Interweaving Dance Cultures

Even this short excerpt shows that the dialogue takes place on several intersecting levels: the discursive level of verbal communication; the physical level of active demonstration; an unconscious, atmospheric level between the two actors (an atmosphere which embraces performer and audience), and, finally, the level of cultural and artistic codes and their traditions.

In this conversation, in which the gesture of showing and self-showing assumes significance for the spectator, two aspects are noteworthy and often stressed in reviews: the first is the mutual respect that reveals itself in the manner of questioning. According to one reviewer, the “show and tell” format highlights, with humour and interest, “the difference between two cultures, between Western and Eastern ways of thinking” and also touches on “the explosive issue of globalization”.12 The other aspect of the conversation is just as important: “It is a beautiful meeting,” writes one reviewer about a performance in Lisbon, Portugal, “there isn’t a sign of interpretation, it all looks fresh and honest, nearly genuine.”13 It is, of course, clear that we are not dealing with a spontaneous, improvised chat but a rehearsed conversation-performance (which still assumes a different form in each performance). The pretense of the “first encounter” is not a deliberate deception or theatrical illusion but – in an almost Brechtian sense – an indication and demonstration of that primeval scene that stands for the first encounter between members of mutually alien cultures: the “first contact” scene, which goes hand in hand with wonder (to use Stephan Greenblatt’s word) as featured and handed down in the reports, tales, and myths of explorers.14

At the same time the allusion to these “first encounter scenes” makes clear – with the resources of the theatre – that in our age there is always a pre-history to every “first time,” which means that referencing or quoting it under the conditions of contemporary culture is to transform it. Processes of interweaving cultures have a history that is older and deeper than the discourses on globalization.

"Pichet Klunchun and Myself" (2005) © Jerome Bel

“Pichet Klunchun and Myself” (2005) © Jerome Bel

Pichet Klunchun reports that he spent a few years in the West in order to study various Western dance forms, such as flamenco, African dance, step dance, and Contact Improvisation. He says that even though he had acquired these skills, “I don’t understand it.” He knew very well how to execute the movements, but he did not know their purpose, or why he should engage in them. Yet, he also realized that he had learned something from this for his knowledge of Khon dance: the significance of energy and of the body. In this way, says Klunchun, he learned for the first time that he is a Khon dancer, and why it is important to him. He now intends to revive the tradition of classical Khon dance in Thailand for Thai audiences, at a time when popularized versions of it are performed for tourists. Thus, the interweaving of traditional movement patterns and related body concepts between cultures, indeed, in a globalized workshop culture of dance, did, in this case, lead to a transformed and renewed acquisition and continuation of that tradition. It is a story/history meant to gain new relevance through the breakage of tradition and difference.15

© Jerome Bel

© Jerome Bel

© Jerome Bel

© Jerome Bel

Allow me to mention two more examples from this performance-dialogue before I close my remarks with questions and arguments of my own. There are two questions on the subject of representation. The first concerns the possibility of portraying death and dying on stage. Death, dying, and the dead (along with love, marriage, birth, and food) are areas which – as ethnologists, sociologists, and historians have exhaustively researched – are marked and handed down by rituals, mental traditions, and social practices in every culture. The significance of these ontological themes (as well as their representation in art) undergoes a gradual change. They are phenomena which the French school of mentality historians have analyzed as being of a “longue durée,” especially when the ways of dealing with death and individual attitudes ostensibly change. Pichet Klunchun says it is not possible to portray death and dying on stage in Khon dance, as this would be considered unlucky. He goes on to show two examples of how “dying” takes place offstage or is stylized into ritual movements: either by having the hero who has been wounded in battle die backstage, or by gestures of sorrow, or, in one of the most moving scenes in the piece, when he performs a via dolorosa right across the stage by walking very, very slowly. As Klunchun asserts to the amazement of Bel, the whole process would last, step by step, about half an hour. For his part, Bel shows how he “dies” on stage: slowly, he lies down on the stage floor and remains lying while the pop song “Killing Me Softly” plays; that is all he does. The equally amazed Pichet Kluchun reacts not with questions, not with an interpretation, but with a recollection: “This reminds me [of] when my mom died”. He describes what moves him in the performance: the period in which a deep rest takes over, the gradual inner departure of the dying woman. – In the spectrum of differences between the performers and their cultures (on- and offstage) there are constant (and sometimes surprising) convergences and similarities, despite the cultural differences, such as the non-representation of death and its rendering by means of different signs and media (that is, “walking” for Pichet Klunchun and music for Jérôme Bel). The conversation between the performers achieves confluence at this point, perhaps “because death is very international,” as Klunchun postulates with a subtle sense of humour.

