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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

“No. 60”: Klunchun unmasks the Khon

By Katrina Stuart Santiago
(936 words, 6-minute read)

The past as a point of reference for contemporary cultural work is not new, and neither is the need to rethink it, reconsider it, or respond to it. Anyone who works in culture after all is inextricably bound to tradition, and to some extent, all major cultural movements were based on critical points of departure from the works that preceded it. 

At the heart of Pichet Klunchun’s No. 60 is this impulse. Based on two decades of research on the traditional Thai Khon dance, on the surface it looks like an interpretation of the 700-year-old system’s 59 poses and movements, taught and learned through the Theppanom canon. But Klunchun’s project is far from being a run-of-the-mill reconfiguration of a traditional form—this is no romanticised merging of past with present, and neither is it a thoughtless tribute to tradition. Instead one sees an unapologetically intellectual and unabashedly critical process that seeks not to be an end in itself, as it is another beginning.

Divided into two parts, the first half of No. 60 hews closely to the Khon canon it seeks to question. Using a projected circle on the stage as both boundary and compass, the two dancers’ movements here are structured, functioning on symmetry and balance. It’s like watching a dance textbook unfold, with poses seemingly happening in a vacuum. Despite the sound design that harks back to the familiarity of traditional instrumentalisation, what resonates is how familiar this kind of performance is, where the rote and mechanical, the learned and memorised, are deemed more important than individual expression. 

This first half of the performance risked the possibility of seeming like a romanticised tribute to Khon, where it could easily be seen as a celebration of the technical and mechanical in the traditional. But the two bodies on that empty stage, without the sequinned costumes or masks, shorn of the pomp and glitter, radiated instead with a contemporaneity—a coolness that allows for the movements to seem like meditations in movement, distant and detached, devoid of personality. 

This could’ve gone on for too long and it would’ve lost its appeal. But Klunchun knew to let it seamlessly shift to a second half, which was the stronger half of this project. 

Signalled by the release of a circular glittering silver cloth hanging over the stage, the loosening up of the music to more contemporary truncated beats by Zai Tang, and the coming together of the two dancers (Klunchun himself and Kornkarn Rungsawang) into synchronous movement, this first registers as an almost dream sequence: if the first part was reality, this second part was alternate universe. The circle ceases to be boundary as it becomes arena for movement, and the stage becomes a complex, textured, navigable set. The sound transforms into a character in itself, dictating movement as it is shaped by it, a component that completes the scenery of the moment. 

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

 

But it is the movements here that capture what is the core of No. 60. From the coolness and control of the first half, this section reveals how bodies might take on the same rote poses and movements but infuse it with personality, imbue it with grit. And it isn’t a simplistic shift from the textbook to the real, as it is a decision to reimagine the dance to be about individual expression and unique interpretation. It is here that the restrictions of the canon, the confines of Khon, are completely undone, and what appears is a dance that might come from the tradition’s logic, but whose spirit is deliberately allowed to change in the hands of performers, at the moment of performance itself. 

In the case of these two dancers, the titular 60th pose for this new Khon would be one that is frantic and frenetic, seemingly of the future, as it transforms in this present time of confusion and uncertainty, dismay and disorientation. The dancers shift from seeming like prey to being predators, even as they are always human: agitated and angry, passionate and erotic. At some point they bring in a megaphone, and the music turns into unknowable sirens, a sensory overload that is climax, one that makes you realise you’ve been taken by this performance not to an unfamiliar space, but to a defamiliarised one. It is all still the traditional, as it is the present, but it is all strangely new, like a vocabulary of body and movement, sound and stage that is a collaboration between tradition and contemporaneity, bound to the performance that cradles possibilities for an ever evolving future. 

Alongside the sparse, well-chosen elements on this stage, the performance both seems like a reckoning, as it is portents. As the former, it is a powerful critique of the canon that has limited the Khon’s performance to a few; if the latter, then it can only bode well for the tradition’s survival. Either way, Klunchun proves that to critique and to celebrate tradition come from the same impulse, when its goal is to rethink it and rebuild it as a living, breathing practice. It is not something that is about rote learning from a textbook, as it is about allowing for tradition to live through the intellectual and creative process of performance. 

And when No. 60 ends with the female body of Rungsawang at the center of that stage, alone and strong and powerful, we are also told that part of the survival of our traditions is not a blind loyalty to it, as it is the deliberate decision to reimagine it, create from it, and evolve away from it. Even tearing the canons apart can be a form of tribute.


The world premiere of Pichet Klunchun’s No. 60 was presented at Kanagawa Arts Theatre from 15 to 16 February as part of TPAM 2020. It will be presented at Esplanade’s da:ns festival and Taipei Arts Festival later this year. ArtsEquator reviewed a work-in-progress presentation of No. 60 in 2019 here.

For more ArtsEquator articles on TPAM, click here.

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an independent cultural critic and opinion writer from Manila, with a decade of work in print and online. Her critical work on theater, film, visual arts, and popular culture was published in Rebellions: Notes on Independence and Romances: Variations on Love by the Ateneo de Naga University Press in 2017. Her role as critic has fuelled her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions, and institutional crises. She is contributing writer for CNN Philippines, and is teacher of multimedia arts at the College of St. Benilde-School of Design and the Arts. She maintains the review website gaslight.online, and has been writing at www.katrinasantiago.com since 2008.

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