Review: Pichet Klunchun Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow
Who is Sita? This is the central question of Chui Chai, an hour-long work by Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, which continues its first run in the United States through Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. An attempt to bridge khon, the highly codified form of traditional Thai court dance, with Western modern dance, Chui Chai, which means “transformation,” is part of the Ramakian (the Thai version of Indian epic, Ramayana). While the title specifically refers to the demon king Thodsakarn’s request that his niece, the demon maiden Banyakai, transform herself into Sita—the wife of Rama—the second half of Kunchun’s dance – the more modern part – leaves room for many interpretations, including the transformation of Thai society itself.
Noppadon Bundit; photos: Kristi Pitsch
The dance begins with exposition, portraying part of the Nang Loi (Floating Lady) section of the Ramakian. The courtiers enter slowly, four women and one masked man, in ornate, bejeweled costumes in red, blue, gold, green and purple. Moving with stately grace, the women take small steps, crossing each leg diagonally in front of the other, feet flexed so the heel touches the floor first. Their backs remain straight as their arms swivel smoothly through all their joints; their fingers arch backward as if their knuckles are elastic. Thodsakarn enters with weighty, purposeful bent-legged strides and takes his place on the stage’s sole adornment, a platform/throne, while the courtiers sit and listen. The spires of the ancient city projected on a backdrop screen match the tall, pointy headdresses worn by the women and Thodsakarn. Those of us unfamiliar with the Eastern cannon appreciate the projected supertitles that translate the tale being enacted by the dancers and sung on the recorded score.
We trust that we are seeing a faithful rendition of this dance and its story, given Klunchun’s serious study of and respect for khon; indeed, he has a degree in classical Thai dance. As the story goes, Thodsakarn and Rama have been at war, and the demon king, worried about war’s impact on his city, wishes to distract his opponent and end the fighting. He summons Benyakai, who wears a mask, and asks her to transform herself to mimic Sita’s corpse, floating down the river, so that Rama will be too distraught to continue to fight. Benyakai agrees to her uncle’s request, but with reservations; she has never seen Sita and does not know what she looks like.
The first, classical section of the dance closes on this plot point as a question emerges onscreen: Do you know Sita? A temporal transformation takes place as the traditional song is supplanted by the sounds of a modern Thai city, whose residents speculate on what the great beauty Sita would be if she were alive today: an exotic dancer, a model, a taxi driver, a housewife, a masseuse, a street vendor. Benyakai and the courtiers dance in a classical vein, each in her own spotlight, as the music resumes, but suddenly there is a shirtless man, wearing jeans, among them. The courtiers exit as Benyakai dances a tender duet with the modern man who mirrors her, prefectly performing the woman’s traditional moves.
It is here that questions about transformation arise as they two dancers gorgeously dance with each other, at times intertwined by their arms and wrists, moving slowly in a circle created by one overhead spotlight. His face is as expressionless as her mask. Could this man be Sita? He could in Thai dance; men originally performed both male and female roles. Can the classical and the contemporary merge so beautifully and yet remain distinct? When she leaves the stage, his dance style transforms; he speeds up, his spine become mobile, and he performs more sweeping movements and contemporary moves, including vogueing and popping. A new dancer emerges from the wings. Instead of a silk, jewel-toned skirt she wears short jeans shorts under her traditional tunic; she is without a headdress, so we see she has a blunt, short haircut in contrast to the long tresses of the other female dancers. Similarly, her movement is different; she frequently holds her arms rigid, pointing up to the ceiling or straight out in front, instead of performing the fluid, snaking arm movements of the traditional dancers. The final section includes her most shocking moves, as turns her back on the audience and swivels her butt, , looking flirtatiously over her shoulder and using her tunic like an exotic dancer’s accessory, all while the other dancers onstage perform a mix of traditional Thai and modern movement against the projected backdrop of a current-day cityscape, with soaring glass-and-metal skyscrapers instead of ancient spires.
As the dancers line up centerstage and hold hands, tugging against each other, it’s clear there’s a struggle going on. What is lost in modernization? Why are only demeaning roles in contemporary society suggested for Sita, who is viewed as the epitome of a Thai woman? What will become of classical Thai dance with the modernization of society and the diminishment of importance of the royal court – a form that has already evolved, adapting to the conventions of Western theatrical productions to be performed on a proscenium stage, oriented to the audience. Can Thai dance be transformed without knowledge of what its shape will be, and still retain its nobility, integrity, and authenticity? Klunchun poses these questions and more by creating a dance that melds classical traditions with contemporary conventions, and it is this inventiveness and inquisitiveness that has brought him to the Pillow stage and to the attention of the dance world of Thailand and beyond.
Pichet Klunchun Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow
Doris Duke Stage
Through Sunday, July 18