"Pichet Klunchun and Myself" (2005) © Jerome Bel

“Pichet Klunchun and Myself” (2005) © Jerome Bel

The second aspect of representation concerns each performer’s relationship to the Thai or French-European tradition of their dance. Pichet Klunchun refers to the history of Khon dance, which draws its themes from the Ramayana myth, is closely linked to Buddhism, and was founded by the king who first appeared in it. Klunchun laments that it is no longer a living tradition in his country, having been westernized for tourist consumption. As opposed to the Thai Khon dance with its religious roots, Bel argues that contemporary European dance is based on immanence. It is not concerned with humanity’s relation to the divine, but with the relation between the individual body and the body of society. Bel points out that in his case, too, it was the king who danced when classical dance began, namely Louis XIV, who made dance into a symbol of his absolutist rule. But Bel goes on to say that we have beheaded the king and now live in a democracy. It is not the representation of religious or political power that is the basis of the contemporary European concept of dance. Bel’s own intention rather is to make these patterns of “representation” disappear from the stage, to reflect and reveal them: i.e. to turn them into an affair of the audience. When Pichet Klunchun is surprised that Bel – upon being requested to dance – simply performs disco movements to the music of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” a form of dance practised by “everyman,” Bel, quoting Guy Debord, responds by saying that in the West we live in a “society of the spectacle.”16 Klunchun in turn answers, “I am a dancer, not a thinker.” Bel, on the other hand, renounces “being” a dancer or showing himself on stage as a dancer. Instead he denies the (spectator’s) expectation of a dance evening in order to make the audience aware of its own participation in a performance (as happened for example in The Show Must Go On17). Bel’s motto is, “The more you kill the performer, the more the audience is alive,” describing a form of “non-acting” that provokes another kind of transmission and energy resonance between the stage and the spectators. Klunchun nods in response to this concept which is so different from his own understanding of a dance performance, and then remarks concerning the closing of this electrical circuit between performer and audience that Bel seeks: “But this is very traditional.” Bel is puzzled – these are questions to which there are no definitive answers, questions that the spectators take home with them.

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

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

  1. Alfred S. Maurer, “Pichet Klunchun and Myself”, 16.06.2006/03.03.2008, URL: www.formundfunktion.ch/kunstkritik/pages/pichet_ kluchun_and_ myself_261.php. []
  2. “Jerôme Bel by Pichet Klunchun by Jerôme Bel”, 13.06.2006, URL: new-art.blogspot.com/2006/06/ jerme-bel-by-pichet-klunchun-by-jerme.html. []
  3. See Klaus Scherpe: “First-Contact-Szene. Kulturelle Praktiken bei der Begegnung mit dem Fremden”, in: G. Neumann/S. Weigel: Lesbarkeit der Kultur. Literaturwissenschaften zwischen Kulturtechnik und Ethnographie, Munich 2000, pp. 149-166; for further reading, see Gerhard Neumann: “Erkennungs-Szene. Wahrnehmung zwischen den Geschlechtern im literarischen Text”, in: K. Röttger/H. Paul: Differenzen in der Geschlechterdifferenz – Differences within Gender Studies. Aktuelle Perspektiven der Geschlechterforschung, Berlin 1999, pp. 202-221. []
  4. Jérôme Bel comments on the alliance between modernism and tradition, between western and eastern concepts of dance as follows: “Maybe you would not have done your own analysis if you had not studied those ‘western’ techniques.” []
  5. Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, translated by F. Perlmann/J. Supak, Detroit 1979, rev. ed. 1977. []
  6. The Show Must Go On, premiere on 4 January 2001, Théâtre de la Ville, Paris (France). []

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