Thursday, February 28, 2013

Our Roots Right Now. The Research Forum and Festival of Thai/ASEAN Contemporary Theatre. Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. Bangkok, January 19 – 28, 2013.

Fire Fire Fire
This was a huge, ambitious and thoroughly well run undertaking by Chulalongkorn University’s Drama Department in the Faculty of Arts, aimed not only at reviewing and validating research projects but also at involving their students in a range of issues, performances and workshops.

Here’s how it was advertised:
’33 performances
13 workshops
27 panels
10 days’

Facebook led me there and I took on the challenge of the full ten days. Chulalongkorn University Drama Department staff and students were very welcoming to a visitor; I thank them for their friendly hospitality and the hours of translation of Thai into English (sometimes by staff but mostly by a tribe of highly skilled students).

The title of the forum/festival hinted at the perils of translation; it might not have sat so well in an Australian context but in Bangkok it nailed the issues of tradition and change that concern people analysing and making performance in South East Asia.

The pulse of the Ramayana (Thai Ramakien) ran right through it, as did the intrinsic nature of culture and movement. I had to scramble to keep up with shows and workshops that referenced the stories of Rama and Sita and Thotsakan rather than Shakespeare and the Bible (although the new and splendidly flexible black box theatre at Chulalongkorn opened with Macbeth and an upcoming Brecht – Fear and Misery in the Third Reich was being advertised). I’d just decide I had a handle on all this with Surapone Virulrak’s elegant dance drama The Tragedy of Ravana and the Ramayana characters would turn up in a beauty parlour in the style of a Thai TV soap (Femmes Fatales in Lanka by Parida Manomaiphibul) or they would be so grungy and street wise it was hard to tell who was of high rank (Dangkamon Na-pombejra’s Ravanasura).  Or the whole setting would be so abstract (18 Monkeys’ Muet, directed by Jitti Chompee) that it was hard for those of us not fluent in the culture to see the old story’s patterns.

You’d think a performance was strictly traditional and afterwards people would be explaining just what they had to do to revive or recreate or even freshly introduce ‘traditions’ such as Thai shadow puppets (Bhanbhassa Dhubthien directing the young performers of The Nang Yai Players of Wat Bandon, Rayong in the fabulous monkeys versus demons battle in Yok Rob) or the cool Lanna dancers showing in Fawn Leb/Identity the ironically humorous realities of dress and behaviour behind the lovely controlled dances of Thailand’s independently minded north or Pornrat Damrhung’s work with student performers in  the Tai-Lue Lanka Sip Ho ((Ten Headed Ravana) on preserving the warmth and inspiration of ancestral traditions in story and performance.

Kecak master I Wayan Dibia , while giving a large workshop group an exhilarating experience of actually doing it, explained that the famous kecak (‘monkey dance’) of Bali was actually recreated for tourism in the early 1930s by the German Walter Spies. 

Then the Cambodian Amrita Performing Arts confounded expectations by performing traditional male masked dance to the music of extracts from Bach’s Cello Concertos and the nang yai (shadow puppets) started khon classical dance moves in front of the screen so they were no longer shadows and the Pichet Klunchun Dance company showed in Tam Kai  (Hunting the Rooster) how abstract and yet humorous some Thai contemporary dance is prepared to be; even though it was based on a poem with a story line it felt more like a piece that played around not so much with performance as with warm up.

Danny Yung Ning-Tsun, chair of the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture pointed out in his paper that the creativity of performing arts practitioners is what keeps ‘living arts’ alive, not putting them in a museum. Pichet Klunchun was more forthright, saying in his workshop that Thai classical dance is dead because it is not developing; it does not change.

There were debates on the need for arts education, the varying difficulties of censorship and approvals and the positive social uses to which performing can be put.

What was the core of it for a non Thai? That the world doesn't revolve around the western theatre tradition is one thing. South East Asian countries are aware of that tradition and use it (as was shown in the brief but fascinating presentation on the history of Thai staging by designer and academic Ritirong Jiwakanon) but there are other forces from their own traditions.

The language of much that was happening was what we would term dance and the language of movement was not the Western ‘reach for the sky’ idiom but a much more earth bound language where the fingers are bent back repeatedly from infancy and the knees are bent and workshops become very difficult even for anyone who has had exposure to ballet and Western contemporary dance. We were doing workshops mostly up on the 9th floor where huge blinds meant silhouettes and time and time again it was the hands and the turned out knees that I saw. Mainly those lively bent back hands. The few Westerners in the classes have learned a different performance aesthetic and we clearly struggle.

Yok Rob
I mostly sat down, shut my mouth, opened my eyes and ears and tried to absorb as much as possible during this part of a month long journey in Thailand that also included seeing B-Flor’s amiable and whimsical Survival Games at Pridi Banomyong Institute, a lively touring play about littering created by Sue Milne and her Akha students at Baan Ayui hostel in Chiang Rai and a huge likhe evening at the National Theatre.

I found myself in workshops with superb practitioners and teachers. Chinese kunqu master Ke Jun, director of the Jiangsu Kunqu Opera troupe, showed he was equally at home in traditional and contemporary forms. I relished watching the teaching skills of choreographer Agnes Locsin from the Philippines and the Champa Lao Puppet Theatre, where everyone was tearing up newspaper and making puppets.  The crouching elegant swan dance moves of the Nora Thummanit troupe from Songkhla were beyond me but the enthusiams of teacher Nora Thummanit Nikomrat were not and the Nora song in English raised the roof on the 9th floor.

In fact there was a whole evening of performances about birds and animals; the stately Mon Hong Thong swan dance, the Tai Kinnara Dance (with peacocks and the slender pantomime horse that is the mythical deer-like lucky To) and the Nora Thummanit Thaksin University Group troupe dignified and stylized as the swans  of the south.

ASWARA Dance Company from Malaysia performed Rooted in Silat, a contemporary piece that drew with skill and good humour on Malay martial arts and classical dances, the Champa Lao Theatre told the story of prince Sinxai and had an elephant puppet that was most impressive and Sujita Goel from India presented a riveting contemporary piece called Dancing Girl, where the lighting cleverly only let the audience see a little of her journey at a time.

Anatta Theatre gave the elegantly elegiac ghost story The Return of Wanthong. with Duangjai Hirunsri as the vengeful mother ghost writer/director Pradit Prasartthong as her soldier son. Apparently every time it is performed it has a different ending – we were treated to a very Buddhist version where the mother is able to let go of vengeance and leave this world.

Noor Effendy Ibrahim from Singapore performed Dancing with The Ghost of My Child, a deeply mature, moving and challenging piece that played with gender roles and the longing for a child. And the performances concluded with the celebratory Fire Fire Fire, where the vastly differing individual responses of choreographers Eko Supryanto (Indonesia) Cambodia’s Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and Pichet Klunchun to the Ramayana episode of the testing of Sita by fire were contrasted, so that the festival ended where it had begun, with a contemplation of the place of tradition.

Perhaps the last word should go, however, to Singapore’s Daniel K, who in his strongly contemporary piece Q& A had the temerity to conduct and present research on the audience, complete with shirt, tie and PowerPoint but missing his trousers. He asked them the question ‘What do you want to see?’


Those lucky enough to take part in this forum and festival are rather hoping that they can see more of what this event had to offer.

 By Alanna Maclean