Interweaving Dance Cultures

In the performance, the stage is empty except for two chairs on which Klunchun and Bel sit down facing each other. Each interrogates the other in this ninety-minute lecture/demonstration5 – first the Frenchman the Thai, then vice versa. At first glance the setting is reminiscent of a TV chat show – in the casual manner in which the questions and answers go back and forth. Who are you? Where are you from? Why did you become a dancer? Yet the differences between this and the commonplace format of the chat show (which they both allude to and play with) soon become evident in the intelligent and carefully formulated questions, and in the way they show their art. Each of the two parties to the dialogue demonstrates and comments on the fundamentals of their art: Pichet Klunchun does so by talking about the history of Khon dance, showing the principles of its practice, and demonstrating its basic characters, the man, the woman, the demon, and the monkey, making the differences in balletic structure manifest. Jérôme Bel does this by explaining the ideas behind his performances, which are dedicated to the concept of dance, while also demonstrating parts of individual pieces. One of the most beautiful scenes is when Klunchun shows Bel a short sequence of movements, Bel imitates them, and both men dance the role of the woman in Khon dance in a physical dialogue. In this dialogue made up of words and gestures, difference assumes a visible form both physically – in the movement of the dance – and in the revelation of cultural influences.

"Pichet Klunchun and Myself" (2005) © association R.B.

“Pichet Klunchun and Myself” (2005) © association R.B.

We are not concerned here with the question of whether a very well trained Western dancer can or cannot learn the highly complicated movements of the hands, the subtle turns of the body, and the typical ground contact of the feet; or how the mimesis, the bodily transfer of dance techniques, is part of local and global performance. The problem runs deeper, negotiating attitudes towards expertise and dedication shown by the dance student in undergoing long years of practice. This mental attitude, the unshakeable discipline, the relationship to the master as model and mentor who prescribes every movement and controls it together with the learner, is pivotal to the art of the Khon dance with its highly stylized representations of the body. A few years later, Pichet Klunchun developed a solo performance entitled I Am a Demon,6 in which he portrays how he became a Khon dancer. It is also a tribute to his teacher and master with whom he studied for 16 years.

Jérôme Bel is a different case. He explicitly rejects the virtuosity of the classical, the balletic or modern Western dance. In his concept of art he systematically refuses (despite having trained as a dancer) to meet the expectation of his audience, which associates a dance performance with the presentation of beautiful bodies and world-class performances in the art of motion. Bel explains that this reduces dance performances to consumer goods. This is an attitude of expectation that he does not want to indulge – what he wants is for the audience to pay attention to its own attitude of expectation (in rejecting the traditional, in shifting the focus of desire…which Bel directs towards a void). This places Bel in the tradition of Western performance and minimal and conceptual art, which probably began with John Cage’s famous piece, 4’33”, in which the audience expects to hear the announced piano concerto but is instead confronted with the pianist simply sitting at his instrument without playing a single note.7 At this point it already becomes very clear that this dialogue between the two dancers from different dance cultures again and again addresses the relationship of tradition and “traditional,” classical dance and innovation or experimental, conceptual dance. The American dance scholar Susan L. Foster critically notes that the differentiation between traditional and experimental “reaffirms and reinvigorates hierarchies of civilisation implemented in Europe’s colonisation of the world,”8 and that these concepts thus are gendered. She states that “tradition is aligned with the feminine, experimentation with the masculine.”9 This turns Pichet Klunchun into a figure of otherness, “perplexing and unknowable, for persisting in a classical tradition.”10 The critique raises important questions, which appear throughout the conversation. However, the course of the performance demonstrates that Pichet Klunchun is not “in a distinctly inferior position,”11 as Susan Foster claims. After all, this is also a question of how the audience perceives it. In this performance the performers address each other, but at the same time, they are also always addressing the audience. The spectators become witnesses and observers. Wouldn’t it be possible for a spectator to put forth an interpretation to the contrary, in which Jérôme Bel appears on stage as a ‘typical Westerner,’ sloppily dressed and with a relaxed posture – in one word, ‘feminized.’ By comparison, Pichet Klunchun, even if he is barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt, presents a ‘strong’ and ‘composed’ figure of concentration and integrity. Thus, clear ascriptions are twisted and shifted in the perception of this performance that negotiates cliches of east-west, of tradition-experimentation, and of male-female.

"Pichet Klunchun and Myself" (2005) © association R.B.

“Pichet Klunchun and Myself” (2005) © association R.B.

  1. “Lecture demonstration” is also the subtitle of Klunchun’s and Bel’s performance Pichet Klunchun and Myself which premiered in December 2004 at the Bangkok Fringe Festival, Bangkok (Thailand). []
  2. I Am a Demon, 26 August 2006 at the festival “Tanz im August”, Berlin (Germany). []
  3. See Hans-Friedrich Bormann: Verschwiegene Stille. John Cages Performative Ästhetik, Munich 2005. []
  4. Susan Leigh Foster: Choreographing Empathy. Kinesthesia in Performance, London/New York 2011, p. 197. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Op. cit. p. 203. []
  7. Op. cit. p. 200. []

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