I got to have a chat with Pichet Klunchun over Skype one Friday afternoon, prior to his upcoming performance at The Esplanade.
My introduction to his work was in 2007 – his collaboration with Jérôme Bel the piece Pichet Klunchun and myself, had toured to the Wexner Center of the Arts. I was a homesick dance student in the American midwest, and their questions about encountering the Other, Orientalism, globalisation and multiculturalism, helped me realise how heavily histories and the stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think.
Pichet’s artistic work and global name recognition has kept growing since then, his work has extended into supporting the work of other artists in his city, Bangkok. The work he will bring to da:ns festival this time is No. 60 — it has been more than 20 years in the making.
From our conversation, it’s clear that No.60 comes out of two core questions underpinning Pichet’s work. Who am I? What is my dance? This notion of an individual aesthetic and voice is a pressing one for Pichet. In making the work No. 60, he and his dancers return to the concept and idea of tradition. For traditional Thai dance, the mentality of the group comes first. An artist’s personality is shaped by the tradition — individual personality is not shown in the dance. As a contemporary artist, however, Pichet thinks it is more important for the dancer to understand themselves as individuals. To understand the art, the person, not just only within the culture.
In the transmission of dance knowledge, especially as a cultural practice, a lot of communication is body-to-body, but also verbal, through talking. Pichet shared that his Thai classical dance and body knowledge came from him believing what his masters tell him about his dance. As someone who wanted to create contemporary work, to be independent, a pioneer, he needed to find other ways of understanding his dance. So, he started drawing. These drawings connect to the body’s forms when dancing Thai classical dance, and has been part of his practice for more than 10 years.
It seems to me that the distinction between self and others, self and the group, especially when one’s sense of self comes very strongly out of a long, significant, tradition, can lead to very strong questions about identity, and how identity is formed.
Pichet shares with me his feeling that No. 60 finally feels like a dance that captures him, his dance, coming from the drawings he has made. I recall seeing his work Dancing With Death in 2016, and the sense that the dancers are in search of a soul, existing in a liminal state, both local and global, past and future. That work was also a result of his drawings; but in terms of really going into his understanding and concept of his dance, No. 60 promises to capture an essence of Pichet’s dance, beyond other thematic concerns, beyond cultural and political identity.
The drawings are related to the Thai classical canon of Theppanom, which consists of 59 core poses and movements that all Thai dancers need to master. Every classical dance is made from these core poses and movements, combined differently by the masters. The basic vocabulary of Theppanom is like a map for Pichet. He went back to the basic movements and the original choreography in his training, and used the 59 poses to create number 60, which is more like a concept. From the 59 positions, he created 8 exercises with his dancers, and they use these exercises to practice and to create the performance we will see in October.
When I try to understand more about this process of deconstructing, rethinking, and creating, I imagine that the change in focus from the group identity to an individual one, would cause an ensemble to look very different from each other. What then would be the unifying logic of the choreography? Pichet shared that he wanted to show how people can share one root, but spread out, disperse, and show themselves as individuals. Translated into movement, what happens is that the dancers will pick something from 1-59, and then they transform the pose using the technique, his technique, of number 60. Each person will transform the pose in their own ways, differently.
What about the history of the numbering system of Theppanom? I wonder if that history impacted upon Pichet’s deconstruction, and mention the numbering systems in Indian classical dance, which identified core poses, but also key transitional poses known as karanas.
Seeming to enjoy the nerdy turn in our conversation, Pichet shared simply that in Thai classical dance, the transitions are “missing”. “When I started to draw my own way, I was thinking, if I want to be myself, as a choreographer, I need to create my own technique. I’m jealous of Cunningham and Graham, I want my own!”
Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham are American modern dance pioneers who created their own dance techniques in the early 20th Century — at the height of American modernism. I wonder about the confluence of Asia’s so-called rise in the world, and how that might impact upon an artist’s work. After all, Pichet Klunchun is now a global artist, but one strongly associated with his country of origin, Thailand, because of how he has reimagined the classical dance form khon.
“In No. 60, I think I’m talking about dance. The nature of dance. I use the material from my tradition, but I am not only talking about Thai classical dance.”
Ultimately, regardless of various labels and frameworks that his artistic work exists in, the process of creation is most important to Pichet. He shares what he has found. Indeed, Thai classical dance, even in Thailand, is not common knowledge. And therefore the artist cannot assume he will be understood when he relies on traditional codes and systems. Instead, in his work, the show will also reveal the process of creating the work. The audience will get to see the dancer’s process of thinking and creating on the spot. And because the artist shares some knowledge and meaning behind the tradition, the audience can then go and look further into it on their own.
To conclude, I ask Pichet a question I myself get asked as a dance artist. “Why do you choose to create dance? You work so hard, and the show is over so quickly.” Pichet seems surprised by the question, and I love his answer —
“No, the show is important, but it’s not the main thing. We work hard in the process, and we find it, and then we share. The production is important, but it’s not the purpose and intention for my work. I want to grow myself and to grow dancers, to grow the material and to share with the community.”
Indeed, the process will keep going on. There can always be more research and discourse. We can discuss individual ideas, and understand more. The nature of artistic work is like an ongoing excavation of human curiosity and imagination — limitless.
Pichet Klunchun performs No. 60 in Forward Shift with da:ns festival 11-13 October. Tickets here.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.