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Production

About Khon

Company

Lifework Dance Company

Reviewer

Matthew Lyon

Date

19/10/2007

Time

9:30pm

Place

Esplanade Recital Studio

Rating

***1/2

Khon, but No Fusion

When a rules-breaking performance artist (Jerome Bel) and a tradition-rooted Thai khon artist (Pichet Klunchun) collide, an utterly fresh product is born: About Khon. About Khon is about that dance form known as "khon" - which to most audiences probably means little more than an obscure historical tradition, seldom seen on stage except as part of canned tourist shows. I must admit, that was my entry point to the performance. I discovered, though, that Pichet Klunchun and Jerome Bel would probably not mind if you stumble into About Khon without knowing anything about the Thai tradition of khon dance, as I did. In fact, I daresay you would be his ideal audience.

Part lecture and part dance, About Khon had the lofty aim of bringing the classical back to modern society. Boy, did it hit the mark. Subverting any expectation of the performance as aesthetic enjoyment, About Khon began with a long "lecture" on what khon dance is all about. During this time, the audience heard no music, saw limited stage movement, and only observed a naturally unfolding discourse between an ignorant but curious Westener (Bel) and Thai khon practitioner (Klunchun). Bel's questions about khon - from "is there much violence" to "how do characters die" - framed Klunchun's lecture, which was interspersed with brief practical demonstrations.

This startlingly unassuming concept ran the risk of rapidly turning dry, if not for the lively chemistry between the two artists, and their quiet skill in engaging the audience. Bel had a canny ability to ask questions a split section before they formed in your head, jogging the lecture along at a steady pace. Bel even played to the gallery at times in being deliberately, comically confounded by Klunchun. But one had to remember that Bel was in effect playing a character, that of the typical contemporary audience member. During this lengthy lecture phase, Klunchun's demonstrations of typical khon dance steps ranged from the mechanical to the intensely emotional. Klunchun's mastery of technique was evident in his ability to evoke emotions as distinct as the indignant pride of a warrior, to the stoic grief of a widowed aristocratic lady. Klunchun very effectively chose to strip himself of heavy traditional costume, so that his every physical movement was immediately visible.

After the teaching process, the music sounded and the bare stage was suddenly filled with khon dancers in resplendent costume, in a magical moment of praxis. The battling of ancient warriors from a prehistoric era was brought to life, and was all the more impactful to our newly informed eyes. Although there was no backdrop or live orchestra, it felt like a treat to finally witness the dynamic interaction of the dancers' movements. Even better, we were able to appreciate the meaning behind each bending of the palms, each flick of the head, each flourish of the arms.

Klunchun's quest to educate the world about the stylised, formal khon tradition is a passionate one, and this shone through in the finished performance. Ingeniously in tune with modern audiences, the Bel-Klunchun dialogue was fresh, honest and funny. Perhaps it would have been more exciting if there had been some questions posed and left unanswered, leaving the audience to continue our own journey of discovery. Because each question that Bel raised was so skilfully parried by Klunchun, the performance felt too hermetically sealed at times.

To be honest, I'm not sure many theatre-goers would flock to a lecture-cum-traditional dance performance on their nights off from the daily grind. But About Khon is simply not about spectacle and glitz. It is that rare and valuable combination of the utterly modern and the unstintingly traditional. It raises pertinent questions about the role of the traditional and the modern, and makes the unique effort to go beyond fluffy philosophising to put its dance where its words are. It also makes me want to learn more about khon, which is more than any actual khon performance has ever done for me.


"Klunchun's quest to educate the world about the stylised, formal khon tradition is a passionate one, and this shone through in the finished performance"

Credits

Choreographers: Pichet Klunchun and Jerome Bel

Performers: Sunon Wachirawarakarn, Sanchai Uae-Sin, Sasivilai Jarupran, Julaluck Eakwattanapun, Watcharawan Tanaphat, Wongkot Wutthidej, Noppon Jamreantong, Manit Thcpattima Porn and Jirach Eaimsa-Ard

More Reviews by Deanne Tan

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.