Demonstrative performance-lecture capturing Pichet Klunchun’s research and resistance against the traditional Khon format.
Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun has spent the last twenty years of his life studying and performing the Thai traditional dance-drama form of khon, and in that time, has achieved a degree of mastery over the form. At the same time, he found frustration in the limitations with which it is taught and passed down, rote-learning style, with little space to innovate, and thus, the form remains suspended in time, never changing, never growing. It is with this in mind that he created No.60, a new dance work that represents his academic research into the khon form, and an attempt to liberate it from strict tradition, allowing it breathing room to evolve for the next generation.
No.60 is named after the 59 poses and movements in the Theppanom canon for khon, and with this title, Pichet suggests the existence of a mythical, yet-to-be-discovered 60th movement. Performed alongside Kornkarn Rungsawang, the two begin the performance with a series of demonstrations that educate and introduce audiences to both their research and the khon form. From the beginning, No.60 is well-supported by projections and animations of diagrams and notes designed by Pichet himself, beautifully animated by Jaturakorn Pinpech to show the flow of movement, while Zai Tang provides live music, an almost zen-like accompaniment that relaxes us throughout this segment.
The dancers start off with a selection from the 59 poses and movements, slow and precise, showcasing both dancers’ pre-existing knowledge that forms the base of their research. Pichet then continues to educate us by introducing the six principles he has developed from studying khon. It is fascinating to watch the break down of an ancient art form into its component parts, a means of deconstruction down to its basic building blocks that completely subvert the reverence traditional dancers have for it. It is with these six elements that he creates new movements for the company, and demonstrates them. Taking inspiration from animals and natural phenomena, the six principles, while not necessarily fully understood by the audience, can be recognised to some degree in each movement, bringing out notes of beauty and a smoothness and drama to the poses that make them seem complete.
Pichet doesn’t stop there however, and each of these movements are then stretched further still as the dancers bring their own interpretations and energies to the stage, the moves growing to become increasingly complex and layered. There is a clear evolution of the form from static pose into dynamic moments. This is in essence what marks the first half of the performance – the act of educating and presenting research, and a proposal on how khon can be reimagined. One thinks of it as a primer for the next generation to liberate their mind and bodies from the old ways it used to be taught, and prepare them for a more free-form future.
It is with this in mind that Pichet and Kornkarn then move into the second half of the performance – a full-on choreographic demonstration of the application of this new concept. In a complete change from the first half, there is an urgency and frenetic energy that characterises the second half, both dancers showcasing a sense of the manic as they allow themselves almost total and complete freedom of movement, no longer shackled by the flow of a slow, steady performance lecture. As chaotic as it appears onstage, there is a deliberate, controlled quality to their movements as they rush about, yelling into megaphones and convulsing on the floor, as if under siege, perhaps panicking over some unknown disaster. Zai Tang’s music matches the frenetic nature of the demonstration, rising in intensity, while Ray Tseng’s use of strobe lighting heightens the tension in the space.
Both dancers are clearly agitated, while a massive, silver sequinned cloth is lowered from the ceiling, reminiscent of the sequinned costumes of traditional khon, and perhaps representing the weight and restrictions of tradition on the form. Caught within a circular cutout in the cloth, it feels as if even their performance space is restrained by the perception of what khon ‘should’ be. Audience members crane their necks and stretch to follow their movements as the cloth obscures our ability to see their actions. All we feel is their struggle to work around these restrictions, dancing away from the cloth as they push back and struggle against the rules of khon that feels as real as any war or protest.
As the performance winds down, the cloth is lifted and the dancers slow their breath, still their bodies, as diagrams of the 59 movements and poses appear on the ground. Standing upon them, as they become increasingly numerous, there is a sense of the mystic attached to these traditional diagrams, as if returning to these calms them down, and has allowed them to find a way out. The 60th movement does not actually exist, it is instead a way of thinking and being, for each individual to decide on based on Pichet’s six principles. No.60 then is Pichet’s way of offering freedom to newcomers to the khon form, and assuring them that they can and will move away from pure tradition and heralds the arrival of a new contemporary form, evolving and pushing the art of Thai dance firmly into tomorrow.
No.60 ran from 20th to 23rd October 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. More information available here
da:ns Festival 2022 ran from 13th to 23rd October 2022 at the Esplanade. More information available here
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