “Well, they sometimes want their money back, in fact,” says Bel. The audience erupts with laughter — clearly these are all Bel groupies in the know about his history. “And do you give it back?” asks Klunchun. “No.” You see, Bel explains, he is a “contemporary” artist — this means not ballet, not Swan Lake, not the Nutcracker. “Contemporary” means there can be no expectations, no preconceived notions. It’s in the present. The government pays him a lot of money to go out and do research on this present state of things, about which he then produces work. He walks back to center stage, throws a vase of pencils and other small object onto the floor, falls down, and pretends to fall asleep atop the objects. Not to sound like a philistine, but I really don’t understand what kind of research one needs to do in order to come up with this, Mr. Bel?

Later, Bel talks about the work I think he is most known for, “Jerome Bel,” in which a man and woman, both naked, come out onstage, stand, look down at their bodies, and begin scrunching together a role of fat from their waists, which they kneed up and down and all around, distributing the fat throughout their torsos. “The body is such a marvel in and of itself,” Bel exclaims orgiastically, “who needs movement!” With this piece, he says, he was trying to explore the bare essentials of theater. What better way to do that than by having a stage with no props, no costumes and hardly any light?

Okay, knowing me, this is the kind of thing I would have thought was brilliant — or maybe not brilliant but something I would have at least been into — when I was in college, so I do see where he has his followers. After last night, I have decided that I am not, however, one of them, if my tone hasn’t made that obvious. Having only seen this one piece of his, though, I could be missing something. Here is another perspective from someone I highly admire.

At the end, Bel has just finished sleeping onstage for several minutes to “Killing Me Softly,” when he gets up and begins to pull down his pants. “No, no,” Klunchun stops him. “I don’t, I don’t want to see you naked, Mr. Bel, it is not right.” “Why,” says Bel unzipping. “Because in Thailand, there are certain people you, you don’t share nakedness with,” Klunchun says visibly distraught. “But, Mr. Klunchun,” Bel snickers, “in Bangkok clubs, there’s lots of nudity.” “That’s different,” Klunchun says, averting his eyes, unable to hide a look of disgust, “they’re, they’re working.” “I’m working too,” Bel says with the tone of a high-schooler. “But in Bangkok, they’re working for tourists.” With this the Bel groupies moaned as if the skies had parted. The international trafficking of women as sex slaves has long been one of the most disturbing social issues to me, so this may well not be everyone’s reaction, but I found it completely insulting that Bel assumed that I didn’t already know the truth of Klunchun’s last line, that that was supposed to be a revelation to me as a white person.

Anyway, as I said, “Pichet Klunchun and myself” is totally worth seeing for Klunchun alone. Who knows, you may up enjoying the deconstructionist French guy as well. Go here for tix.

8 Comments

  1. wow, interesting… the explanation about buddha and the flexed fingers and toes pointed upwards make sense though. it looks like it almost requires double jointed fingers, and it looks hard as well!

  2. I know, it does look like it requires double-jointedness, but from what he seemed to indicate, it just involves a lot of stretching to increase flexibility. Thanks, Jolene, I found it so fascinating, and I wish you were in NY to see it! I’m sure they have plenty of things like this in CA too though. BTW, thanks for spelling “buddha” properly, ha ha, I was typing too fast so I could get out of the office last night! I’m changing it :)

  3. Thanks for this great review Tonya. Bel’s comments about contemporary dance having no expectations of it are fascinating to me in light of the problems I’ve been having with experimental dance lately (see my blog posts “Your Audience, Love ’em or Hate ’em?” and “Responding to ‘Your Audience'” on movetheframe.com).

    I’m sad I’m not going to be able to see this show this weekend, because I’m going out of town, but in some ways just hearing other people’s recountings of it seems to be fascinating and wholely satisfying in itself!

  4. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks for your description of Thai dance. I have always thought the forms of it were beautiful and it looks like the technique requires just as much training and discipline as classical western forms. Your description of the whole performance definitely helped me imagine the whole thing. Thanks for a good writeup!

    This summer when I was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, one of the featured cultures was the Mekong River, which runs through Thailand among other SE Asian countries. I saw some dancing that may be like what you described, and videotaped it. You can see it here, the dancing starts at about 3:00 if your timer is counting up.

  5. Thanks you guys! Oh too bad you won’t be able to see it, Anna. But I’m glad you got something out of my review! I noticed Counter Critic also posted about it, and Jennifer Dunning has a review in the Times. The whole idea of audience expectation of performance is really interesting.

    Thanks for the link to your video, Maria. Good video! I loved the puppets :) That dance is interesting — Klunchun’s was a lot slower and the hands and feet articulation more prominent than in the Khmer version in yours; Klunchun said a Khon performance usually takes several hours the movement is so slow! Your video reminds me, I forgot to mention the masks. Klunchun kept holding his chin up, while moving his head back and forth. Bel commented on it, saying in ballet, we’re taught proper posture means lifting up from the back of the neck, not the chin. He demonstrated. Klunchun said, well, if I held my head like that my mask would fall off!

  6. Locating a dance, an event or research in the present does not eliminate expectations. Expectations are part of the present as well. A new production of Nutcracker can violate or extend them as much as pulling out one’s eyebrows to a pop song from the seventies.

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