TBA dance: “Pichet Klunchun and Myself”

Dance writer Martha Ullman West, a charter member of Friends of Art Scatter, files this report on her meeting two years ago with Thai dancemaker Pichet Klunchun on his home turf in Bangkok, and on Klunchun’s public appearance in Portland a few days ago. On Sunday night, Klunchun took the stage at PICA’s annual TBA festival of contemporary performance in a conversation/performance with French dancemaker Jerome Bel.

In February of 2006, I interviewed Pichet Klunchun for an hour and a half on the ninth floor terrace of the Oakwood Hotel in Bangkok, at sunset. That’s important: Due to acute air pollution, Bangkok sunsets are spectacular, and watching Klunchun demonstrate some of the movements of Khon — traditonal Thai dance — against a sky that looked like a painting by J.M.W. Turner animated with time stop photography, made the experience as magical as it was informative.

Klunchun, wearing very western-looking jeans and a tee-shirt, told me many things that evening — some of them the same, and phrased in the same way, as he told French contemporary choreographer Jerome Bel in Pichet Klunchun and Myself, switch-and bait-interviews observed by an enthusiastic TBA audience on Sunday night in Lincoln Performance Hall. To wit: Klunchun identified himself as a professional dancer, omitting how difficult that is in Thailand, and talked about his attempts to professionalize dance as we do in the West. He spoke of Khon as a lost art and his desire to restore it as part of the culture. On Sunday night in Portland he pointed out that it has become a commercialized tourist attraction — tourists in this context are westerners, although there are plenty of Thai and Chinese tourists in Bangkok. But on Sunday night he omitted the information that he had directed Khon performances in Bangkok in which he fused the Western theatrical values that Bel self-consciously rejects with traditional movement and storytelling, reducing to 70 minutes what usually takes a week to perform.

On both nights he spoke, too, of the difference in energy between Western and Asian dance — the former outward toward the audience, the latter inward, circular, contemplative — but left out his own training in western dance and his own practice, not to mention the influence of William Forsythe, who has radicalized the classical vocabulary, deconstructed and fractured it, on the way he thinks now about traditional dance.

When Klunchun, dressed on Sunday night in clothes he could dance in, demonstrated at Bel’s request Khon technique — the seemingly impossible turned-back movements of the fingers, the turned-out legs, the aggressive stomps, the subtle gestures of characterization — he was as charismatic as he had been doing the same things in jeans in Bangkok. But at TBA his demonstration accounted for at most 10 minutes of a nearly two-hour performance — and performance it was — from which the magic was decidedly missing.

That loss I must lay in part at Bel’s self-serving door.

Bel, introduced by TBA’s artistic director Mark Russell as “the person who changed the face of dance in France” (did he do this single-handedly, I wonder? — and what about Maguy Marin, whose extraordinary Becket piece I saw performed on the same stage in the late ’80s?) is clearly more interested in talking than moving, in theorizing than creating, and in himself than in anyone else.

Unlike Gordon Smith and some Americans who did not vote for John Kerry four years ago because Smith said he looked “French” (which he doesn’t), I do not hate the French. I do, however, have a cross-cultural dislike of intellectual arrogance and the contempt for the audience demonstrated by Bel, re-inventing late 19th century performance theory and making inaccurate slurs against western classical dance. Ballet, Bel announced, was started in France by King Louis XIV so he could show his power to the court. Not so. It was brought to France by Catherine de Medici from Italy, established and codified under the patronage of the Sun King, who happened to like to dance.

“Swan Lake,” Bel commented to Klunchun, “has been done the same way at the Paris Opera Ballet for the past 200 years.”

It hasn’t, not there or anywhere else, having premiered in Russia in 1877 — 141 years ago, I make it. Matthew Bourne would be interested to know it’s always the same, and so would Christopher Stowell. Every choreographer has laid his or her own fingerprints on the ballet, just as Klunchun is putting his on Thai classical dance.

Klunchun asked Bel the same questions that Bel asked him — how old are you, what is your profession, please explain, will you show me — and Bel answered them, showing his performance style (although he said he was not a dancer, but a choreographer, sort of, and he was right on both counts). Dressed like an insensitive western tourist in Bangkok, in shorts and athletic shoes, Bel performed a bit of nonmovement, accompanied by American popular music, as proof that he was democratizing the art, the action taking place in real time and not representing anything but being real. We see a lot of this kind of performance in Portland, and let’s face it, we see it in reality television shows.

There isn’t much magic in either one. And there is little of it in all this talk. When Klunchun talked to me in Bangkok, and showed me what he meant, he was talking and dancing in real time in a real space, against an accidental background that in itself was highly dramatic. In two hours’ time, the length of the Portland performance, I did not once look at my watch, think how desperately I needed a bathroom, wonder when in hell it was going to end. What, then, was the difference? And why did I find Pichet Klunchun and Myself so offensive?

It’s because, I’ve realized after some navel-gazing of my own, what I love about dance is its nonverbal qualities, the visual experience, and its potential to transform, to take me away from the hideous reality that is today’s world, or turn those lemons into the lemonade of aesthetic experience, as Mary Oslund does. Pichet Klunchun and Myself is a performance, all right, every minute of it calculated for effect — I also realized that Klunchun was rehearsing his part of that performance for me in Bangkok, before it had its American premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival later that year — but it did not move me, or change me, or inform me, except when Klunchun danced.