By Amitha Amranand
(1,350 words, 5-minute read)
Thai dancer-choreographer Thanapol Virulhakul is certainly not the first artist to wonder whether art could become more of a part of our daily life nor to attempt through his art to make it more so. It is difficult to see that attempt in The Retreat, or to even understand much of his latest work without speaking to him or reading about his intention and process beforehand. Indeed, the project is so full of fascinating ideas that watching a performance will only give a small glimpse into the entire process.
The fourth chapter of The Retreat was presented during the Performing Arts Meeting (TPAM) in Yokohama 2020 between February 12 and 15. It was not only one of the most intellectually inaccessible performances, it was also staged at the most inaccessible venue in the city—the Yokohama Boat Theatre. The space on the boat is used as a rehearsal space and does not really feel like a legitimate performance venue. Those with tickets were sent an email of a meeting place and led to the theatre from there.
According to the 2001 World Encyclopedia of World Theatre: Volume5: Asia/Pacific, referring to incidents in the ’60s onward, the use of non-traditional venues sometimes “led to clashes between artists and civic authorities.” And some were even arrested for violating regulations.
This tradition of unconventional spaces and its uneasy relationship with power, plus its isolation from the city may be what drew Thanapol to this venue. And perhaps that’s the feeling many get while watching the show for the first time – abandoned and isolated.
I first saw The Retreat when it premiered in Thailand in 2018 at the black box space at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Like many, I was confused, frustrated, even bored at times. But I also couldn’t help but be excited at the sense of danger in the show. The actors were flouting all the usual rules put in place to make performances safe for themselves and everyone in the theatre. They let a piece of toast burn and emit smoke from a toaster. They swung the still-hot toaster around a small stage cluttered with furniture and five dancers tangling their limbs with each other and objects.
The first performance came from a year-long exploration with the dancers in which they learned to confront the unfamiliar and the unknown through their bodies. That may explain the result of the performance – the audience was confronted with something so foreign it was jarring and almost incomprehensible. But that was part of its appeal – that theatre was suddenly unsafe. Not just physically for the dancers and possibly for us (what if an object accidentally flew into our seats?), but also for our settled notion of performance, the possibilities within it and our relationship to it.
In the second iteration, at Ghost:2561, a video and performance art series in Bangkok, The Retreat: gallery drift became a durational performance with the dancers performing among the audience at the Bangkok CityCity Gallery. Last year, as part of TPAM Direction, Thanapol continued his research process through an open workshop with a few of the original dancers and participants from Japan. From this process, he wrote what he calls a dance score for the dancers to practise in their daily life.
Two of the four Japanese dancers for the TPAM 2020 performance came from the 2019 open workshop. They then recommended two other dancers from Japan to complete the cast. These performers (Reina Kimura, Hokuto Kodama, Sachi Masuda, and Osamu Shikichi) were given one month to work with the score privately before they all met with the director less than a week before the premiere at TPAM.
Despite being presented as a performance on three separate platforms, Thanapol calls The Retreat a “choreographic research process” in which he intends to develop a method for daily practice for dancers. So The Retreat itself is malleable and changes according to the performers practising the method.
Unlike the first version, this latest version seemed clearer to me structurally. The performers began in their separate corners on the stage, where audiences were allowed to sit, playing with their props and furniture, like performing a private ritual in their own home. Little by little, the private spaces melted away and the performers’ bodies began to touch and entangle. Then together, they began building a structure with pieces of furniture and other objects on wooden boards with wheels—a new space, an island of sorts—on which they remained for the rest of the performance. At the 60-minute mark, a crew member turned off the house lights, which had lit the space since the audience entered, switched on the fairy lights on one of the walls, and opened the theatre door. The performers continued moving in the semi-darkness.
In the February 13 performance, one of the dancers left the stage after about 10 minutes in the darkness and disappeared into the backstage area of the boat before emerging a few minutes later wearing her backpack, jacket, and other winter gear. The audience laughed, and she left with a friend sitting in the audience. That was when the rest of the audience began piling out as well, leaving behind the three performers, still onstage and intertwined.
These four Japanese dancers were creative, at times humorous. They interacted with objects with tenderness and curiosity, in contrast to the Thai dancers who approached them with more force and aggression. While I had an easier time and was less bored watching this version of The Retreat, I missed the sense of excitement and danger of the first one. The performance felt safe in that warm and cozy Boat Theatre. For those who came in not knowing what to expect, it’s understandable that they would find the performance a weird, directionless jumble that didn’t look like dance or anything remotely aesthetic. Even though Thanapol’s previous creations never looked much like dance, this one is even more difficult to follow due to the absence of text and little production design.
Like a few other creations in TPAM Direction, The Retreat is a process-driven work whose “product” is not final. In fact, it defies the idea of a performance as a complete product that can be transported whole from one venue to another, one festival to another, one body to another. Thanapol said in my interview with him during TPAM that he was dealing with the question of how to make dance part of a dancer’s daily life. What would it look like? What is it like to live and interact with one’s surroundings consciously as a dancer throughout the day?
The Retreat then didn’t begin when we walked into the performance venue with all the lights up and the dancers in their positions. Since, for these dancers, dance began in their bodies and consciousness from the moment they woke up. What we were witnessing was only a slice of their daily routine as dancers – a performance, yes, but only a part of The Retreat, which stretched across days and weeks for these dancers.
For me, The Retreat tackles similar questions to process-driven creations like Malaysian dancer Lee Ren Xin’s ongoing Seksyen 19—A dance ritual in the neighborhood and fieldworks’ triptych at TPAM that concluded with unwritten conversation. What does a performance or a work-in-progress look like in the context of a market or industry that expects a product? In a process-driven work that wants to challenge the idea of a production, where does a performance begin and where does it end?
For us the audience, when a performance we pay to see is no longer contained in one designated space, but begins where we have no access, and continues or supposedly ends long after we leave, what does that do to our understanding of, relationship to, and ability to assess it? And for critics, where does criticism begin?
The Retreat was presented at Yokohama Boat Theatre from 12 to 15 February 2020 as part of TPAM 2020. Click here for more information.
For more ArtsEquator articles on TPAM, click here.
Amitha Amranand has been a theatre critic since 2006. Her theatre reviews and articles regularly appear in the Bangkok Post. She currently sits on the Artistic Board of the Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting (BIPAM) and is a co-founder and co-host of Bangkok Offstage, the first bilingual podcast on the Bangkok performing arts scene.